Home > Profiles

Fred Beckey and His Old Sleeping Bag

Canmore climber Joanna Croston recalls the time the legendary climber came to town

The first time I met Fred Beckey I was in the gear shop in Jasper, Alberta. We’d just completed the East Ridge of Edith Cavell the day before and were lazing about in town with coffees in our hands the following morning. He was poking around, chatting up the guy behind the counter and shoving business cards into his pocket on the sly. My partner immediately called out to him, clapped him on the back and reminded Fred that they’d met on the trail to Mount Assiniboine the year before. Fred had been lying on the side of the trail, napping in the sunlight on the approach to the R.C. Hind Hut. He was 84 years old at the time.

“Oh hey how ya doin’ buddy it’s good to see ya. Where ya been?” Being introverted and soft spoken is more in my nature than not, so I slunk back and my partner explained we’d just been up Edith Cavell the day before. “Never done that route.” He stated matter-of-factly. “Only been up the North Face. You know, with Yvon. Doesn’t climb much these days though, mostly fishing. We came down the back. Always wanted to do the East Ridge, seems like a fine line.” He then proceeded to quiz us about the rack we’d brought along. “Number 2 eh?” he barked, then nodded and then confirmed to himself “yeah, always gotta have a number 2.” He mumbled some more and then with a wry smile closed our encounter with a dirty joke whilst he looked directly at me. He knew I wouldn’t give him the quick upper cut to the jaw he deserved, he was old and creaky and besides I’d laughed at his joke anyway.

The thing about Fred is he steals business cards and then uses them as his own. He scratches out the relevant information from the fine establishment from which he’s heisted the cards and then scrawls his own contact information on the back. “I’ll call you if I’m back in the Rockies. We should go for a climb or a backcountry ski.” He’ll yell at you and thrust a card in your hand. All you can do is nod and yell thanks back at him. Fred is deafer than a doorknob.

And then one day he did. He did call. So we put him up for a couple of nights at our place in Canmore. It was February and it was freezing cold, a real arctic air mass had enveloped the valley for days already. Fred arrived in his Subaru, he’d driven from Seattle via Orgeon and Colorado and Wyoming or something. He was on a road trip you see. “Checking out conditions,” he said. “Thought I’d drive up to the Canadian Rockies. No people up here. Better for climbing.” So we helped him with his pack and showed him in our guest room. He seemed a little surprised, no doubt having couch-surfed for more than seven decades. Without batting an eye, he pulled out his old beat up down sleeping bag, repaired in several places with duct tape and placed it on top of the freshly made bed. He was having none of this comfortable duvet business. This may have been the nicest bivy he’d ever had.

His visit mortified me. It mortified me for two reasons. First, here was Fred Beckey, a living legend. He was one of my heroes and had hundreds of first ascents under his belt. So many in fact that most people had sort of lost count and since it wasn’t an important detail of information to Fred himself, he didn’t really know either. And second, I was mortified that he might die in my house. He could slip in his woolen socks on my hardwood stairs (no railing) and crack his head on the sideboard and I would be responsible for the death of one of mountaineering’s most celebrated icons. He was 86, stooped over and couldn’t walk very well. This was a worrisome thought. I made him lots of tea and he sat at our kitchen table pouring over some mountaineering books we had. He napped at the table too. Just rested his head on his arms and slept. Guess he was tired from all those first ascents.

The next morning he was determined to go ice climbing. Despite the -25C conditions, we agreed to go and asked a friend over to help us out. Fred creaked up to the guest room to get ready. He emerged back in the kitchen with down pants on and already donning his harness inside the house. Small clouds of down followed him as he went like a halo of small angels. His hair was dishevelled and he smelled a bit as he struggled into his Gore-Tex jacket. The climb was a 30 minute drive away but Fred was taking no chances in this cold, it was best to be prepared from the get go I suppose. He didn’t last long once on the approach to the climb. It really was too cold. No one, of any age, should have been climbing that day to begin with, never mind an octogenarian. When he returned he looked at me incredulously and said “Couldn’t feel my hands.” He turned them upward and over to look at the backs of them again. “Too fucking cold,” he mumbled. I sensed he was slightly pissed off.

Later that night we sat down to watch some climbing films. We watched a historical piece about an early expedition to Kangchenjunga with members of the Dyhrenfurth family. “NORMAN!” Fred croaked at one point, startling us all. “Owes me fifty bucks!” he shook his fist at the TV. He was enthralled however and after the film had finished he proceeded to tell us in encyclopedic detail about all the trips Norman had ever done. And then exclaimed he himself still had a project left he wanted to do in Alaska. “You guys should come along. I already got the permit. Here I’ll go get it,” he exclaimed. We looked at each other in disbelief as Fred hobbled out to his car and returned with a file box of papers, ALASKA in block caps written on the side. He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper from the US National Parks Service dated 1973. Dear Mr. Beckey… it began.

Joanna Croston is the festival director of The Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.