Photo of Fred Beckey. © North Cascades National Park Archives
Fred Beckey. © North Cascades National Park Archives

I met the incomparable Fred Beckey when I was twenty-nine years old. The legend of this extraordinary mountaineer was well established by that time (he was 64 and still going strong). Those outside mountaineering circles may have never heard of him, but the list of his first ascents will never be surpassed.

If you stood on any peak in the North Cascades and looked out on the hundreds of mountains surrounding you in all directions, almost every climbing route among them would bear the stamp, “First ascent, Fred Beckey.” In all, he was credited with more than 1,000 first ascents of North American peaks.

I had heard a lot about Fred and his exploits through the climbing community grapevine. He was known for being exceptionally frugal. Decades before couch surfing became “a thing” he kept lists of other climbers he met in the back of his car (a pink Thunderbird), so he could grab some sleep in their living rooms on his way to and from climbs. Through a good friend I had also heard that Fred would dial “O” from pay phones (a free call) to ask operators what the weather was like in different parts of the country before he would set off for his next adventure.

Mts_of_North_AmericaIn 1987, Fred was touring the country to promote his impressive coffee table book, “Mountains of North America.” One of his tour stops was at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, where he would deliver a lecture.

I had been working for L.L. Bean for seven years, excepting for the six months the company granted me a leave of absence to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1983. By the time 1987 rolled around, I had secured a position cataloging product samples that were mailed from vendors and people who sent any number of unsolicited items believing they were a “great fit” for our catalog or store (lamp stands made from deer legs come to mind — yeeeech).

I was toiling away one March day when one of the company’s executives walked into my work area and asked, “How would you like to pick up Fred Beckey at the Portland airport tonight? He’s giving a lecture here at 7:00, then you can take him out for dinner at our expense.”

The offer came from so far out in left field, all I could do was grin.

“I take that as a yes.”, he said. “I’ll have my admin give you the details.”

I hadn’t been around famous people much, but I always remembered something my brother, who one morning found himself seated next to Jerry Garcia at a Vancouver, British Columbia breakfast table, had said to me years earlier. Convinced that “Uncle Jerry” must have imparted words of wisdom to my brother, I asked, “What did Jerry Garcia say?”

Without hesitation, my brother responded, “Please pass the syrup.” Those four words helped temper my sense of celebrity awe forever. Instead of being awestruck, I could simply be myself.

Easy to say. On the way to the airport, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe I was giving Fred Beckey a ride. I couldn’t wait to talk about mountaineering with him. I decided I would tamp down my enthusiasm until after the lecture, though.

On the half-hour ride to the lecture hall, Fred didn’t say much. I figured he was in pre-lecture mode. What I do remember is his voice. It was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, only three times faster. “Hey, do you think there’s a place to get a burger and beer after the talk?”, he asked.

Fred’s lecture was fantastic, as one would expect. His photos were stunning. Even more memorable was his reverence for the mountains. To Fred Beckey, mountains were not simply there for the conquering. They were places of grandeur that commanded his absolute respect. And more often than not, they were also his home.

After the lecture crowd thinned out, I took Fred to the Jameson Tavern to get that burger and beer. I couldn’t wait to grab a corner table where we could talk about mountain climbing all night. More accurately, I couldn’t wait to be regaled with his stories until last call.

As we stood at the bar ordering beers, Fred looked up at the TV.

“Oh my God, is that the NCAA basketball tournament?” he asked, his voice even more Jimmy Stewart staccato than before. “Let’s sit here!”

With that, my amazing evening of Fred Beckey mountaineering stories came crashing down. He became so enamored of the game that we hardly spoke after that. And that was just fine. It’s what he wanted and I was his host.

There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.

After we parted ways, Fred Beckey kept right on climbing. In fact, he still organized expeditions well into his 80s.

In a 2008 New York Times article he spoke to what kept him going after more than seven decades of mountaineering:

“You’ve got to be physically pretty strong to be any good at it at all,” Beckey said. “You’ve got to have a hard-core mental attitude. You’ve got to have the right mantra. You’ve got to have dedication, a sense of security, safety and sensitivity with your partners, and a good sense of balance. It’s a combination of many, many things. You need to have the capability or desire to accept a certain amount of risk. A lot of it is maybe spiritual, not a religious type, but you have to have an affinity with the outdoors.” 

He later added, “There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.” [1]

Fred Beckey died last Saturday at age 94. He left an amazing legacy and will inspire many of us for years to come. For my part, I’d choose my “Please pass the syrup” moment with Fred Beckey over never meeting him at all hands down.


[1] (Source: At 85, More Peaks to Conquer and Adventures to Seek. New York Times. Dec. 15, 2008.