North Cascades, Trip reports, Writing

Of mountains and mountaineers

Storied climber Fred Beckey died on October 30, felled by congestive heart failure at age 94 after a lifetime relentlessly dedicated to putting up routes on peaks around the world. Both Mr. Adventure and I have longstanding connections to Beckey, Mr. Adventure as a former climber and an admirer and me as an historian of the North Cascades. And last Friday, as we drove through unseasonably early snow over two mountain passes on our way to a reading in Leavenworth, we were about to be forcefully reminded of Beckey’s influence in our lives.

As I got organized for my talk, Mr. Adventure chatted with some of the locals. A wiry man named Paul mentioned he’d climbed in the North Cascades with Beckey, adding that the climber was to be buried the next day in the Leavenworth cemetery. What were the odds of this happening, I wondered. We were in town to talk about the North Cascades, and the man who logged dozens of first ascents there was about to be laid to rest in their shadow.

While I signed a few books at the library after my talk, Mr. Adventure asked Paul whether the next day’s ceremony was a public event. “I think so,” the man replied, and gave directions. The interment was scheduled at the same time as my book signing, and Mr. Adventure hesitated. “You should go,” I insisted. “I know you want to pay your respects. If it’s private, they’ll tell you. C’mon, it’s Fred Beckey.”

The original dirtbag

In the climbing community, Beckey is revered. He started climbing with the Boy Scouts, and at 15 bagged the first ascent of Sinister Peak in the North Cascades with REI co-founder Lloyd Anderson. Hundreds of first ascents followed, and Beckey became known as the original dirtbag, personifying the obsessive grip that mountains can exert. To help fund his expeditions, he wrote definitive guides to mountaineering and climbing routes in the Cascades, Alaska, and beyond.

A couple of those guides nestle among dozens of mountaineering books on the shelves in our den, evidence of Mr. Adventure’s own long love affair with the mountains. Before marriage, a mortgage, and a kid, Mr. Adventure summited Denali and the major Cascade peaks, and occasionally still gazes at the top of Mount Rainier with a gleam in his eye. He is well-versed in mountaineering lore, and we’d seen Fred Beckey speak at The Evergreen State College in early 2015. The opportunity to bid farewell to the legend felt serendipitous.

Beckey and the North Cascades

A few of Beckey’s books were particularly important during my research on the North Cascades and are cited in my book, Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park. I am not, nor do I want to be, a technical climber. But much of the North Cascades is steep walls of ice and rock, tilted precariously over remote river valleys. The crown jewel quality of its alpine scenery is what makes the North Cascades so special, but other than some long hikes to high viewpoints, I knew I wasn’t going to see a lot of it in person. That’s where Beckey came in.

In Challenge of the North Cascades and the encyclopedic, three-volume Cascade Alpine Guide (I relied on Volume 2: Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass and Volume 3: Rainy Pass to Fraser River), Beckey’s detailed descriptions of climbing routes and the often-challenging approach hikes helped bring the mountains to life. He worked for years on a comprehensive history of the early exploration of the North Cascades, the doorstop-worthy Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range. I read the book cover to cover, following the exploits of fur traders, military surveyors, and mining prospectors as they attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to make a dent in that mountain fastness. Beckey was a good writer, clear and concise, but his books are classics because he personally knew every place he wrote about. He’d been there, and it showed.

I reviewed Range of Glaciers in the Spring 2004 issue of Pacific Northwest Quarterly:

My review of Fred Beckey's Range of Glaciers, published in the Spring 2004 issue of Pacific Northwest Quarterly and reprinted here by permission. (Courtesy Pacific Northwest Quarterly)
Reprinted here by permission. (Courtesy Pacific Northwest Quarterly)

A river ramble

The next morning, we had several hours before the book signing, so we walked through the town and the string of parks along the river. Leavenworth (population about 2,000) is well-known to many Washington residents for its carefully constructed Bavarian facades, the product of a tourism initiative in the 1960s that reinvented the town after the logging industry left.

But its gorgeous setting on the eastern slopes of the Cascades sets this place apart. Hugged on three sides by the Wenatchee National Forest, Leavenworth is a jumping-off point for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Enchantments, and the southern North Cascades. It’s breathtaking beautiful country, and a fitting final resting place for the peripatetic Beckey, who spent his long life chasing challenging routes and in the process compiled perhaps a thousand first ascents. The temperature hovered in the low 30s, and golden leaves carpeted the trail. The Wenatchee slid lazily by, toward its confluence with the Columbia.

View from Leavenworth's riverfront park.
View from Leavenworth’s Waterfront Park. (Lauren Danner photo)
On Blackberry Island, reached by bridge, a leafy trail is nature's version of the yellow brick road.
On Blackbird Island, reached by bridge, a leafy trail is nature’s version of the yellow brick road. (Lauren Danner photo)
Enchantment Park boasts a fishing hole reserved for anglers under 15 years old.
Enchantment Park boasts a fishing hole reserved for anglers under 15 years old. (Lauren Danner photo)

After quick stops for gingerbread and hot drinks, I headed to the bookstore, and Mr. Adventure for the cemetery..

Happy trails, Fred

While I chatted with the steady stream of bookstore shoppers, Mr. Adventure found the cemetery and joined the Gore-Tex- and microdown-clad crowd of people who’d come to pay their respects. He was invited to a post-burial gathering, but had to decline to get back to the bookstore.

Irises, hydrangeas, and a final bit of dirt for the original dirtbag--and a copy of one of his highly regarded books, <em>Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington</em>, first published by the American Alpine Club in 1949.
Irises, hydrangeas, and a handful of dirt for the original dirtbag–plus a copy of one of his highly regarded books, Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, first published by the American Alpine Club in 1949. (Mr. Adventure photo)
Friends and fans gather graveside at Fred Beckey's interment.
Friends and admirers gather graveside at Fred Beckey’s interment. (Mr. Adventure photo)

Home in the mountains

Signing done and snow imminent, Mr. Adventure and I headed out of Leavenworth, the eventful 24 hours there capped by a dead car battery that delayed our departure another 30 minutes. As we drove home, first over Blewett Pass, through whipping snow at Snoqualmie Pass, and finally over Tiger Mountain summit, I reflected on Beckey. He was one of the last members of a generation of conservationists who fought fiercely to protect wilderness in the Cascades. His weapons of choice were an ice axe and a pen, not political activism. He cared only for climbing. Yet he brought armchair hikers to the mountains as effectively as any environmental group’s documentary film or photo-packed coffee-table book.

I’d say “rest in peace, Fred Beckey,” but I’m pretty sure the eternally restless mountain explorer would think that sounded damned boring. So I’ll just wish him harder routes and unknown peaks.

Read more about Fred Beckey’s life in the New York Times, Climbing, and on The Mountaineers blog. Many thanks to A Book for All Seasons and the fine folks in Leavenworth for a memorable stay and fun events.

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