Fred Beckey is a bridge to the roots of the American climbing scene. He was there when it all started. But he has always been more mystery than man. That is, until now.
The feature length documentary Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey premiered this past Memorial Day weekend to a soldout crowd at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colo. It took director Dave O’Leske a decade to finish the project. As it turns out, tracking down and documenting the life of an enigmatic legend is, ahem, hard.
Check out the trailer below to get a feel for the movie.
Beckey has lived a Kerouacian existence since his teenage years. In the early days, climbing gear billowed out of his jalopy, which, with his sleeping bag, served as his rolling home far before “van life” was a hashtag.
Beckey is an American rock climbing pioneer. He put up hundreds of first ascents across North America. If you’ve climbed much in the U.S., it’s likely you’ve followed one of Beckey’s paths. This documentary tells his story.
Fred Beckey: North American Climbing Pioneer
Beckey burst onto the national and international climbing scene in the spring of 1940, when he and his brother Helmy became the first to summit Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades. They weren’t even old enough to legally buy beer.
Soon after, they became the second climbers to stand atop the foreboding Mount Waddington in British Columbia. Beckey was only 19-years-old. It would be 35 years before anyone else summited. That is how legends are born.
A Storied, Private Career
Beckey’s climbing career is longer than most people’s lives. In his 93 years, Beckey has lived a singular, elusive, and accomplished life. He has more North American first ascents than he has hair on his head and has written more than 10 exhaustively detailed guidebooks.
Dirtbag presents Beckey’s many climbing accomplishments, but it is not a climbing movie, per se. Rather, it’s a character study of a societal periphery antihero.
It is the inspiring story of how Fred Beckey became the poet laureate of dirtbaggery, doing by any means necessary. It is the story of how the legend spread.
“I’ve always been completely intrigued by the forefathers of climbing,” said director Dave O’Leske. “They deserve a lot of respect and admiration. Fred was one of those guys whose accomplishments were undeniably incredible, but he was totally under the radar.”
Fred Beckey’s Quiet Legend
Beckey never sought promotion or sponsorship or even occupation out of his love for climbing. His feats of rock route and insatiable appetite to climb (or steal your girlfriend) became campfire folklore. The only thing that outshined Beckey’s triumphs was his desire to do more, and do it right away.
“He could’ve been a successful mathematician or prolific artist,” explained O’Leske. “He was so hyper-focused and passionate and driven, but it just so happens it was all keyed on mountains.”
That is why the film resonates so well with non-climbers. It is an opus to an indomitable spirit. Beckey has not let anything get in the way of his master plan to conquer as much rock as he can in a lifetime. He is a doer, and come hell or high water, even if it means burning bridges and losing friends, he will do.
He has lived in his car, slept in parking lots and drive ways, camped wherever he could lay down, eaten month-old burgers, dumpster dived, worn holey wool sweaters and patched pants from thrift stores, reused seemingly non-reusable items (like holding on to the same disposable coffee cup for several years), and generally eked by with a smile on his face — all in the name of climbing.
Beckey started when he was a teenager and he continues today into his mid-nineties.
“He made conscious decisions to avoid the responsibilities and stability that most of us crave,” O’Leske said. “He had to do that to accomplish what he did, to live his life. It’s not for everybody. He’s a living example of someone who didn’t get sucked into the trap. But it cost him.”
Review – Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey
Dirtbag addresses the issues of a man in the twilight of his loner life. Legacy, mortality, and the weight of a life’s-worth of reflection are the universal driving questions in the film.
For a man who is as secretive and mysterious as he is accomplished, passionate, and persistent, Beckey’s life is inspiring and shocking. He is more than a founding member of climbing. He is the original, the aboriginal dirtbag upon which all skid-rock addicts can be judged.
When the credits rolled and the lights came on in the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, a frail Fred Beckey shuffled onto the stage with the help of two men. The Mountainfilm crowd rose from their seats, stood at attention, and let loose a raucous ovation. It was a well-deserved tribute.
Beckey cracked a half smile and cocked his head slightly. He brought his right hand to his brow and saluted the crowd, then nodded. And as softly as he entered, he turned, and, just like that, POOF…Beckey was gone. That is how legends live forever.
Learn more about the man and the movie, and sign up for updates and screenings online.