A Day in the Cascades with Fred Beckey
Fred Beckey revisits the West Face of North Early Winter Spire in the North Cascades of Washington.
Editor’s Note: Fred Beckey, one of the most influential climbers of all time and the original American Dirtbag, passed away on October 30, 2017 in Seattle, Washington at age 94.
In the summer of 2012, as the realization of his fast approaching 90th birthday started to seep into his consciousness, Fred Beckey began revisiting some of his classic first ascents from the 1960s. At the top of his list was the ever-popular West Face (5.11-) of North Early Winter Spire, a six-pitch route set in the craggy alpine milieu of Washington Pass.
One July morning, while presiding over an American Alpine Club Executive Committee conference call, I heard the familiar beep-beep of an incoming call. It was Fred. Deep into the AAC discussion, I let it roll to voicemail. Three minutes later, another call. Fred again. A few moments after that call, a friendly jingle tells me that I have not one, but two new voicemails.
My conference call ends, and I listen. Fred’s first message is an enthusiastic and detailed run-on sentence. He is proposing a weekend trip to Washington Pass to climb the West Face of North Early Winter Spire. His message includes a weather forecast, a list of potential third partners, a gear list, estimated driving time, and more. His ramblings end abruptly when he is cut off by the three-minute voicemail limit, so he calls again to leave a second message.
“Mark, Fred Beckey here again. Yeah. I don’t know what happened with my damn phone. I got cut off for some reason… I can never figure out all of this technology. Anyway, yeah, I think we should head up there. The weather looks good and it’s a really fine climb. I might not be able to lead the 11a pitch but I can probably follow it OK. Yeah. And we should get some really strong young guy, maybe Adam, it’s always good to have a third guy, and he can carry my pack. (Laughs). Yeah. So call me and we can work it out. I think the weather looks pretty good—high pressure—so we should be OK. So give me a call buddy, yeah. OK, alright, bye.”
Four days later, my car is packed with gear and I’m steering through the countless curves en route to Washington Pass. Adam Baylor sits in the back seat while Fred stares out the window. Adam is studying the “Cascade Alpine Guide,” musing about Fred’s early exploits. “Did you know that he did the first ascent of Liberty Bell in 1946? Dude, that was 66 years ago—and he was only 23 at the time.”
With his hearing aid turned off, Fred is oblivious to Adam’s adulations.
While listening to Adam, I glance at Fred, who is deep in thought. I wonder what he’s thinking about. Was it his 1966 first ascent of the nearby NE Buttress of Mt. Goode, one of the last great problems of its day? Or is he marveling at the fact that we are zipping up the North Cascades Highway at 60 miles per hour, and that back in the day we’d be on foot, humping loads for 20 miles? Or is he wondering if we’ll get to the Mazama General Store in time to score a fresh huckleberry pie? In any case, I appreciate that his perspective is singular—informed by seven decades of obsession and countless adventures. Nobody knows, or sees, the North Cascades like Fred.
♦ ♦ ♦
It’s barely 6 a.m. and a first beam of sunlight has already reached the foot of my sleeping bag. A singsong chorus of birds celebrates the new day, and Adam’s MSR stove begins to roar. It seems that everything and everyone is coming to life—except Fred. Despite the clink-clank of pots and pans and the slamming of car doors, Fred is powering through his 11th hour of uninterrupted sleep. Fred’s climbing achievements, I conclude, are second only to his ability to sleep. He is a world-class snoozer, and unlike me, has yet to invest in a deluxe, full size Thermarest. His boney frame rests peacefully on a sliver of foam less than a quarter inch thick.
Fred eventually rises, and our adventure begins. As we shuffle along the three-mile approach to North Early Winter Spire, I start to worry about time. Our relatively late start, casual hiking pace, and the anticipation of moving our threesome up and down a six-pitch 5.11 begin to weigh on me. I ask Adam if he has a headlamp. He smiles and winks; we both know we’re in for a long day.
On the hike to North Early Winter Spire we intersect with dozens of climbers who recognize Fred. They approach me in respectful, hushed tones. “Excuse me, but I have to ask, “Is that Fred Beckey?” I nod, and encourage them to make an introduction, while pointing out that it’s not necessary to whisper around a guy who stashed his hearing aids in the car. Fred, of course, has grown used to all of this fawning, and graciously cooperates with the barrage of handshakes, autographs and photo opportunities.
I’ve always been amazed by the capacity of the human brain. Fred is a case in point. The familiar experience of the Blue Lake trail stokes his cavernous memory, and the stories start to flow. For the next two hours we are treated to an assortment of anecdotes that span six decades. He shares detailed tales of the multi-day hike from Twisp to the Liberty Bell group—then the shortest approach. He tells us about the abundance of pesky bears in a pre-bear spray world. We hear about the primitive gear of the era, most of which was half as strong and twice as heavy as today’s options. For Adam and I, the pace feels insufferably slow, but Fred’s historic perspective is priceless. Our imaginations visit an unregulated Huck-Finn world before the modern-day realities of parking passes, permits and poop bags.
By noon we’re still an hour from the base of the route, and our hiking pace continues to wane. Fred, who is recovering from a respiratory infection, tells us that he isn’t feeling up for the climb. We take a break. I really want to see this climb through Fred’s eyes and remind him that we’ve still got plenty of daylight. But the truth is that I am conflicted. All day I have been toggling back and forth between two mindsets. One minute I’m with the larger-than-life, invincible Fred Beckey—a man who has made countless first ascents and never had a life-threatening epic. The next minute I’m with a frail, vulnerable, almost ninety-year-old man who probably should not be left alone.
Adam and I chat and share our concerns with Fred. He makes it clear that he can’t go on, but insists that he is happy to enjoy the comfort of the alpine meadow while we climb. “You guys go ahead,” he says. Then, with a wry smile, he diffuses the situation with a self deprecating Fred-ism. “I’m about 150 years old, so I need to take a nap. I’ll be fine waiting here.”
Fred’s decision not to participate on the climb gives us a glimpse of his well-tuned self-preservation gene. Despite his burning desire to climb, he is well aware of his own limitations. His judgment and mountain sense have kept him alive for 77 climbing seasons.
Adam and I spend the next several hours jamming, stemming and lay backing our way up the West Face. The climbing is clean, well protected and spectacular. Unlike Fred on his 1965 ascent, we are armed with state-of-the-art gear and a detailed route description, making the outcome reasonably certain. As I torqued my fingertips into the crux finger crack, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to be the first human being to make this passage. I am in awe of Fred’s adventurous spirit, and his embrace of uncertainty. Fueled by skill and intuition, he was a granite astronaut, enthusiastically launching into an unknown vertical world.
We completed the West Face without incident, and soon rejoined Fred where we left him five hours earlier. I expected him to be chomping at the bit, packed and anxious to start hiking back to the car. Instead, he was sound asleep in the meadow, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Adam and I sorted gear and watched Fred rest. His breathing was slow and steady as the late afternoon sun arced across his body. For some reason the black flies that were buzzing around our heads were ignoring Fred. I chuckled as I imagined a meeting of the North Cascades Association of Insects, who unanimously agreed that Fred Beckey is so special that he should be left alone.
Fred eventually awoke, and was happy to see us. He asked about our climb, recalling specific details with remarkable clarity. His vicarious interest in our adventure was genuine, and he seemed pleased to hear that we found the route to be a challenge. After reliving the highlights for about twenty minutes, I began to get antsy, and realized it was now me chomping at the bit. With the climb in the bag and the weekend drawing to a close, my mind had already transitioned to the home front, where routines, responsibilities and loved ones await. Fred, by contrast, was in no hurry to go anywhere.
I gently reminded Fred that the hike back to the car will take us a while, and began to help him pack his rucksack. As he slowly pulled himself together, his lack of urgency suddenly made sense to me. Adam and I were both eager to get back to the car and start driving to the place we call home. But Fred, who was lounging comfortably in the heart of the North Cascades, was already home.
Please feel free to add your favorite memories of Fred in the comments below.