Jon Krakauer on the Incredible Career of Mountaineer Fred Beckey

Shadowing an Irascible (and Legendary) Climber

For longer than I’ve been climbing, for longer than I’ve been alive, the most talked-about piece of writing in the sprawling literature of mountaineering has been a mysterious tome known as the Little Black Book. Only a single copy is said to exist. Between its well-thumbed covers is a top secret, continually updated catalogue of the planet’s finest unclimbed mountaineering routes: the highest, steepest, most extravagantly sculpted chunks of vertical ground that have yet to be groped by chalk-smeared human hands.

The author of this fabled work is a resident of the Pacific Northwest, name of Wolfgang Friedrich Beckey—although folks are careful to address him as Fred, or just plain Beckey, or practically anything except his given name, lest they feel the sting of his unholy wrath.

Some say that Beckey’s Little Black Book is apocryphal, that it’s merely the product of too much wine and too much idle talk around too many campfires. “Oh, no,” counters Sybil Goman, a free-spirited 42-year-old glaciologist who is the most recent in a long, turbulent string of Beckey’s female companions. “There really is a Black Book. I’ve seen it. It’s crammed full of notes about unclimbed peaks, big north faces that were overlooked by the mapmakers, last great problems in out-of-the-way corners of obscure ranges, that sort of thing. Fred guards it with his life.” 

The intense secrecy is understandable, because climbing where no one has ever climbed before is Fred Beckey’s life and has been for more than half a century. His affairs have orbited so tightly around the hot sun of cutting-edge climbing that virtually everything else was long ago scorched from his existence. Beckey, understand, is the original climbing bum. Nowadays, of course, every crag from Smith Rock to the New River Gorge is crawling with pierced-eared rock rats who’ve copped an attitude, hit the road, and are living in tents in the dirt.

But most of them are just temporarily slumming; within a few years, they’ll be back in suburbia attending PTA meetings. For Beckey, climbing is no mere pose. Back in the 1930s, he stripped his life of everything that might impede his campaign on the heights, and five decades later the mountains are still all that matters. The closest thing he has to a home is a secondhand Volkswagen with 400,000 miles on it.

From the erudite tone of the seven mountaineering books he’s authored, one would never guess they were scribbled in Burger Kings on the backs of place mats pilfered by the stack from the front counter. He has duffels of battered climbing hardware cached in the basements of acquaintances across the West, but the rest 

of Beckey’s possessions wouldn’t crowd a small closet. 

Thanks to his single-minded focus, Beckey has achieved a kind of quirky, enduring magnificence to which attention must be paid. He is the Pete Rose of mountaineering, an alpine Charlie Hustle, climbing’s foremost collector of big league hits, the most prolific first-ascensionist in the 206-year history of the sport. He has shared a rope with many of the premier climbers of the age—Yvon Chouinard, Layton Kor, Fritz Wiessner, Royal Robbins, Heinrich Harrer—and his creations include a disproportionate number of the most remarkable climbs in North America.

Nobody, not even Beckey, knows precisely how many virgin lines he’s plucked over the decades, but the tally must be close to a thousand. Greatness, however, hasn’t come cheap. And the tab for Beckey’s formidable obsession might finally be coming due, at the age of 69. 

It’s four A.M. on a winter morning. A caustic wind rattles the walls of the tent, which is pitched high in the snowbound North Cascades. “Jesus Christ, you see a bottle of Nuprin over there, any Nuprin?” demands Beckey in the fractured, elliptical mutter that characterizes Fredspeak. “Thought I brought a bottle of Nuprin. Jesus Christ. A little white bottle, plastic, I don’t know, Nuprin. Maybe I forgot it, I don’t know. You got any aspirin on you? Some aspirin? Jesus Christ.” 

By the time the sun has risen above the serrated eastern skyline, Beckey, Mark Bebie—a frequent ropemate of Fred’s—and I are out of the tent, bundled against the cold, and starting to climb. Beckey, who is quick to confess that he “isn’t a morning person,” is not a pretty sight. As one of his ex-girlfriends warned me, “Fred in the morning is a bundle of aches and wrinkles with legs. It hurts to see him move.” His face is a gaunt, astonishing matrix of furrows etched deep into leathery flesh, framed by wisps of shoulder-length hair whipping crazily in the wind.

It’s apparent that his hunched-over frame is stiff and creaky, but his sinewy arms and oversize hands hint at untapped reserves of power, and Beckey chugs up the slopes of Sahale Peak at a steady clip that, however painful, enables him to hold his own with climbers half his age. Which is fortunate, because that’s how old almost all of Beckey’s partners are these days. 

Today Beckey’s morning disposition is even more toxic than usual, owing to an unexpected change in plans. When he recruited Bebie and me for this three-day expedition, it was to make the first winter ascent of a mountain that Beckey had long had his sights on, a project considerably more ambitious than Sahale, the 8,680-foot peak that we are presently climbing. Last night, after arriving at our campsite, Bebie and I decided the original goal was too distant to be practical, and consequently 

staged a mutiny, proposing Sahale—an easy but handsome spire rising directly above our tent—as an alternative. 

Like baseball fans analyzing the careers of Koufax or Mantle, climbers like to argue about which was Beckey’s most amazing year.

After more than an hour of heated argument, Bebie and I prevailed. Fred has been holding it against us ever since. “I don’t know why you guys even came on this trip,” he sputters, “if you didn’t want to climb something worthwhile. Something worth climbing, Jesus Christ, I don’t know. I did Sahale 30 years ago with a girl, and she’d never even climbed before, Jesus Christ.” 

By noon, however, when we reach the base of the 200-foot summit pyramid, the wind has quit, the surrounding glaciers are gleaming in the cold sunlight, and Beckey’s spirits seem to be picking up. Upon registering at the Marblemount ranger station the day before, the woman behind the desk had informed us that we would be the only people in the backcountry in the entire North Cascades National Park, a wilderness half the size of Delaware.

Fred now drones on about this anomaly with mischievous delight, as if we have pulled a brilliant practical joke on the four million working stiffs who are currently going about their humdrum business in the cities and towns that sprawl two hours down the road from the trailhead parking lot. 

The final pitch up Sahale—steep, downsloping rock slippery with frost—turns out to be trickier in these off-season conditions than any of us had anticipated. Beckey hogs the lead, and beetles his way up a razor-edged arête plastered with rime. When Mark and I join him on the tiny summit, he’s manic, chattering, ebullient. Jagged granite ridges and avalanche-swept ice fields, some of the wildest country in the conterminous United States, extend into the distance in all directions, a concentration of mountains, in the words of the late William O. Douglas, “too numerous to count.” 

I wonder what’s going through Fred’s mind as he gazes off, silent now, at the glut of dizzying topography that surrounds us. Beckey has left his mark in many, many ranges, but nowhere more emphatically than here in the North Cascades. His life has been stitched into the very fabric of this remarkable landscape, wedded forever to a galaxy of peaks wearing names like Forbidden, Fury, the Dragon Teeth, Crooked Thumb, the Phantom, the Flagpole, Cutthroat, Despair.

For several minutes he takes in the view; then he blinks a few times, his mental engine shifts visibly into a different gear, and a sly smile pierces the gray stubble sprouting from his face. “I don’t know,” Beckey declares, “I’ve never heard of anyone climbing Sahale in winter. This could be the first, I don’t know, we might be the first comedy team to do it. The first winter ascent of Sahale, Jesus Christ, I don’t know.” 

*

Like baseball fans analyzing the careers of Koufax or Mantle, climbers like to argue about which was Beckey’s most amazing year. Some say it was 1946, when he pushed Alaskan mountaineering to a bold new plane by making the first ascent of an immense stone digit called the Devils Thumb. Others insist it was 1954, when he polished off Mount Deborah, Mount Hunter, and the Northwest Buttress of McKinley; or 1961, when Beckey teamed up with Chouinard to climb the West Face of South Howser Tower in the Canadian Bugaboos, a flying buttress of flawless white granite that is now widely regarded as the most beautiful alpine rock climb in North America; or 1963, when Beckey did 48 major routes, 26 of them first ascents. 

When Beckey was on a roll, he would come down from the mountains only long enough to replace exhausted partners, which he went through like carpenters go through nails, and get the next weather forecast. His favorite way to do the latter, because it was free, was to dial up a long-distance operator in whatever Podunk burg happened to be near whatever mountain he wanted to climb next, and sweet-talk her into looking out the window and telling him if it was cloudy.

Thanks to Beckey’s unrelenting agenda, lining up partners and divining the weather in distant ranges required—and still requires—him to spend an inordinate amount of time in phone booths, often hours at a pop. A group of Beckey’s partners once gave a slide show in which all the images were shots of the great alpinist, a receiver jammed to his ear, a paper bag full of change at the ready, yakking in pay phones from Fairbanks to Albuquerque. It had the audience rolling on the floor, howling with laughter. 

As the summer of 1963 drew to a close, Fred was rock-climbing in eastern Oregon with Steve Marts and Eric Bjornstad. On the long drive back to Seattle, where they all lived, Beckey asked Bjornstad if he felt like doing another climb. “What do you have in mind?” Bjornstad inquired. “I can’t tell you that,” Beckey shot back, “but it’s a big deal. It’ll be worth your while.” Accustomed to Beckey’s paranoiac secrecy, Bjornstad agreed to the plan without pressing for more details, as did Marts, and the car sped past Seattle in the direction of Canada.

“We drove through the night,” Bjornstad remembers. “That was Fred’s style. He’d never agree to stop and sleep; he always insisted on going directly from one project to another as quickly as possible. After we’d crossed the border into British Columbia and were almost into the mountains, Fred finally told me what it was: Slesse Mountain.” 

The unclimbed northeast buttress of Slesse jutted menacingly out of the Chilliwack Range 20 miles south of Hope, British Columbia. Beckey had been to the foot of the route twice before, a prow of smooth black diorite that soared more than a vertical half-mile from the forested valley. In 1956, a Trans-Canada Air Lines flight had slammed headlong into the face, imbedding the nose of the plane in the rock and killing all 62 passengers. The first time Beckey attempted the climb he found the base of the mountain to be “a maze of shattered metal, seat cushions, and fragmentary human remains.” Despite the carnage, Beckey—ever the opportunist—was careful to keep an eye out for “any loose currency,” as news bulletins had reported that one of the passengers had been carrying $80,000 in cash. 

Neither of Beckey’s first two attempts had gotten higher than halfway up the El Capitan–size buttress, and Bjornstad soon saw why. The climbing was devious and desperate. After two exhausting days on the wall, they still hadn’t topped out, and nightfall caught them in the middle of a difficult pitch, forcing Marts to spend the night hanging in aid slings from a piton, shivering miserably.

The weather held, though, and the following day, as Beckey later wrote, “A few more pitches, all broken and reasonable climbing, put us on the summit—very, very happy. The beauty queen of North Cascades routes had been done. . . . The length, exposure, and no-escape factors of this route will surely give it increasing fame as a great classic.” Slesse was in fact one of the finest climbs ever done in the United States, but only a handful of cognoscenti appreciated its significance or even knew of the peak.

The ascent generated two sentences of minuscule type in Sports Illustrated that September, buried on a back page, where a postage-stamp-size picture of Beckey ran in the “Faces in the Crowd” column beneath a picture of a nurse from Brooklyn who’d landed a 94-pound tuna. A month after this forgettable blurb appeared, tens of millions of Americans saw a Seattle neighbor of Beckey’s, Jim Whittaker, featured on the cover of National Geographic as the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. For a person as hypercompetitive as Beckey, the ubiquitous magazine must have been agonizing to look at. 

The most serious blot on Beckey’s good name occurred in the autumn of 1955, when he traveled to Nepal to attempt Lhotse—at the time the highest unclimbed mountain on earth.

The 1963 American Everest expedition was justly hailed as a whopping success, a triumph of national pride on the order of sending a man into space. While Beckey was eating cold beansfrom a can on mountain walls nobody had ever heard of, “Big Jim” Whittaker became a household name and rode the post-Everest hoopla all the way into the loftiest circles of Camelot itself, the Kennedy White House. A number of people wondered aloud why Beckey hadn’t been part of the expedition, and wasn’t now sharing in all the backslapping and hosannas.

Beckey’s climbing record was more impressive than any of the Americans who had gone to Everest, and he had let it be known that he desperately wanted to be invited to Everest in 1963. But Norman Dyhrenfurth, the highly respected leader of the American expedition, was adamant that Beckey be kept off the team. 

Although Beckey’s skills as a mountaineer were unassailable, his cocky, impatient, notoriously unaccommodating personality had won him plenty of detractors. People whispered behind his back that he was dangerous to climb with, that he was ruthless to the point of recklessness in pursuit of summits. In 1947, Beckey had been on a Harvard expedition to Mount Asperity in British Columbia during which a team member had been killed in an avalanche.

Another partner of Beckey’s fell to his death in 1952 while they were attempting the North Face of Mount Baring in the North Cascades. In fact, neither of these accidents had anything to do with Beckey’s actions or lack thereof, but they left a taint that clung to him like the smell of week-old fish. 

The most serious blot on Beckey’s good name occurred in the autumn of 1955, when he traveled to Nepal to attempt Lhotse—at the time the highest unclimbed mountain on earth—as part of a high-profile multinational expedition led by Dyhrenfurth. The post-monsoon weather was grim that fall, hammering the high Himalaya with gale after violent gale. Nevertheless, by October 22nd, two sherpas, Beckey, and a Swiss climber named Bruno Spirig were hunkered down in tents at 25,200 feet, poised to take a shot at the 27,890-foot summit. 

The weather never let them. After two days of inconceivable cold and hurricane-force winds that tore the tents to ribbons, Dyhrenfurth got on the radio and ordered the team to descend. The four climbers managed to retreat to 24,200 feet, but at that point Spirig, who was suffering from snow blindness and altitude sickness, had a complete physical collapse.

From a camp 3,000 feet lower, Dyhrenfurth watched through binoculars with growing alarm as Beckey left the incapacitated Swiss in a badly battered tent, without so much as a sleeping bag, and continued down with the sherpas through the ongoing storm. “None of us can understand this,” a dismayed Dyhrenfurth wrote in his journal. “I decide to leave from here as early as possible tomorrow to get Spirig down, if he is still alive by then. We spend a worried and sleepless night.” 

Through a herculean effort, Dyhrenfurth and the rest of the team managed to climb up and rescue Spirig the following day, but Dyhrenfurth was livid at Beckey for abandoning his helpless partner and gave him a thorough chewing-out. Beckey insisted that at the time, muddled from hypoxia and extreme stress, he thought he was doing the right thing by leaving Spirig and going down to summon help.

“You can’t always act rationally on these trips,” he explained to an Oregon newspaper reporter. “It’s like guerrilla warfare up there.” In any case, seven years after returning from Lhotse, when Beckey approached Dyhrenfurth about joining the American Everest expedition, Dyhrenfurth refused to even consider it. 

“You can tell what really bothers Fred because that’s the stuff he never mentions,” says Sybil Goman, who has gotten as close to Beckey as perhaps a person can. Bjornstad concurs, adding that “Fred never mentioned his feelings about being excluded from the Everest trip, simply wouldn’t talk about it, but it was obvious that it bothered him deeply. In 1962, when invitations were going out for the Everest team and it became clear Fred wasn’t going to be included, he became very agitated and depressed. His response was to go out and do more climbing than ever.”

That year Beckey did 33 first ascents, a personal record. 

Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer is the author of eight books and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. According to the award citation, “Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer.”





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