People who know Beckey well speculate that even if the Lhotse climb hadn’t turned ugly, he still wouldn’t have been chosen for the Everest expedition, because it’s simply not in Beckey’s blood to be a team player. “What Fred wants to do,” says his longtime friend Doug Stufflebeam, “Fred wants to goddamn do, right now, and he can’t stand anyone telling him he can’t.”
“Dear old Fred, bless his heart, can be a very hard person to be around,” explains Goman with a mix of affection and resignation. “Everyone will tell you that. That’s one of the reasons he cycles through so many climbing partners. After a trip with Fred, they need to go off and cool down.”
Beckey has never seemed to grasp the mundane social conventions on which the engines of civilization run; he’s always been conspicuously out of step. “Fred is way off the chart,” emphasizes Stufflebeam, who views Beckey as an oddball genius—a brilliant, if difficult, artist whose talent happens to be directed at vertical terrain rather than music or painting or mathematics. “Beckey’s like an idiot savant,” says Bjornstad. “He’s amazing in the mountains, but he doesn’t function very well in the world of people.”
Beckey was a square peg right from the get-go. Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1923—a tumultuous time in a troubled land—Beckey and his family immigrated to Seattle three years later. His mother was an accomplished opera singer, his father a physician described as a “cold fish.” According to Goman, despite their new American surroundings, “Fred and his younger brother Helmy had a very German upbringing. Their mother dressed them in knickerbockers and sent them out into nature every morning to do breathing exercises.
The United States had just ended one war with Germany and would soon be fighting another. Young Wolfgang Friedrich Beckey—with his funny name, funny clothes, and immigrant parents—didn’t have an easy time of it, growing up in that intensely xenophobic age. To put a lid on the schoolyard taunts, Beckey and his mother decided that thenceforth his name would be Fred.
From almost anywhere in Seattle, both the eastern and western horizons are dominated by the tantalizing profiles of high, craggy alps. Through the Boy Scouts, and later a local climbing club called the Mountaineers, Beckey was introduced to these rugged uplands as a teenager. Immediately and irrevocably, he fell under the mountains’ thrall.
It wasn’t so much the tranquility of the wilderness that captivated him; his newfound obsession owed more to the fact that scrambling up dangerously steep ground was something he was uncannily good at, something that earned him the grudging respect, if not the affection, of his peers. It was a novel feeling, that respect, and he liked it. He liked it a lot.
In 1939, at the age of 16, Beckey made his inaugural first ascent: Mount Despair, an imposing pyramid of glacier-wrapped granite that is a prominent Cascade landmark. A rush of other first ascents soon followed. In 1942, in the company of his 16-year-old brother Helmy, Fred made the second ascent of Canada’s remote Mount Waddington, one of the most fearsome mountains in North America at the time, a peak that had defeated 16 attempts by strong climbers (one of whom died in a gruesome fall) and had succumbed only to a team led by the fabled Fritz Wiessner.
When word of the Seattle teenagers’ climb spread through the international climbing community, it was greeted initially with disbelief, then undiluted awe.
The ferocity of Fred Beckey’s drive, his refusal to let anything keep him from the summits he desired, was already apparent by the time of the Waddington climb. And a dark side to that intensity was visible then as well. Published accounts of the expedition failed to note that there had been a third person along on the trip, a young climber named Eric Larsson. During the long trudge from sea level to the mountain, Larsson couldn’t keep up with the Beckey brothers through the hideous Coast Range brush, and they refused to slow their blistering march to accommodate him.
They ditched Larsson deep in the wilds of British Columbia, and continued on to Waddington by themselves. Left completely to his own devices, the abandoned climber reportedly managed to find his way back to civilization, although Beckey never bothered looking him up afterward to see how he fared.
It’s getting more and more obvious that Beckey is no longer a young man.
In those days Beckey was so tightly wound, it probably never even crossed his mind that leaving Larsson behind was a crummy thing to do. I mean, Jesus Christ, they had a summit to reach, didn’t they? What could be more important than that?
Beckey’s unswerving focus, his burning hunger to climb, could blind him to the wishes of others. He was utterly oblivious to quirky personal habits that could drive his companions to the brink of violence. According to Bjornstad, for example, “Reading matter was always in short supply in climbing base camps, but whenever Fred would read a magazine, he’d tear out each page after he finished it, crumple it into a tight ball to exercise his forearms, then throw the page into the fire, even if nobody else had read it yet. A climber named Charlie Bell used to do the same thing, but he would at least put the pages to use by eating them, which cut down on food expenses.”
Bjornstad recalls a trip he and Beckey made to New Mexico in 1965 to climb a new route on Shiprock. Three-quarters of the way up the sheer southwest buttress, the two climbers got into an epic shouting match, and Bjornstad told Beckey he was quitting the climb. They rappelled off the rock, and Bjornstad and his girlfriend, who had been waiting at base camp, walked out to the highway and began hitchhiking back to Seattle. Beckey, driving a pink 1956 Thunderbird, started back for Seattle a little while later to recruit a new partner, but refused to give Bjornstad a ride.
“Several times over the next few days we’d be standing on the highway shoulder with our thumbs out,” Bjornstad remembers, “and Fred would cruise slowly by, taunting us, and then speed off down the road.” By that point, the enmity between the two men was intense enough to sear exposed flesh; yet they were back climbing together later that same month.
“Fred couldn’t afford to stay mad at me for long,” Bjornstad explains. “He was always needing partners, and I was one of the few people who could drop everything and go climbing with him in the middle of the week.”
“Wha-wha-whaddaya call this stuff?” Beckey inquires of a woman with big hair and inch-long red fingernails as she hands out samples of pork sausage in an aisle of Thrifty Foods, a supermarket in Sedro Woolley, Washington. She forces a smile and launches into a spiel about the meat’s myriad attributes, but she plainly doesn’t know what to make of Beckey. Fresh out of the mountains, he’s wearing a four-day growth of gray stubble, three tattered shirts, a decidedly gamy scent, and filthy pile pants that are sliding halfway down his bony ass.
The woman can perhaps be excused for mistaking America’s foremost alpinist for a wino who’s wandered in from the street. “Ummm, ummm, not bad,” Fred declares enthusiastically as he chews her product, “even if it does look like horse dick.”
Beckey wolfs down six or seven more slices of sausage, then moves on to the seafood department, where he eats heartily from the sample tray of tempura, then to the deli counter, where they are handing out free tidbits of tortellini, and finally to the bakery, where the fare is chocolate-chip cookies and blueberry scones.
“Saturdays are great in this supermarket,” he says. “Not bad, yeah, yeah, pretty good food. I mean Jesus Christ, considering it’s free and all.” If Fred notices the scowls and wrinkled noses on the faces of the store employees as we systematically work our way down the aisles, he pays no heed whatsoever.
Beckey is still a master at subsisting on the cheap, at living off the fat of the land. And he continues to climb both relentlessly and with enviable skill: in the 1970s and 1980s, he traveled as far afield as Alaska, China, India, and Kenya in search of steep rock and ice; a year ago, he was leading poorly protected face climbs in Yosemite. For seven decades Beckey has simply refused to grow old—he’s sustained the restless energy and physical wherewithal of a badass adolescent through pure pigheaded determination.
But even orneriness has its limits. It’s getting more and more obvious that Beckey is no longer a young man. His friends express growing concern about what will happen when Beckey’s age finally catches up with him, as it eventually must. What will he do, they wonder, when his health fails and he’s forced to forgo all the hustling and scamming? What will he do when he can no longer climb?
On a more practical level, there is also the question of how he will get by. Beckey clams up about his personal finances and employment history, even with his closest friends. In the past, he’s been a sales rep, driven a truck, and worked the floor at Sears to support his climbing. During much of the 1960s, he promoted ski movies for John Jay and Dick Barrymore, and was apparently quite successful at it.
But it’s been many years now since anyone can remember Fred holding down a job. Lately his income, such as it is, is believed to come largely from slide shows and the royalties generated by his three-volume, thousand-page literary pièce de résistance: the Cascade Alpine Guide, an obsessively researched guidebook detailing every climbing route on the 1,500 peaks that stud the convoluted crest of the Cascade Range in Washington State.
Whatever Beckey makes, nobody thinks it’s enough to retire on. “I worry a lot about Fred winding up penniless on the street someday,” Goman confesses. “For years now I’ve had this recurring nightmare, a very vivid one, in which Fred is in some asylum or shabby nursing home. In the dream, he’s senile, completely out of it. I see him hunched over, frantically sorting paper clips, like a climber sorting hardware before a climb. And that’s all he does, hour after hour, day after day: sort paper clips. Then I wake up with these incredible cold sweats. Fred and I split up a while ago, but that doesn’t keep me from worrying about who’s going to take care of the poor little spud when he gets too old to climb.”
Beckey, Goman insists, has been “in extreme denial about his age for a long, long time.” Indeed, for decades now he’s been misrepresenting his age in published accounts of his climbs; well into his forties, he was still claiming to be 33. But Goman believes the years at long last are beginning to reel him in. Lately Beckey has failed on climbs that he would have cruised up just five years ago, and young partners have increasingly had to stop in mid-ascent and wait for the legendary alpinist to catch his breath.
“I think Fred is finally starting to feel his mortality,” Goman asserts. “His activity level has dropped by an order of magnitude over the last few years. Because he’s less active, I also think Fred is feeling his loneliness for the first time. He’s always been gregarious, he’s passed through a lot of people’s lives, but he’s never really been emotionally engaged. Now he’s paying the price. If you look beneath the surface, you’ll find that Fred is a very lonely man.”
If it’s difficult to comprehend how Beckey has done what he’s done on the heights, it’s not hard to understand why. To climb a virgin peak—to know you’re the first soul since time immemorial to stand atop a landmark as ponderable as a mountain’s summit—confers satisfactions on the alpine pioneer that are many and lasting. Not least among them is the traditional right of the first-ascensionist to name the mountain he has climbed.
Beckey, it goes without saying, has christened many, many peaks. Somewhat surprisingly, only once did he ever name a mountain after a woman. The recipient of the honor was said to be brilliant, beautiful, strong-willed, athletic. Of Greek heritage, she was fluent in several languages and reportedly smoked cigars with panache. Her name was Vasiliki. Beckey met her skiing at Stevens Pass in the winter of 1952, when he was just 29. They went skiing a few more times, played tennis together, attended a party or two.
Maybe the aging gypsy is finally ready to hang up his ice ax. But then again, maybe not.
By June, though, Vasiliki had met somebody else, a high-powered lawyer who would one day become a public figure appointed by President Reagan to federal district court; she married the lawyer a few months later, and Vasiliki’s romance with Beckey was over before it had really even begun.
Aflame with unrequited love, in the summer of 1952, Beckey hiked into the North Cascades and established a base camp beneath a massif of sharply hewn rock pinnacles near the eastern margin of the range. The most alluring of these spires adorned the crest of a towering granite knife-edge that soon thereafter appeared on USGS maps as Vasiliki Ridge.
If Vasiliki broke Beckey’s heart, he appeared to get over her in short order. Beckey was a contemporary of Hugh Hefner’s, and he took the Playboy Philosophy as the gospel. He flaunted his independence by dating a multitude of women, committing himself to none. There was the airline stewardess, the topless showgirl, the real estate agent, the geologist, the trapeze artist from Tarzana . . . the list goes on and on. “Fred was from the old school,” Goman says. “He liked to be seen with wild and flashy women, it was a status thing. He had a girl in every port, and many of them were absolute bombshells.”
Beckey has often opined—loudly and at great length—that marriage is for fools, that it’s one of the worst things a climber can do. I was thus taken aback one night, lying in the wind-whipped tent beneath Sahale Peak, when he confessed that he’d actually come close to tying the knot. When I asked why he hadn’t, Fred replied, “I don’t know, I probably should have.”
“Who was the woman?”
“What makes you think there was just one?”
“Was it the woman you named that ridge after back in the 1950s? Are you sorry you didn’t settle down with Vasiliki?” I pressed.
“Whaddaya think the weather’s doing outside?” Beckey fired back. “Anything movin’ in from the southwest?” It was clear that the conversation was over. For several minutes, all was silent except for the rasp of the wind. Then, from the far side of the tent, Fred spoke again. “Yeah, that Vasiliki was quite a gal,” he declared in a soft voice freighted with regret. “Jesus Christ, she was really something.” A moment later, he rolled over and began to snore.
As it happens, several of Beckey’s friends report that recently he’s been talking a lot about marriage. Apparently, he’s even been looking for a nine-to-five job, and has spoken to a realtor about buying an inexpensive house. Everyone remarks how much Fred has mellowed over the past few years. So perhaps Beckey’s tenure as an incorrigible climbing bum really is coming to an end. Maybe the aging gypsy is finally ready to hang up his ice ax. But then again, maybe not.
Beckey, Mark Bebie, and I are bumping along a rutted dirt road deep in the heart of the North Cascades. Fred is yammering on about tentative plans he has to visit the Himalaya, to climb in Patagonia, to go back to Alaska to attempt the Mooses Tooth. We round a bend, and far above the road, a striking granite buttress comes into view, rising steep and clean for a thousand feet or more.
“Hey, Fred!” Mark exclaims. “Check that out! Any routes been done on that wall?”
“No, nobody’s been up there. Decent rock, I don’t know, yeah, probably real solid granite. Climbers today, all they want to do is go to the gym, Jesus Christ, nobody’s been up there. Memorial Day, I don’t know, the approach will be free of snow by then, might be a good time to put up a route on it.”
“Screw that,” Mark says, pulling to a stop to get a better view of the unclimbed face. “That buttress looks so great I think I’ll head up there next weekend, while you’re in Chicago giving that slide show.”
Beckey glares at Bebie, his eyes flashing. “You ever had a broken leg, Mark?” he asks. Bebie turns and looks hard at Beckey, trying to gauge the seriousness of the threat. He’s just kidding around, Bebie thinks. The old buzzard wouldn’t really come after me if I stole the route. Or would he? Beckey stares back, matching Bebie’s gaze without the slightest hint of a smile.
Bebie blinks first. He turns away and resumes driving out of the mountains. “Don’t worry yourself, Fred,” he says with a nervous little laugh. “You know I’d never steal one of your lines. The route’s all yours, old dad. The route’s all yours.”
From Classic Krakauer by Jon Krakauer. Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan R. Krakauer. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.