Fred Beckey

I was 16 years old, sitting at the kitchen table when the phone rang, and to my complete amazement the caller announced himself — in a now familiar rising inflection — as: "Hello, this is Fred Beckeeeey…" Fred was already a legend; why was he calling me? He got right to the point: he had designs on the new route my friends and I were planning to attempt on Alaska's Mt. Fairweather, a mountain that rises 15,000 from the sea. He began his planning first, he said, so we should go elsewhere!

We wouldn't; we had too much invested in this, our first mountaineering adventure. Instead, he chose a different route, and our groups crossed paths on our way in to the mountain. Then, 4 weeks later, we again joined him to wander lost among the crevasses at the snout of the glacier as we all tried to reach the sea.

We were only 17, but the endless humping of 100 lb loads up and down the frozen mountainside left us broken and exhausted. When we finally reached the shore we all dropped our packs, and our pants to hang our numb, sorry butts over the warmth of a driftwood fire. All we could think of was food and rest, but Fred was already scheming to fly right away to the unclimbed peaks of the Stikine Icecap. Were we game? We thought he was nuts!

Fred Beckey started pioneering difficult routes up mountains as a teenager and he has not paused since. He is reputed to have accomplished more mountaineering first ascents than anyone, anywhere, ever. The undisputed expert on North American mountaineering Fred is now 85 and has had to shift gears: he now goes to Asia to put up new routes in the remote peaks in southern China.

Afterward: Fred passed away peacefully on October 30th, 2017. He was 94

Interview Excerpts
Read the full interview :

"I’ve sort of figured that if I work, don’t play games, and apportion my free time, then I’ll have enough to go climbing, or skiing, or whatever I want to do… Most people get married and by the time they’re 30 they’ve got a couple of kids, and then they’re strapped down. Then they have to work. They’d better get a job with somebody, stay with it, and get their salary, pension, or whatever. Right or wrong, I had more flexibility. It just worked out that way…

"Somebody told me, “Save 10, 15, 20% of what you make and put it in the bank.” And I did that, always. I’d spend so much, and put some of it in the bank. It added up after a while, with compound interest you know, it takes a while. I started with nothing; my folks didn’t have a nickel. It sort of worked that way, you just kind of keep at it…

"I started out being pretty good in high school math, but then I got tired of it. I’m not interested in equations and all that, it’s too abstract for me. If I had to start over again, I’ll tell you, I’d just assume get a job selling printing. Easy job, drive around in a car, shake hands, talk to the pretty secretary… It’s kind of fun. Give me a company car and I’d take off on Friday afternoon for the High Sierra. You could do worse…

"You know, you get asked this, 'Why do people climb?' There’s got to be a reason … I can’t figure it out. It’s a lot easier to play tennis or golf, bicycle; a lot less stress, not dangerous, doesn’t have the risk, doesn’t have the suffering. Climbing’s got a lot of suffering, a lot of it…

"Why do people climb instead of playing tennis, or going to the beach, or riding a bicycle? Riding a bicycle through the Catskills or the Adirondacks: there’s a little bit of an adventure in it, but it’s not very dangerous… unless you hit a tree. Why do they go climbing instead of doing that?…"


Beckey at 85, More Peaks to Conquer
A feature film about Fred's life: Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey
Fred Beckey is a living traditional mountaineering legend

Charlie Fowler:

Copyright © 2010, Lincoln Stoller. All rights reserved.