November 19, 2011

Fred Beckey

I drove to Tacoma last night to attend a Tacoma Mountaineers-sponsored talk featuring the legendary climber Fred Beckey. The talk was similar to one I’d attended about ten years ago in Olympia, where he showed slides and talked about the climbs he’d done over the decades, ranging from Alaska to Mexico. His voice was strong and his mind was razor-sharp – he didn’t hesitate for an instant as he clicked through the slides – every mountain’s name, every companion, every outcome was on his tongue.

He talked about the mountains with an aesthete’s appreciation, a reverence. For the mountains he showed, he mentioned the form of the peak, the quality of the rock, the interest of the route, or the outcome of the climb. It was almost like he was showing off his friends – each of them was real to him.

I was impressed by his focus on safety. He mentioned abandoning climbs several times, due to safety concerns. He often mentioned climbing at night to avoid hazardous snow conditions. I think this is a result of his appreciation of the mountains. They’re not there for him to conquer; the exist outside, independently of his desire to visit them – he’s there as a suitor, or a student. If the mountain doesn’t let him in, he respects that, and retreats. I don’t know how you get to your seventh decade of active climbing without that perspective. And a little luck.

I had my own teenaged, do-it-yourself climbing period, inspired by his book The Challenge of the North Cascades. I didn’t have the fire to keep it going – and other events intervened – but I continue use the skills I developed during those years in my hiking these days and I still plan trips that call for the freedom of the hills that those skills allow. And I share Fred’s awe and appreciation for the mountains of this special corner of the world.

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