Discovering the Region: Commentary

16. Fred Beckey

Fred Beckey (1921- ) is renowned in the world of mountain climbing for having made perhaps more first ascents than any other individual. About his childhood in Seattle, Beckey writes:

The story of these early years is one of self-doubt and self-reliance, the excitement and ecstasy of every moment of fresh adventure and a chance for bravery. When I was 13, with the inducement of a sunny day near Olympic Hot Springs, I scrambled up Boulder Peak alone—much to the concern of my parents. For my own good they saw to it I joined the Boy Scouts in West Seattle, where I soon became more versed in the arts of woodcraft and camping (Beckey, 1969:5).

The Boy Scouts led to more experience among the peaks of the Northwest, but to continue growing as a climber Beckey joined The Mountaineers in 1938. The next year he took that organization’s Climbing Course and made 35 summits.

Climbing mountains clearly helped Beckey to overcome the self-doubts he had had as a boy. Additionally, climbing enabled him to “escape from the artificial civilized order and its social and political controls” (11), and put the world in proper perspective. But there was also a competitive dimension to this activity. Even at a relatively young age, Beckey and his fellow climbers sought out peaks that had never before been scaled and tried to ensure that other mountaineers heard about their successes. Like earlier explorers, Beckey aimed to establish not only “the fact of place” but also the fact that he had arrived at that place before any others did. Perhaps out of dissatisfaction with the way that others reported his accomplishments, Beckey turned to writing about his exploits. Beginning with his first publication in 1949, he produced numerous guides to climbing the Cascade Mountains and beyond that became classics among mountaineers. These guides contain historical information on previous expeditions that helped to put Beckey’s own achievements into perspective.

In many ways Fred Beckey’s writing echoes that of Vancouver and Lewis and Clark in its effort to document the first arrival in a place and leave a guide for others to follow. It also emphasizes the details of place—the gulch, or outcropping, or creek about which one needed to know if one was to reach the summit. Finally, like most literature of discovery, Beckey’s greatly emphasizes exterior over interior worlds.

See: Fred Beckey, Challenge of the North Cascades. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1969.

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