Climber Fred Beckey: Spirit of the Mountains

black and white portrait of man wearing a puffy coat standing in a rocky field with a large sheer snowy cliff in the background

If you listen hard enough, you can hear Fred Beckey’s spirit whispering among the towering peaks and hidden valleys of the Northern Cascades. Around campfires, bar tops, or anywhere that people gather, his name tends to pop up. He is an outdoors urban legend, the mythical mountaineer who spent eight decades solely focused on one thing and one thing only: climbing.

Wolfgang Paul Gottfried Beckey was born near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1923, and immigrated to Seattle, Washington, with his family soon after. At an early age, he was drawn to the labyrinth of lightly explored terrain in the nearby Northern Cascades. With his younger brother Helmy, he spent untold hours traipsing through barely marked trails, fording creeks, and inevitably investigating the barren and rocky regions above treeline.

At 13 years old, Beckey stood on top of his first summit, Boulder Peak in the Olympic Mountains, and he was hooked. He focused on climbing higher and more dangerous peaks, taking the skills he had learned in the Boy Scouts and the Mountaineers and pushing out of his comfort zone. When he and his brother made the second-ever ascent of Mt. Waddington, a remote and treacherous peak in British Columbia in 1942, on a route that would not be successfully climbed again for another 35 years, people were shocked. That was just the beginning of Beckey leaving people slack-jawed.

black and white image of an early mountain climber tied to a rope on a sheer granite mountain face

Photo courtesy of Fred Beckey LLC

After a stint in Colorado’s fabled 10th Mountain Division as an instructor during World War II, he dove back into climbing in the late ‘40s, all while attending the University of Washington. Legend has it that the moment classes were done for the week Beckey would cobble together a group of friends, acquaintances, and anyone who seemed remotely knowledgeable in climbing and head into the nearby mountains. While his contemporaries were attending football games and mixers, he was sleeping on the ground and plotting his route to the top.

All the while, Beckey’s skills grew, and his climbs got bigger. Focused on notching the ever-coveted “first ascent,” he looked for mountains that had not been conquered. A trip to Alaska in 1946 saw him and fellow climbers Clifford Schmidtke and Bob Craig battle their way up Devils Thumb in horrendous weather, far from any form of civilization. At the time, it was hailed as the hardest climb completed in North America.

A well-read and educated man, Beckey was equally well known for the fact that he was always writing notes out in the wild. Described as having pieces of paper and pencils poking out from everywhere, he was a prolific chronicler of his time in nature. In 1949, as he was graduating from college, his first guide book was published, appropriately about his beloved Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges. Beckey would publish a total of thirteen books about climbing and the mountains in his lifetime. His three-volume Cascade Alpine Guide is still considered the preeminent publication for aspiring climbers and alpine hikers.

“Many a friend has told tales of opening
their doors to a disheveled Beckey
fresh from one epic climb looking for someone to accompany him back into the unknown.”

Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, Beckey’s legend grew as he routinely put up first ascents all across the globe, but he primarily focused on the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Western United States, his favored stomping grounds. Eschewing the typical lifestyle (marriage, career, home, pension) that his friends followed, he dedicated himself to his passion. Work was a means to an end, and home was where he found it. Deciding that his main and only focus was climbing, he lived a seminomadic lifestyle, living out of a succession of battered cars that crisscrossed the country as he searched out new and exciting places to climb.

As he kept climbing, his legend grew. Late-night phone calls from Beckey in a pay phone booth somewhere on the road were common. Many a friend has told tales of opening their doors to a disheveled Beckey fresh from one epic climb looking for someone to accompany him back into the unknown. Keeping his cards close to his vest, he was often guarded when asked where he wanted people to follow him to, just telling them to trust him—he knew of a spot. He did not want anyone to beat him to another untamed route into the ether.

Time passed and Beckey’s list of accomplishments kept growing. Renowned for his tenacious approach, he did not let failures set him back. Instead, he would regroup and try again until he succeeded. While contemporaries he would rope up with in the mountains went on to acclaim—Yvon Chouinard, Layton Kor, Royal Robbins, Lloyd Anderson—he avoided the spotlight, only surfacing when another amazing exploit was revealed or another book was published.

portrait of fred beckey with alpinist glasses on his forehead relaxing using his backpack as a pillow on a snowy mountainside
person hanging on a rope tied to a granite rock face

A new millennium surfaced, and Beckey was still to be found in the backcountry. His climbing partners were younger, and his age had slowed him from scoring many precarious new first ascents, but he kept climbing. Younger climbers would be surprised when a grizzled and stooped man showed up at the trailhead—until he put his hands on the rock. Then they would watch in awe as he scampered heavenward.

He published his last book in 2011—Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs. He had completed 96 of them and kept on trying to finish the last four well into his late eighties. As time grew short and his body slowed, he could regularly be found hiking through the Cascades looking at all of the peaks he had summited over the years. The drive to explore was still strong, the mind was sharp—it was just his body that was giving up.

When Beckey passed away in 2017, he left behind a legacy of love for the mountains and a list of achievements that will never be matched. He was laid to rest just outside of Leavenworth, Washington, in the shadow of his beloved Cascades, where he spent so much of his life.

Fred Beckey sitting in a snowy mountainside holding a large wireless phone up to his ear

Photo courtesy of Fred Beckey LLC