Climbers You Should Know About: Fred Beckey
Climbing is an old sport and there are thousands who've helped shape it, this series is dedicated to their legacies
For nearly 80 years, Fred Beckey stayed busy climbing new routes around the world, writing about mountains and exploring remote places. He died in 2017 at the age of 94 and left behind one of the most impressive list of climbing accomplishments ever.
While many climbers who’ve been around a few years will know about Beckey, chances are high that newer climbers don’t know just how many important climbs Beckey helped open.
He made hundreds of first ascents, authored books and journal articles, inspired countless climbers and climbed some of the most famous alpine climbs in Canada. He made regular trips to the Canadian Rockies, B.C. interior and Squamish area. Below are just a few highlights from his amazing climbing career.
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Live your passions. The legendary Fred Beckey (now 92!) has been doing exactly that for longer than most, and inspiring generations of climbers along the way. This image has often reminded me that there's no better time than now to just get outside and focus on doing the things you love! #getbusyliving #FredBeckey #SmithRock #moon_archives
Beckey was born in Germany and immigrated to Seattle, Washington, in 1925 with his family. He started climbing at 13 with the local boy scouts. In 1939, he joined the Seattle’s Mountaineers and learned about rope climbing techniques.
Later that year, Beckey, with Clint Kelley and Lloyd Anderson (the founder of REI), made the first ascent of Mount Despair in the Cascades. That same year, he and friends climbed 35 peaks.
Over the next few seasons, he climbed another 50 peaks, with over half of them being first ascents. Beckey’s friend Harvey Manning, said, “Most were done on a half-dozen semi-expeditions lasting a week or more, bent under monstrous packs, busting through valley brush to glaciers poorly shown on maps, if at all—trips that established Beckey as a leading explorer of the continent’s most alpine range south of the 49 parallel.”
In 1942, when Beckey was 19, he and his brother Helmy made the second ascent of Mount Waddington in B.C. Waddington’s first ascent took 16 attempts over two decades. Fritz Wiessner, who had nearly climbed K2 in 1939, and Bill House made the first ascent in 1936.
Beckey’s ascent of Waddington is still considered one of the most impressive accomplishments in Canada by two teenage climbers. They spent nearly two months in the wilderness, skiing and climbing new lines.
An excerpt from Beckey’s story in the American Alpine Journal reads:
By 4 o’clock I had changed to tennis shoes with felt pullovers and we rapidly mounted the slabs of the upper face. The pullovers adhered well to the rock when wet and could be removed quickly for more friction on dry rock. Rock climbing was a pleasant relief from the ice work below. In 2 hours the base of the final 500-ft. rockwall was reached, Helmy leading across two steep snowpatches. Ice-axes and one pair of boots were left behind here. Crampons had been cached lower down. I decided to attempt a face route slightly to the right of the chimney climbed by Wiessner and House. Difficulties immediately increased as we started up the nearly vertical wall. For 300 ft. wet slabs and difficult pitches, with a few overhangs mixed in, were climbed. Many pitons were used for safety on this wall, which was no place for one who suffered from acrophobia. The most difficult pitch was a traverse on a vertical face with very delicate holds followed by a wet high angled slab with few useful holds. I had luckily noticed the wet slab from below and redonned my felt pullovers, for one couldn’t hope to stick on the wet slab in tennis shoes.
Several times ice fragments broke off the summit ridge and thundered down the chimneys to our left. I was inwardly glad we weren’t in their paths. A short traverse brought us to a vertical chimney, the same one climbed by Wiessner, that led to the narrow snow-covered summit ridge. At 8.30 p.m. the second ascent of Waddington was made. A wonderful view rewarded us, but little time could be had for rest. The match-can register in the cairn was found and then we hurriedly left the summit at sunset. Our chosen bivouac spot was a ledge 150 ft. beneath the summit. Anchored to pitons, only a can of sterno and the reliable tentsack kept away the cold. Darkness soon enveloped the distant peaks and glaciers. The icy summit of Waddington could be seen just above, jutting into the starry sky. The stillness was shattered only by an occasional rock fall.
More Alpine Ascents
Helmy quit climbing shortly after Waddington and returned to Europe, but Beckey’s career was just starting. In 1946, Beckey made the first ascent of the East Ridge of Devil’s Thumb in Alaska with Bob Craig and Cliff Schmidtke.
The following year, Beckey made the first ascent of North Peak on Liberty Bell in the Cascades. Then in 1948, he made the first ascent of the North Ridge of Mount Baker. During WWII, he worked in the 10th Mountain Division as an instructor.
In 1954, Beckey then made the first ascent of the Northwest Buttress of Denali with a small team, it was the third route on the peak. With Heinrich Harrer and Henry Maybohm, Beckey then made the first ascent of the wild Mount Deborah in Alaska. On the same trip, the three top alpinists made the first ascent of Mount Hunter.
He then led an expedition to Lhotse, but was accused of abandoning his partner in a storm. Beckey denied the claims and decided that big expeditions in the Himalayas were not for him.
Beckey’s name is well-known in the Canadian climbing community, thanks to his many bold alpine and rock first ascents. In 1961, he made the first ascent of a now-classic line on the north face of Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper with Yvon Chouinard and Dan Doody. He and Chouinard then went to the Bugaboos where they made the first ascent of a stunning line on the South Howser Tower, which is called The Beckey/Chouinard. The 5.10 granite route is one of the most famous in the world.
Two years after that, Beckey was back and made the first ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse in B.C. with Steve Marts and Eric Bjornstad. It was around this time that he made the first ascent of a rock climb on Mount Louis in Banff, but no topo or description was ever written up and no one knows where it goes.
He then began to visit Squamish and establish new routes on The Chief. Rock climbing in Squamish started to take off in the early 1960s after the first ascent of the Grand Wall by Ed Cooper and Jim Baldwin.
Beckey made a number of first ascents in Squamish in the mid-1960s, including Squamish Buttress, Angel’s Crest, Calculus Crack, Tantalus Wall, Bullethead East and West and Western Dihedral.
With John Rupley, Beckey made the first ascent o the impressive northeast face of Mount Hooker in the Canadian Rockies.
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JUST OVER 61 YEARS AGO! Here we see Fred Beckey climbing above Garibaldi Meadows, located in Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia. In the background is the Garibaldi Neve, a small icefield which feeds several glaciers. ____________________________________________ T-902901 – Fred Beckey climbing above Garibaldi Meadows, 8-10-1958, BC PHOTO COMMENT: This was a posed shot by Ira Spring, professional photographer in the Seattle area. It was part of a promotion for Canadian Club Whiskey. I was part of a back-up team, but I had my own camera, a Voightlander Perkeo 2 ¼ inch square inch format folding camera, and I used it to take my own picture, this one. ___________________________________________ Another classic ©Ed Cooper Photo 🌄. Specializing in nature images that are unedited. All rights reserved. Contact info and link for full sized, uncropped, hi res, economy priced prints, phone cases, and many other image mediums on bio. Add me on Facebook: Ed Cooper Photography. Contact me for business inquiries. ___________________________________________ I have never felt closer to my creator than when I'm in the mountains. Ed ___________________________________________
Back in U.S.A.
Also in the 1960s, Beckey was making bold first ascents throughout the U.S.A., like the West Buttress IV 5.8 A1 of Musembeah Peak in Wyoming, Mount Seattle in Alaska, El Matador IV A3 on Devil’s Tower, the Direct East Buttress IV 5.8 A4 of Early Winter Spire in the Cascades, South Face 5.8 A1 of Cathedral Peak and Mount Beckey in Alaska.
He wrote a three-volume guidebook called Cascade Alpine Guide, which is still the best to the area. The also wrote The Mountains of Norther America, Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America, the 527-page Range of Glaciers and Fred Beckey’s 100 Favourite North American Climbs.
Dougald MacDonald, editor of the American Alpine Journal said in 2014, “No climber in the 88-year history of the AAJ has written more reports or had more climbs cited in these pages than Fred Beckey.”
By the 1990s, Beckey’s age was catching up with him, but he continued to climb new routes and travel around the world. By the early 2000s, Beckey was travelling around North America hoping to climb peaks that were still on his tick list.
Beckey continued to visit Squamish and the Rockies, in hopes of climbing peaks he never got a chance to, including Mount Assiniboine. On the west coast, he’d rope-up with younger climbers at the Smoke Bluffs into his 90s.
In 2012, Beckey gave a presentation at the 2012 Banff Mountain Festival’s Dirtbag Cafe. He talked about his favourite routes and told stories about some of his epics.
A film called Dirtbag: the Legend of Fred Beckey was released in 2017 worldwide. It received dozens of awards for how it presented Beckey’s climbs and personal life.
Beckey sought out the most inspiring and aesthetic lines, was instrumental in the development of climbing in North America and left behind a legacy of incredible achievements.