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. 

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.

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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