He was called dirt bag, even in the film about him that premiered this year, although he himself rather disliked that description. But actually he didn’t care about what others said about him anway. He just wanted to climb. And really just climb. He refused to have a professional career or even to have enough money. Uncompromisingly, through to his old days. »He chose to eschew climbing fame, financial security, marriage, and all other aspects of the ‘American dream’ in pursuit of climbing, back when it was an unheard of choice,« Colin Haley said in a speech about Beckey in 2015.
Fred Beckey became 94 years old, although he never quit climbing, again, through to his old days. And he died a natural death. Well, what is a natural death for a climber with this history? Beckey’s the climber with the biggest record of first ascents in America. Simply a legend. Moreover he was a chronicler and historiograph. Someone who’s being adressed with demands to judge accomplished climbs.
In a nice and detailed article about Beckey by Alpinist Magazine, Beckey’s friend Megan Bond is quoted:
I know Fred mostly never wanted to be considered a “dirtbag”…. He actually worked a TON [and] saved every cent—he was not a bum…. He was not only a climber, but an academic in every sense of the word—a scholar of the mountain world: terrain, flora, fauna, geology. He was meticulous in his research, careful with his relationships, protective of wild places, and never wanted to die in the mountains. He out-climbed two generations, and outlived three. He made numerous trips to the Himalaya, many of these in the last 30 years, interested in uncharted landscapes, or at least untrodden…. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, was the king of one-liners. He would become so one-thousand-percent fixated on a topic or project that there was no rest for anyone in his orbit until it was finished and complete; he hated to leave things undone. Most important to him in friendships was loyalty. If someone made a commitment to him to spend time with him and cancelled or didn’t follow through, he would continue to be gracious to that person, but the trust would be gone. Time was critical, and not to be wasted.
The legend goes that he was ignored in the selection for the first American Everest expedition in 1963 due to his dirt bag image. But actually, he seemed to have disliked such big team efforts anyway. Probably the dirt bag image is equivalent to what in German is called Bergvagabunden (mountain vagabond), as in the old alpinist folk song. Or a climbing bum: just living for and in the mountains, subsiding almost on nothing. Almost unimaginable, given today’s hype and an incredibly large outdoor industry with its colourfully dressed urban customers imprisoned in the rat raced of their work-life-balances, or should I say: earn-spend-balance.
No surprise, Beckey said about his desire to climb: »For me, the appeal of climbing has many sources: a longing to escape from the artificial civilized order, a need for self-rejuvenation, a desire to restore my sense of proportion. When you are climbing, you experience freedom from constraints.«
Still, Beckey was not outside of the system. But to a wide extent he gave a shit. Or a dirt; a dirt bag. Maybe he was an outsider in the best sense of the word. Almost unimaginable.
Read the entire Alpinist article here.