I first ran into Fred Beckey at the Banff Book and Film Festival in 1994, where he tried stealing my girlfriend (something he was known for).
By David Harrap
I met him again 13 years later. It was late afternoon and he was coming out of a Jasper bakery. A scruffy stooped figured, raw boned, flying hair. You could almost mistake him for a rummy on skid row. He said he was having a shot at Edith Cavell. The east ridge.
“On your own, Fred?”
“I had a couple of guys lined up but they’ve bailed on me.”
“Where are you staying tonight?”
He said he’d find a spot to sleep along the way.
I felt bad I hadn’t invited him home, so later I picked up a couple of beers and went looking for him. I found him tucked away in the bushes at a pullout on the old 93 Highway.
It was early evening yet Fred was already in his sleeping bag fast asleep, toque perched on top of his head like an old fashioned nightcap; and with everything laid out on the ground just so. A backpacking stove with a small pot on top. A little jar of instant coffee. A tin mug and spoon. Climbing boots. And right close to his head was a shiny twin bell mechanical wind-up alarm clock, with the alarm set for 3am. Fred Beckey, master of ten thousand alpine starts.
He didn’t want the beer but he accepted the offer of our place “since it might rain.” I said it’s just a small apartment but he’s welcome to the living room floor. He said that’s fine, that he’d even slept in bathtubs.
Fred did the first ascent of the north face of Mount Edith Cavell with Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia clothing and outdoor gear) and Dan Doody in July 1961. He did ascents in the Tonquin, and the first ascent of the east face (the hardest route) of Mount Bridgland. There were first ascents in the Bugaboos, the second ascent of Mount Waddington, B.C.’s highest peak, that teenage Fred and his brother Helmy did in 1942, climbing the last 150 m in footgear consisting of “felt pullovers on tennis shoes.” But it was the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Range that Fred owned. He had more first ascents than any American climber.
Fred was a contemporary of Sir Edmund Hillary; and back in 1954 he did a first ascent of Mount Hunter in the Alaska Range with renowned mountaineer Heinrich Harrer—of north face of the Eiger and Seven Years In Tibet fame. That summer he would achieve the Triple Crown of North American climbing: Denali, Deborah, and Hunter.
In the climbing world Fred was your Renaissance man, decades ahead of his time. While others were painstakingly step-chopping up ice slopes Fred was swiftly front-pointing on crampons to gain the prize.
He was deaf as a post, and every August the phone would go and there’s Fred’s voice booming down the other end: “WHO’S THAT?” And not hearing a damn thing when you told him.
In a battered briefcase he kept a little black book with phone numbers of climbers, and as soon as he came into the apartment he’d be on the phone making arrangements for the next climb.
The first time I brought Fred home there were some articles I’d printed off about him lying around. Almost immediately he clapped eyes on them.
“So?” I wanted his opinion.
One time I asked him what was his hardest climb?
“Deborah”. He didn’t even have to think about it.
He didn’t talk much about the past, all the achievements, the bushwhacking, the hiking, the skiing, the expeditions, the books he’d written, his unheralded place in the climbing world. He wasn’t resting on any laurels. Not for Fred would “the name die before the man”.
He was besotted with getting up Cavell one last time any which way he could. He was an old man now, late eighties, and I could see the light slowly dying but yet not quite out. One year he wanted my son Liam to guide him. How age turns the tables, eh?
Another time, local guide Peter Amann was coming to pick him up, take him up Cavell, but Fred was still in his sleeping bag. “Peter will be here soon, Fred.”
“I’m going to bail.” Four words that must have killed him to say. He wasn’t feeling well, had a headache.
Another year he had his mind on the Tonquin Valley, and could I arrange a horse party to cart him in?
Fred Beckey was the essential dirtbag climber. The last of the lot. The last mountain legend before the adventurer stunters came along. If folks hadn’t heard of him it was because Fred wasn’t one of the good old boys, one of the elite climbers in the club. With his unrivaled qualifications he should have been invited to join the successful 1963 American Everest Expedition. But he was a loose canon; in those elegant eyes of club members a climber who didn’t conform. (And if you had seen him when he came up to Jasper, he sure didn’t conform to his contemporaries at the old folks’ home.)
I feel privileged to have known Fred, and seen those great climbing hands and those faraway eyes scheming the next ascent—or how he could pinch your girl.