OUTCLIMB – Fred Beckey, the pioneering climber who died Oct. 30 at age 94, inspired Spokane mountaineer Chris Kopczynski and some of the biggest names in climbing.
Beckey was a climbing bum but in many ways king of the rocks and ice.
Asked for a perspective on Beckey, who occasionally crashed at Kop’s Spokane home as he traveled through he Northwest, Chris said, “It comes down to five words he whispered to me about 35 years ago.”
But first he referred to the perspective of other giants in climbing.
In 1969, Kopczynski tried to do a climb in Europe with Yvon Chouinard. The timing didn’t work out, but Kop was able to sit with Chouinard on the plane to Amsterdam. Chouinard, a legendary climber himself and founder of Patagonia, told Kop that Beckey held the highest honor of all his climbing associates.
“Pete Schoening of K2 fame told me the same about Beckey, and noted that Fred was the most competent mountaineer of all climbers,” Kop said.
Kop noted ‘professional jealousy’ about Beckey in the Seattle area in the 50s and 60s, and skepticism about his role in writing popular guides to the routes he and his brother, Helmut, pioneered in the Cascades and beyond.
“If Beckey had a ghost writer it could have been a friend of Yvon’s , as they were close friends, and I’m pretty sure Yvon bankrolled Fred for some of his finest coffee table-type books.”
The Mountaineers Books in Seattle also may have helped Beckey produce books in his name.
“I know that in his downtime Fred spent hours on research in libraries. His great friend Megan Bond told me Fred spent ‘most of his time reading.’ No TV, no iPhone.
“On the expeditions I took with Fred, he kept a notebook and took meticulous notes.”
Kop first met Beckey in the late 1970s and eventually joined him on four major expeditions.
“The first was an attempt to climb Mount Hesperus, the highest peak in the Revelations in Alaska.
“The second was to Mount Bear, 14,829 feet, in the St. Elias Range. Incidentally, the first ascent of Mount Bear was by Gary Silver of Spokane the year after Fred and I failed on it.
“The third expedition was to try and climb an unnamed 8,800-foot peak in the North Cascades above Mazama.
“The fourth was a first-ascent attempt of the Fox/Dawson ‘S’ couloir after crossing the Illecillewaet Glacier south of Rogers Pass (Canada).
“All four of these expeditions we failed to make the summits because of rotten weather or bad snow conditions. In all those weeks with Fred we never made a summit, but I gained some insight and learned so very much about his extremely careful calculations for risk taking, especially when it came to weather.
“He turned around as many times as he succeeded. When he took a chance it was after excruciating planning.”
Maybe that’s why he’s a world-class climber who lived into his 90s to die of natural causes at home.
Perhaps the only thing equal to Beckey’s love for the mountains was his love for women, Kop said.
“He was very much heterosexual,” he said. “He had many women lovers. He told me he had to be real careful about his feelings of love because, as he put it, ‘I really love the mountains.’
“Fred also loved science and geology to a fault. He just rambled on and on in the St. Elias Range about ‘what an astounding planet we live on!’
“He rambled on about how these peaks were once part of ‘an island arc’ tortured by metamorphism. He took notes about the metamorphic rocks on the trek out down the Barnard Glacier.
“To me, Fred loved life and adventure above any other spiritual or human persuasion. He was extremely shy around crowds and shunned any spotlight on himself.
“I once tried to pry his age out of him and he nearly attacked me physically. He was a completely different person in the city. He was very careful with his climbing friends, and those five words he told me still sum up my image of the man.
“‘I really love the mountains.’
“That sums up the Fred I knew. A true pioneer, he stayed focused and dedicated – for more than seven decades – to his true love.
“There will never be anyone like him again in my mind.”