That Time Fred Beckey Shocked Even The Lumberjacks

He was known for this first ascents, which remain unequalled for volume and quality, and for detailed guidebooks. What isn't known is how his monomaniacal drive to climb and document sometime got Fred into hairy situations.

Photo: Fred Beckey/Eric Bjornstad Collection

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The year was probably 1978 and Fred Beckey was working on his massively updated, three-volume Cascade Climbing Guide series. The year before I had started Liberty Bell Alpine Tours, a climbing school and guide service located in Mazama, Washington, with a long-time climbing partner of mine, Mark Hudon.  Having arrived in Mazama fresh from a successful season of big walls in Yosemite, we set upon the granite around Washington Pass with a vengeance, completing many of the memorable classics including, of course, several Beckey routes. We also managed a few short new ones.

Somehow Fred heard about our adventures and out of the blue he called me one day. I was, of course, quite surprised and honored that a climbing legend such as Fred would even know who I was, never mind actually finding out how to contact me and making the call. Fred explained that he was working on a new project, and would appreciate some help on it.  In true Beckey style, he wouldn’t divulge even a snippet of what this project might be, and I was sworn to secrecy even though I had no idea what the secret was that I was supposed to keep. Of course I would later find out that Fred kept even the tiniest aspects of his life a secret—from his mountain conquests to his female ones.

Fred asked me to meet him in a few days at a dingy bar in Marblemount to discuss his project. Normally I would have scoffed at the idea of someone wanting me to drive two hours to talk about who knows what, but this was Fred Beckey, and I was intrigued so I agreed to meet him.

I arrived on a rainy fall night and as I got out of my van Fred roared up in a beat-up old station wagon, bounced into the pot-holed, dirt parking lot and doused me with mud. Either he didn’t notice or didn’t care.  Probably both.

Fred Beckey on the Improbable Ascent of Mount Waddington

He jumped out, then dove back into the back door of his car into a pile of books and papers and maps and clothes and other assorted junk. Mumbling to himself, he gathered up a big armful of paperwork and headed for the door of the bar.

Marblemount in 1978 was not a tourist town. No, it was still very much a logging town and on a rainy fall night there was not much more for the local loggers to do than sit around the bar telling lies, drinking whiskey and playing pool. Which was exactly what they were doing when Fred burst in the door with his armload of junk, me following close behind. We sat down at a sticky wooden table and ordered a beer.

Fred explained that he was updating his Cascade Alpine Guide and had heard that I had recently done a lot of climbing around the Liberty Bell area, including a new route on South Spire. He was hoping I could go over his route descriptions and make any corrections that might be necessary. I was immediately impressed with not only his knowledge, but his thoroughness and tenacity in being sure that every detail was perfect. I went over his notes for some of the routes I had done and made a few comments. He was very attentive and far more detail-oriented than my memory was capable of recalling. “So when you went around that corner on the fourth pitch, was that small bush still there?”

“Fred, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t notice.”

The author, circa early 1970s, in Yosemite. (Photo: Eric Sanford Collection)

He fumbled through a pile of notes and papers. “Oh, well yes, that’s OK, that’s OK.  How about on the next pitch, was there a fixed 3/4-inch angle about half way up?”

“Sorry Fred, don’t remember that one either. We were trying to move pretty fast, as I recall.”

This went on for a few minutes and by then there were maps and notes and topos spread all over the table and floor. “Well this will never do,” Fred finally said. “We need a bigger table.” He stood up and looked around the dimly lit room and his gaze stopped, unfortunately, at the only large, well-lit table in the place. The one with the green felt top. The pool table.

Without a hint of hesitation Fred marched over to the table where a couple of strapping woodsmen were engrossed in a game. “Say fellas, we need this table for a few minutes. You don’t mind do you?”

The bigger guy (defined as the one who happened to be even taller than his smaller 6’2″ tall friend), wearing the logger standard steel-toed leather boots, plaid wool shirt and muddy denim pants held up by stained red suspenders, stared down at Fred as if he has just seen a Martian. “What

Chasing the Spirit of Fred Beckey

“Yeah,” said Fred, entirely oblivious of the size and nature of the threat standing before him. “We just need it for a few minutes. That table we are on isn’t big enough. We’ll just be a few minutes.”

And with that—I am not making this up—Fred proceeded to unroll a tattered pile of USGS topo maps right on top of their pool game. Right smack on top. I don’t know if he didn’t realize that there were actually balls on the table or if he thought that his personal balls were even bigger and harder than the ivory ones, but that’s what he did. For the first time in my life, I wished I was actually smaller than my 5’5″ frame.  A lot smaller.  Like…. invisible small.

The two loggers took a step back, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Here is this tussle-haired, rumple-clothed, 50-year-old lunatic and his midget sidekick simply taking over their pool table in the middle of a game? What in hell was going on here—are we on candid camera???

As I frantically searched the room for a back exit, Fred motioned me over. “OK, now the approach to this route…. did you go in from the south over this pass or did you find a way from the other side? I think it might be possible to come in from the west, if you look real close here. Do you remember what it looked like?”

I glanced at the bartender as I meekly padded over to Fred. The bearded bartender was not happy, and was carefully eyeing the two loggers as they exchanged glances. The entire bar was bone-dead still. I thought I heard the click of a shot-gun hammer being cocked from behind the bar but I couldn’t be sure since the adrenaline was pounding so hard in my head.

I stood next to the table in a daze as Fred babbled on about approaches and elevations and good bivy sites while I nodded in agreement with anything he said. “Yes Fred, that’s good.  Perhaps we should go back to our table now. Yes, Fred, I’m sure you’re right. Shouldn’t we wrap this up and let these fine fellows finish their game? Yes, Fred, that’s just what I remember too. Probably time to head out now, huh?”

The minutes went by like years as Fred unfolded more maps, and piles of yellow notes fell on the floor. Still no one moved.  Like me, they were all in shock. Unlike me, they were not ready to frantically bolt out the door any second.

After perhaps 10 minutes Fred decided that he had enough information and with one big swoop of his arms he gathered up all his paper, glanced around the room, gave a friendly ‘Thank you, boys‘ to the loggers, and headed for the door. I ran to open it for him as we stumbled out into the welcome rain. He piled the notebooks and maps into the back seat of his station wagon, shook my hand and thanked me for all my help. “You driving back to Seattle tonight?”I asked him.

“Oh no, no. I have to be in California tomorrow morning for a meeting with some people,” he mumbled. I have a lady waiting for me tonight down there. Quite a dish, quite a dish.  I gotta hit the road. Thanks again.  You think of anything else, you let me know, OK?”

And with that he jumped in, the dilapidated wagon roared to life, lurched forward—once again covering me with mud—and Fred was off.

North American Climbing Legend Fred Beckey Passes Away



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