What impresses Fred Beckey, the 89-year-old mountaineer with more first ascents than he can, or at least has bothered to, count, is Madonna’s halftime show.
“I mean that dancing is hard work, you know all those bends and shakes,” he says as he slides into a booth to talk with Boulder Weekly before his Monday night book signing and presentation at the Patagonia store on Pearl Street. “I thought she was really good. I don’t know how she keeps up all that. I mean, talk about energy.”
You could say the same about Beckey. Seventy years after he started pioneering routes up mountains, he’s still chasing new summits. And no, he’s not selling a secret formula to successful mountaineering when you’re on the verge of your 10th decade.
“Just, go out and do it. Just like anything else,” he says. “I don’t do any preparations, really. I go to the gym once in a while, but I really don’t like gyms very well. Just go out hiking, climbing, skiing. Just go out and do it.”
Let him steer the conversation and it’s not about the climbing he’s spent a lifetime doing. It’s about his latest accomplishment, which was published by Patagonia and is far more accessible than many of the peaks he’s topped out.
“I’d really rather talk about the book than about me,” he says. “If you want to get anything about me, you can get all the dirt and junk on Wikipedia.”
Patagonia has recently published Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs, a book more appropriate burdening a table than a backpack, but filled with detailed topographical maps and other route beta. Just enough details to get you fired up to look for something less hardbound and packed with glossy images of historic climbing expeditions that could actually be toted along on a summit attempt.
“I felt it’d be interesting to kind of give a portrayal of what I felt was some of the many, and you can’t do them all, but many of the more memorable climbs,” he says. “I suppose, when you really get down to it, why do people write guidebooks instead of waiting for somebody else to do it? I guess, partly, it’s a matter of feeling the information that you have, you’d like to diffuse it to others and get it out so others get information on routes. Partly, probably, it’s vanity.”
The book is not a catalog of his first ascents, though he’d have had more than enough material to fill the book’s pages.
“I really personally have never gone out really to make first ascents as a target. I haven’t,” says Beckey, who has made more first ascents than any other North American climber. “I admit I have gone out and made climbs because they’re a first ascent, but maybe they, at that time, they appealed to me more than a climb that’s been done, but I mixed it up.”
He didn’t really keep a diary of those, he says, and counting them is tough and he’s not really interested to try.
“I don’t know how many. I don’t. It’s so subjective that it’s kind of meaningless,” he says. “Part of the problem is what’s a first ascent? I mean, a first ascent on a big mountain in the Himalayas is worth a hundred of them at a crag.”
He targeted routes with four or more pitches, and tried to steer around those included in Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s 1979 tome Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (he says there are four duplications).
“I tried to pick climbs that had a certain amount of challenge for any climber but something that wasn’t suicidal,” he says. “It’s tough decision. Maybe you’ve got a hundred friends and who are your best friends?”
Some of the routes are popular and well-trafficked, like Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton, and some are buried so far back in the wilds of Alaska and Canada that they’ve been completed only a handful of times, and it could be decades before anyone does them again, Beckey says.
They did all need to be routes that he had done, or at least made a serious attempt on and gotten close to the summit, he says.
“A few of them I didn’t quite top out on, like Mount Assiniboine. I’ll go back and get it next year maybe,” he says. “I’ve still got a lot of things in mind. There’s always more to do than you have time for. It’s like bar hopping — you can’t do it all.”
A few peaks earned particular mention: Mount Deborah, Mount Hunter and Devil’s Thumb, all in Alaska, are on a list of about 10, he says, that were big and difficult and important.
It’s on a different list, but, 70 years later, the experience of climbing Mount Waddington, also still stands out. The peak is described on SummitPost.org as the highest mountain of the Coast Range of British Columbia, an “incredibly inaccessible, remote, difficult mountain awash in unpredictable weather” and an approach by helicopter is recommended. Beckey completed it at the age of 19 with his 17-year-old brother.
They were the second team ever to reach its summit.
“It might be, at that time, I was more concerned about danger, rock fall, avalanches, the commitment involved because there was only two of us on a climb for six weeks in the field in Canada and we had no communication of any kind. It’s different than today when you have cell phones, satellite phones or maybe aerial contact with planes,” he says. “If you don’t show up in a month at the beachhead where you started from, it’s about that time people are going to start worrying about you, or make a search. If something happened to you it would be way too late anyway.”
Beckey got his start climbing as a Boy Scout, but speculates that geography had something to do with it, too, growing up near Seattle with mountains all around and plenty of opportunities to hike and climb. And although there are more people looking up at those mountains and deciding to spend time in them, it’s still a small activity group, he says.
“If you want to get an idea of how important mountaineering and skiing is, in the general context of activity, all you’ve got to do is go to a grocery store or a book store and see how many magazines there are. There’s two or three magazines about climbing, maybe one, two ski magazines, and there’s at least, at least 10 hot rod magazines, at least, many gardening magazines, knitting, home cooking, domestic magazines,” he says. “Climbing is, I think it’s become far more mainstream, but it’s still a long way to go, which is fine with me. … If climbing became extremely mainstream, like people going out and biking, all converging on the third Flatiron on one Sunday morning, I mean it would be chaos. You’d have a line 100 yards long.”
He’s not, of course, one for those high traffic routes anyway. He knows people who do Mount Rainier every year and says that’s just not for him. He wants the travel.
“I got interested in new routes as something different to do, climbs that people had attempted or had not climbed yet, took maybe more effort to get to them, why, I really don’t know,” he says. “I’m maybe a little bit, by nature, a little bit on the adventurous side, and it’s what I happened to choose to do.”