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Fred Beckey’s Masterstroke: The Improbable Ascent of Mount Waddington

In 1942 two teenagers set out on one of the boldest adventures of all time: In a sea-to-summit push, they would attempt to climb Mount Waddington, a formidable and remote mountain widely considered the most difficult in North America. Unsupported and cut off from any outside contact, Fred and Helmy Beckey pulled off a masterstroke. Here, for the first time, American mountaineering legend Fred Beckey tells the story.

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Helmy, 16, and I, 19, were ambitious teenage brothers with a plan. We would scale Mount Waddington, the monarch of the Canadian Coast Range that had repulsed 16 attempts and been deemed impossible before it was finally climbed in 1936 by two of America’s foremost alpinists, Fritz Wiessner and Bill House.

Wiessner’s strength, abundant skills on rock and ice, and boldness (he had said he was willing to die for a worthy objective) had resulted in a victory on July 21. His and House’s success on the 2,540-foot southwest face so astounded the mountaineering world that it made the headlines of the Illustrated London News: “The Unclimbable Mount Mystery Climbed at Last!” (At the time, Waddington was known as Mount Mystery, which implies, correctly, that little was known of the mountain.)

Wiessner and House were praised for their conquest of “one of the world’s most formidable mountains.” Wiessner himself said that the climb was no pushover and recounted a frightening event, when “fragments of ice and rock hurtled down at short intervals from the summit ridge.” He added, “Seldom in my 20 years of mountaineering have I climbed a mountain which made such heavy demands on climbing knowledge, on nervous energy, and on daring.”

When I read Wiessner’s remarks, I knew that Waddington was the perfect climb for two Seattle teenagers—six years later in 1942, my brother and I pitched our small tent beneath Waddington’s massive southwest face.

I knew why but kept quiet, not wishing to undermine Helmy’s confidence.Huddled under our canvas shelter Helmy surveyed our stark surroundings and asked, perhaps rhetorically, why no other team had attempted the climb after Wiessner.

Helmy broke the silence to remind me that just four years ago I had climbed Mt. Olympus with the Boy Scouts. Dressed in my pajama bottoms, I had wandered around, poking at the glacier with a long alpenstock, eventually finding my way to the summit. Now look where we were!

This article is part of the Rock & Ice Vault and available to Outside+ members. Become a member today and continue reading here.