Beyond and Back: Fred Beckey
by Jeff Johnson
I first met Fred Beckey about 6 years ago at the Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree. He was sitting at a corner booth surrounded by young women (in their 40’s), empty pint glasses, and wearing an ear-to-ear grin. I was told he had more first ascents than anyone in the world. He was in his early 80s and still going at it. We were introduced and the first thing he said to me was, “What?” I hadn’t said anything yet. Aside from his earing aid, which he never uses, Fred was as vibrant and alive as a twenty-year-old. He still is.
Throughout the years Fred has stopped by the Patagonia offices in Ventura to break up his long road trips. It’s always a treat. Everyone in the building can recognize that voice when he enters the photo department and hovers over Jane Sievert’s desk, commenting on photos and offering beta for obscure climbs.
[Above: Portrait of Fred in Ventura. December, 2010. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
We’ve been seeing a lot more of Fred since the inception of his new book: Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs. It has been a massive undertaking. “It took us just over two years from our first visit with Fred in Seattle in November 2009 to getting the printed book in people’s hands in November 2011. But Fred was working on it many years before that,” says editor John Dutton. “It was by far the longest and most complex book we have done to date.
“Fred is meticulous about the details. He is old school and works only on hard copy. He would show up with these hand-written, coffee-stained additions to the book written on the back of scrap paper (fliers to events and library notices primarily) with letters - A, B, C, etc. – on the notes and in the printed manuscript itself showing where each should go. He took the manuscript along with him on his travels and kept it together with various rubber bands, manila folders, and binder clips. It was printed large format on 11 x 17" pages and double-spaced and weighed a ton. I still have a couple of rounds and it takes up almost the whole top drawer of my filing cabinet.”
Project coordinator Jennifer Sullivan: “I’d get these random calls from Fred regarding the book. He would be on some peak somewhere with his cell phone. He never uses his hearing aid so I’d have to yell. Our conversations would get so loud I would have to crawl under my desk so I wouldn’t disturb everyone. I’d be under there half the time, the two of us just yelling at each other.”
To work on the book Fred would often drive down from Washington and on the rare occasion, fly. Each one of us in the creative department has had the pleasure of assisting him: picking him up from the airport, taking him to his hotel room, dinner, lunch, whatever. No matter how mundane the assignment, Fred makes you feel like you are both involved in some special mission. And everyone inevitably ends up with an entertaining story.
In December 2010 Fred came through town to work on the book. He rarely deviated from work and would push on all day and into the night. But this time Fred really wanted to get some climbing in. Yvon Chouinard happened to be in town as well. So they decided to go up to the Sespe Wall above Santa Barbara and climb.
During the 1950s, at the age of 18, Yvon served as an apprentice to Fred. Together they bagged many first ascents, most of which have become classics. It had been 40 years since the two have tied in together. Yvon now 72, and Fred 87, they roped up for two pitches of varied sandstone. Their escapades during their formative years have become legend. It was an honor to hear them recount those times while climbing together once again.
[Yvon and Fred racking up for the Sespe Wall. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
[Fred on pitch 1. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
[Yvon belaying Fred on pitch 2. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
[Yvon and Fred re-hashing old times after the climb. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
Later that week I asked photo editor Jane Sievert if I could take Fred’s portrait. He was a little reluctant because he wanted to focus on the book, but he agreed nonetheless. We set up a time and a place. I was waiting for Fred when I got a call from Jane.
“Look,” she said, “He’s not into it. He just wants to work on the book – doesn’t want to mess around with taking photos. So I had to trick him. I told him I was just re-parking my car and to get in. He’s with me and we’re on the way. You have 10 minutes!”
Though he was sort of duped into it, he was more than accommodating once he arrived. But I could tell he wanted to get on with things. Fred is not one to sit still. I shot two rolls of film in about 15 minutes. Wrapping things up, I looked over and he was rubbing his eyes, probably bored out of his mind.
[Portrait of Fred in Ventura. December, 2010. Photo: Jeff Johnson]
As he was leaving I asked what he was up to after Ventura.
“I’m driving to Jackson Hole,” he said almost yelling. “It’s ski season!”
I pictured Fred, 87 years old, driving through the night on winding mountain roads in winter conditions.”
“Are you going alone?” I said.
“What?” he yelled putting his hand to his ear. The car wound silently out of site.
In the introduction to Fred’s book, Barry Blanchard quotes Tim McAllister declaring Fred as “the grandfather of the road trip”. It couldn’t be truer.
Note: Patagonia Books has taken on some of the most unique and ambitious publications over the years. The authors and photographers do not come out of the blue; they are part of an extended family – the result of long-lasting relationships, which becomes very personal. The process can be both emotionally and physically taxing. It can require sitting in one’s living room sifting through boxes of photographs and notes, recording and transcribing hours of conversations, and a ton of back and fourth correspondence. The result is always rewarding. I would like to applaud those who worked on this book.
Editor: John Dutton,
Book designer: Christina Speed
Project coordinator (probably the toughest job): Jennifer Sullivan
Photo editors: Jane Sievert and Cameron Ridgeway
Production: Rafael Dunn
The topos were drawn from Fred’s originals by Clay Wadman.
Barry Blanchard wrote the foreword.
Jeff Johnson is a freelance writer and staff photographer for Patagonia. His sailing trip from California to Chile was featured in the film 180° South (his writing and photographs also appear in the book). You can tune into Jeff's Beyond and Back series right here on The Cleanest Line.