Obituaries

Fred Beckey, conqueror and chronicler of North American peaks; at 94

Mr. Beckey, ascending Clyde Palisade, Firebird Ridge in Sierra Nevada, in the 1970s.
Courtesy of Fred Beckley
Mr. Beckey, ascending Clyde Palisade, Firebird Ridge in Sierra Nevada, in the 1970s.

NEW YORK — Fred Beckey, a fabled mountaineer and author who was the first to take hundreds of routes to the summits of North America’s tallest peaks in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest in an audacious seven-decade climbing career, died Oct. 30 in Seattle. He was 94.

Megan Bond, a friend of Mr. Beckey’s, said in a Facebook message he died from congestive heart failure in her home.

Raw-boned and tenacious, Mr. Beckey made as many as a thousand ascents that no one was known to have taken before, and he wrote a dozen books on mountaineering, many of them considered definitive guides to the terrain of the continent’s best-known and least accessible peaks.

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Mr. Beckey was virtually unknown to the public, the opposite of Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who, with his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, won fame by conquering Earth’s tallest peak, the 29,029-foot Mount Everest, on the Nepal-Tibet border in 1953.

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Indeed, Mr. Beckey shunned publicity and people. He lived like a hermit in Seattle, holing up to write or vanishing for months on expeditions. He looked like a scruffy hobo — a wiry, stooped nomad with a backpack, a shapeless jacket, dirty pants, and sneakers. But he was all-purpose: the craggy face leathery from sun, wind, and snow; powerful hands scarred with cuts; flyaway hair crushed under a woolen cap; keen eyes for the next toehold; and a toothy smile for the book signings. He never married, never had a business or sought security. Friends said he just wanted to climb mountains.

But to the fraternity of climbing enthusiasts around the world, he was a phenomenon whose exploits above clouds and tree lines at 10,000 to 20,000 feet resounded in mountaineering lore and journals: the achievements of an eccentric daredevil who took on the continent’s last unclimbed peaks and uncharted routes, who probably took more risks than anyone in history.

He wrote guidebooks and lectured for the cognoscenti, Americans and Canadians who appreciated the history, topography, and perilous beauty of their wilderness strongholds, and for those who hoped to test their mettle on glacial escarpments with rope, ice ax, and aching limbs for the reward of standing on the crown of a mountain called Terror or Despair, overlooking a vast panorama of the world.

“If Thoreau and Emerson describe the transcendental American theme, then Beckey — after Ahab, akin to Kerouac — describes the oddly manic drive to scale and map and detail the wilderness in a modern way,” Steve Costie, executive director of the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoor recreation group, told The New York Times in 2008, when Mr. Beckey was in his 72nd year of mountaineering.

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He climbed Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), and Switzerland’s highest massif, Monte Rosa (15,203). But he rarely ventured into the Himalayas straddling the borders of China and India, where a dozen of the world’s greatest summits defied human intrusion for centuries, rising more than five miles above sea level into an otherworldly realm of yawning abysses and air so thin that the human brain and lungs cannot function properly in it.

Mr. Beckey, instead, roamed North America in search of unconquered summits and routes considered too difficult to climb. He often climbed 40 or 50 different peaks a year.

He was not the first to climb Alaska’s Denali (20,310), North America’s highest peak. A team did that in 1913. But in 1954 he and several friends achieved mountaineering’s Triple Crown by reaching the caps of the Alaska Range giants: Mounts Hunter (14,573) and Deborah (12,339) — both in virgin ascents — and Denali’s rarely climbed North Peak (19,470).

In a notoriously dangerous sport, Mr. Beckey sustained a crushed rib cage and another climber, Charles Shiverick, was killed when an avalanche carried them a quarter of a mile down Mount Serra in British Columbia in 1947. An ice pinnacle snared Mr. Beckey’s rope, saving him.

Mr. Beckey, with climbing equipment he stored in the garage of his home in Seattle.
Rod Mar/New York Times/File 2008
Mr. Beckey, with climbing equipment he stored in the garage of his home in Seattle.

In a 1955 international expedition to conquer the world’s fourth-highest peak, Lhotse (27,940) in the Himalayas, Mr. Beckey was denounced by colleagues for abandoning his tent mate with a cerebral edema at 23,000 feet in a howling blizzard the night before they were to attempt the summit. He descended alone, he said, to get help.

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The stricken man, snow-blind and nearly frozen without a sleeping bag, was rescued by others, but it was a misadventure Mr. Beckey never lived down. While he was a compelling choice for the first American team assault on Everest in 1963, he was not invited — a snub that ended his Himalayan forays and confirmed his preference for climbing alone or with a few companions.

Mr. Beckey was caught in shrieking gales, trapped on rock ledges, and buried in avalanches. But he was rarely hurt seriously, a testament perhaps to fine judgments: How to cross a snowfield that might conceal a crevasse? Where to hammer a piton into rock or ice to secure a rope on which life might hang? Where to cling or step when hugging a sheer vertical rock face over an abyss?

“This man survived nearly 1,000 first ascents, where a climber doesn’t know where to go and often has to deal with loose rock,” Peter Green, director of the outdoor program at Portland’s Catlin Gabel School, told The Oregonian in 2012. “It’s amazing he’s still alive. His decision-making and judgment must be so good.”

Wolfgang Beckey was born near Düsseldorf, Germany, to Klaus and Marta Maria Beckey. His father was a surgeon and his mother an opera singer. The family, including a brother, Helmut, emigrated to Seattle in 1925. The boy called himself Fred and learned climbing techniques as a Boy Scout.

His home was plastered with photos of his conquests, including two named for him: Beckey’s Spire, also known as Christianity Spire, in Sedona, Ariz., which he climbed in 1970, and Mount Beckey, an 8,500-foot peak in Alaska’s Cathedral Mountains, which he climbed in 1996.

Friends called him a cantankerous cuss who hated talk about himself. On a mountain, he amazed climbers with his uphill speed and stamina, even in his 80s.

“I guess you have your choice of trying to make money or getting involved with adventure,” Mr. Beckey said in 2007. “Most people get married and by the time they’re 30 they’ve got a couple of kids, and then they’re strapped down. Then they have to work.”