America’s preeminent dirtbag climber with thousands of first ascents to his name, Wolfgang “Fred” Beckey, died Tuesday, October 30 in Seattle. He was 94.
Born in Germany on January 14, 1923, he emigrated to Seattle when he was 2.
Fred went outside when he was a teenager and never came back in. For 80 years, his life was a never ending road trip. From climb to climb, he traveled from Alaska to Arizona, to Colorado, to Canada. A frugal man, after a meal with friends, Fred would take the tip money off the table. He only ate fast food so he could stock up on the free condiments and napkins. Champion couch surfer and bold moocher, Fred was immune to gainful employment and relationships. He was only happy in the mountains.
Don Lauria of the Bardini Foundation said he never went climbing with Fred because he always had to work and Fred never had a job.
Todd Calfee of Bishop said he wouldn’t hear from Fred for a year or so, then he’d get a phone call: “Hey, it’s Fred, can I come over? I’m three minutes from your house.” Fred wasn’t coming over to chew the fat, Calfee said. Fred would move in, “set his barbs and take over your life.”
Every mountaineer worth their salt wanted to climb with Fred Beckey. Calfee would line up climbers for Fred just to get the old man out of his house. When Calfee moved from Mammoth to Bishop, he never gave Fred his new address.
Documentary filmmaker and mountaineer Dave O’Leske followed Fred around for 12 years for the film, “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey” which was released just before Fred’s death. He told The Sheet, Fred was a celebrity, recognized everywhere there are mountains or rocks.
O’Leske quoted the climber Peter Croft: “Fred’s legendary, halfway to Sasquatch.”
Fred wasn’t a local to the Eastside, but he wasn’t a local anywhere. Fred pioneered climbs on the South Face of Lone Pine Peak, Voodoo Dome and Angel’s Wings. There are plenty of other smaller routes and lines in the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite credited to Fred, but the same could be said for Cascades, Alaska or the Southwest.
He had attempted the Fishhook Arete on Mount Russell several times, always vowing to come back. His last attempt was at age 86 with O’Leske.
He put up thousands of first ascents but his notoriety started with the second ascent of remote Mount Waddington in Canada when he was 19 and his brother, Helmy was 16. In 1954, he made the first ascent of the Northwest Buttress of Denali, then the first ascent of Mount Deborah and the West Ridge of Mount Hunter with Henry Meybohm and Heinrich Harrer, a renounced Nazi befriended by the Dalai Lama.
Climbing was all that mattered to Fred. He and Helmy were inseparable until Helmy was hit by rockfall during a climb and never roped up again.
Fred is the main character in Andy Selters’ book, “Ways to the Sky: A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering.” John Muir and Norman Clyde are in the book, too, but, “No one has climbed more than Fred.”
One of the great mysteries of Fred Beckey is how he financed his trips. He was intentionally aloof and secretive when it came to routes, women and money, Selters said, adding that there are rumors that he was a salesman, dealing tractors and paper or that he would work in department stores to make a couple bucks in the off season then rush off to climb.
He had written several guidebooks, but Fred would say he only made pennies, O’Leske said. There are rumors that he discovered a downed plane in Canada filled cash and gold and that he lived off that booty. O’Leske never found out where Fred’s money came from.
Despite thousands of trips and climbs, Fred never got hurt. He survived by being incredibly cautious, Selters said. “He’s backed off more climbs than my climbing partners have attempted.”
However, “if Fred hasn’t climbed it,” Selters said, “it’s probably not worth doing.”