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‘Dirtbag’ Fetes Consummate Climber
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Fred Beckey was considered a rebel mountaineer.
 
 
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Ketchum’s Dick Dorworth first met Fred Beckey in 1969 at Yosemite’s Camp 4 when Beckey strolled into camp with Sun Valley filmmaker Dick Barrymore and his soon-to-be-wife Betsy Glenn.

With Beckey was a woman who did not climb and who, it turned out, was not at all impressed with the dinner Beckey tried to impress her with that evening—two cans of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs.

“I never saw or thought of the Chef Boyardee brand again without thinking of the sad look on Fred’s face as he contemplated his date’s displeasure,” said Dorworth, who ended up climbing with Beckey and the Barrymores the next day.

Getting by without gourmet meals and the other frills of life allowed Beckey to spend his time climbing. And it earned him the nickname, “the original dirtbag,” a term Beckey hated but was very apropos for a man who often lived out of his car and dined on condiments from fast food restaurants to facilitate his passion for climbing.

“It’s also the name of a film, “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey,” that debuted in 2017 and will be shown free of charge at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 21, in the Community Room of Ketchum’s YMCA.

The film has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Mountain Film and People’s Choice Award at the 2017 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. It’s sponsored by the YMCA, The Elephant’s Perch and the Roy A. Hunt Foundation. Donations will be accepted in support of the Y climbing programs.

“He was a real unique character,” said Bob Rosso, owner of The Elephant’s Perch. “He lived up to the name ‘dirtbag’ as most of the time you’d find him sleeping under a rock somewhere. He was the ultimate mountaineer—he loved the mountains and was always on the next adventure. A number of people from here, like Louis Stur and Gordy Webster, climbed with him. All of a sudden (Fred) would vanish and turn up in another mountain valley.”

Friedrich Wolfgang Beckey made hundreds of first ascents—more than any other North American climber. And he did so in archaic gear, using frame packs, leather boot and neoprene strap crampons right up to his last climb a few years before his death at age 94 on Oct. 30, 2017.

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, he and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 2, ending up in Seattle. After he wandered off to climb Boulder Peak in the Cascades by himself on a family camping trip at age 12, his family signed him up with the Boy Scouts.

He never looked back, climbing for more than 70 years.

Beckey earned a degree in business administration at the University of Washington, landing a job in the printing industry. But when work encroached on climbing he took a job as a delivery truck driver to have more time for climbing everything from the sandstone towers of the southwest deserts to Idaho’s City of Rocks and The Elephant’s Perch and the Finger of Fate in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Discomfort did not bother him, nor did near-death experiences, which included falling into deep crevasses.

“We were taking chances on really bad rock with broken streetcars of ice hanging above us and the glaciers were heavily crevassed,” he described a trip to Cascade’s Pickets in a 1973 “Mountain” magazine interview. “I gained a lot of confidence on that trip…we became good at making our own preparations and fending for ourselves. If it stormed for three days, you got soaking wet, but you knew you could survive.”

Beckey shopped at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, bivouacking in heavy wool overcoats he bought  for a couple of dollars and using neckties he bought at those stores to tie off pitons on tricky pitches.

Most climbers who go through dirt bag phases eventually get caught up in the day-to-day existence most people succumb to, said Dorworth, who wrote of his encounters with Beckey in his book “Climbing to Freedom.”

“Only a few rare birds persevere and Beckey is one,” he added. “Committed lifetime dirt bag climbers are extraordinary and few and usually eccentric as hell. He is the original, the standard and the best, and he managed to pull it off with the style and grace of a king.”

Beckey never married or had children. He shied away from large-scale expeditions to summits like the top of Mount Everest, preferring smaller alpine-style undertakings with two or three reliable friends.

He wrote several books, including the iconic three-volume “Cascade Alpine Guide,” that has guided tens of thousands of climbers. His coffee table books, such as “The Mountains of North America,” “Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America,” and the 563-page  “Range of Glaciers,” are considered masterpieces.

Mount Beckey in the Alaska Range is named for him.

There are Beckey routes at in nearly every state west of the Mississippi, including Baron Peak in the Sawtooths, which he climbed in 1949.

Other first ascents included the North Ridge of Mount Baker, the Norwest Buttress to North Peak on Mount McKinley, Yocum Ridge on Mount Hood, the West Buttress on Musembeah Peak in the Wind River Range and the Beckey-Chouinard Route on South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos.

But, noted friend and author Cameron Burns, “If you ever told Fred Beckey that he was the most accomplished climber who ever lived, he’d wrinkle his furrowed face, squint and say—with something of a sour look—that he’d ‘barely scratched the surface….Barely touched it.’”

And when a friend asked President Jimmy Carter to honor him in some way, Beckey reacted, “But who cares about that stuff?”

Beckey was memorialized with some memorable photographs. Someone once captured a portrait of him holding a sign “Will belay for food.” And the late Galen Rowen took a photo of him doing his business in a plastic bag while in his aid sling on the side of a granite wall.

It was made into an environmental poster with the message “Pack it Out.”

His fellow climbers proudly wore a T-shirt “Beware of Beckey: He will steal your woman, steal your route.”

Dorworth skied with Beckey at Squaw Valley and even dined with him at Sushi on Second after Beckey returned to Ketchum from a six-hour ski tour north of town.

Beckey was 84 when they made their last climb together at Gallatin Tower near Bozeman, Mont.

Beckey had gnarled hands by then, a bad back and an unkempt thinning mane of graying hair that made him look more like an iconic physics professor than the world’s oldest, most prolific mountaineer. He bent at the waist as if leaning into 70 years of gale force winds that would not deter him from his calling.

Yet he climbed like a climber half his age, moving with more grace and assurance on vertical rock than on horizontal ground, Dorworth recalled.

When done—true to form—Beckey gulped down a five-day old turkey sandwich that he girlfriend had gotten in compensation from an airline that bungled her flight.

“He was a walking, talking, climbing, grimacing proof of the existential dictum often attributed to Jean Paul Sartre,” Dorworth recalled: “It’s not what you can’t do any more. It’s what you can do now.”

 

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