Every once in a while you come across someone that completely redefines your concept of what is possible. Those that push the limits of time and space well beyond what you thought possible, well, I definitely think they qualify. Fred Beckey is one such individual. For those of you who don't know, Fred is a mountaineer sans-pareil - one who has climbed across a vast space of time, and over vast range of territory. Born in the early 1920s, Fred has been climbing for over SEVENTY years. He is believed to be the world-record holder for the most number of first ascents of any climber, with probably over one thousand first ascents to his name. And he's still at it! Not only that, he still can climb routes that would have me sweatin' in my boots!
Fred has published several definitive climbing guidebooks detailing the peaks and climbs of his home territory - the pacific northwest of the USA. His books are climbing bibles for these areas, and I distinctly remember flipping through the ancient copies my mountaineering instructor used on courses I took back in the '90s. FA, Fred Beckey, 1940.... FA, Fred Beckey, 1963.... FA, Fred Beckey... you get the picture.
Giving the talk
When I heard that my local chapter of the Alpine Club was going to host Fred for an evening talk and slideshow, I was amazed. I didn't realize he was still around, still so active. I knew of his exploits through mountaineering literature and hearsay, but I never thought I'd get the chance to meet him - a veritable legend of mountaineering. To put it more succinctly, I was definitely going to the presentation!
We met in the basement of a local Ottawa pub on a rainy November evening. The place was packed - sold out, actually - and we waited respectfully as the club's executive introduced him. Fred was definitely looking a bit weatherbeaten - after all, he's in his mid-eighties now, and I was mildly surprised at how strong his voice was when he started speaking.
Rapt with Attention
We went through four slide carousels of his various exploits. Many of the slides were definitely looking old and faded, no doubt both from time and countless shows. They showed, however, a small slice of the amazing mountaineering career that Fred has lived. It is astounding to think of just how many peaks he's climbed (let alone the ones that were first ascents). And some were fantastically difficult peaks. For example, Fred Beckey was the first to ascend the Devil's Thumb in Alaska. I remember reading about Jon Krakauer's account of the climb of that peak in the book Into the Wild, and it still makes me shudder to think about it (of course Jon did it solo, which is a whole other ball of wax).
Then, as he was showing us a picture of a pretty intimidating looking prow of rock on some big peak or other, and he casually mentioned that it was "something we did last year". Last year!? that? He is doing, in his mid-eighties, what 99% of people one-quarter his age wouldn't be able to do! Astounding. Hey, Dad - you reading this? Now that I've seen what Fred is still doing, I think I'm going to expect more from you on our next mountain climb. Get ready!
During the intermission, I worked up the courage to go up and shake hands with him, and asked him if it would be ok to snap a few pictures. So, on this page a few snaps of myself and Fred, and Pu and Fred (Pu came along to see the presentation, too), and the ACC social co-ordinator and Fred. A brief encounter with one of the true legends of mountaineering!
Fred Beckey's story is truly an amazing one. If you'd like to get a more complete accounting of it, here's a couple of useful links to get you started:
Icon to some, legendary climber Beckey still obscure to many
Wikipedia entry on Fred Beckey