Fred Beckey: Mountaineer and Author (1923-2017)

October 31st, 2017 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

“Man used to put himself on the line all the time. Nowadays we’re protected by the police, fire, everything. There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.” — Fred Beckey

Perhaps no living human is more associated with the untamed allure of the North Cascades— a blend of fear, awe, agony and ecstasy— than mountaineer Fred Beckey.

In the celebratory, life-spanning book Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs, his friends and climbing partners from the last seven decades lavish Beckey with accolades: “The most prolific mountaineer of the last 100 years,” “the undisputed sovereign of American dirtbag climbers” and “grandfather of the road trip.” These claims would be unbearably rich were they not actually true.

Beckey immigrated to Seattle from Germany with his family in 1925 and began climbing the mountains visible from the city with the Boy Scouts and local mountaineering clubs. He ascended Boulder Peak in the Olympic Mountains by himself at age thirteen, beginning his life’s trajectory of climbing remote rock—and later achieved the summit of Mount Olympus with his troop.

Beckey began exploring the North Cascades next, making first ascents up Mount Despair in 1939 and Forbidden Peak in 1940—rugged mountains deemed unclimbable by the local mountaineering club. Over the ensuing summers, he pioneered routes up dozens more Cascadian peaks, sometimes with his brother Helmy in tow. Staring out across the sea of peaks, Beckey recounts feeling “a kinship with the noble almost unbelievable peaks and tumbling glaciers.”

In 1942, the brothers made their way towards Mount Waddington in British Columbia’s Coast Ranges, a dark, sulking massif cloaked in glaciers and surrounded by miles of impenetrable coastal rainforest. After weeks of rain, snow, rockfall and avalanches, the two teenagers achieved the summit, only the second humans to stand atop the peak, and the first up the foreboding south face approach.

Mt. Waddington from the north, by John Scurlock

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