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Film Review: Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey

Dirtbag tells the story of the life and times of legendary American climber Fred Beckey

When World War II was in full swing and most people’s attention was focused on battles outside the mountains, two teenage brothers from Seattle, Fred and Helmy Beckey, were quietly making a harrowing second ascent of Mount Waddington in British Columbia. No other human was to step atop Waddington for the next 35 years – it’s that hard. Such was Fred Beckey’s drive for difficult and audacious climbs that he made first ascents of remote peaks as far back as the 1930s and, even more astonishingly, well into the 2000s.

Beckey has been called the most accomplished climber of all time. Revered American alpinist Colin Haley suggests that “the volume of climbing he has done, near and at the cutting edge, is leagues beyond anyone else.” So it seems only fitting that through this new film, Beckey finally gets his moment in the sun, as he is relatively unknown outside the North American climbing community.

Beckey on the eventful 1955 expedition to Lhotse. He was criticized for descending without his weakened partner, who was rescued the next day and survived. This controversy led to Beckey’s non-selection for the 1963 American Everest Expedition. Photo: Fred Beckey Archives

Dirtbag, directed by Dave O’Leske, tells the incredible life story of a man who was deemed to be the original American dirtbag – someone who abandons societal norms and material comforts in pursuit of a nomadic mountaineering lifestyle. Quite simply, Beckey devoted his entire life to the mountains, never marrying, having children or seeking fame.

It’s clear that through his driven and often difficult character, Beckey burned bridges and lost out on numerous opportunities. He was famously shunned from the successful 1963 American Everest Expedition. Many of that party went on to become household names.

That mattered little to Beckey, who was all about the hunt. He burnt through both first ascents and girlfriends like rocket fuel. There is a great quote in the film which sums up this part of his character well: “Beware of Beckey: He will steal your woman, steal your route.” The film is littered with such snippets of Beckey’s colourful character, and his acerbic wit really does bring the picture to life.

However, this rough exterior does a disservice to a man who was a scholar of the mountains. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of peaks, not only across North America but around the world. He took a keen interest in geology and the environment before it became popular to do so. This translated into a literary legacy of thirteen books, which have inspired successive generations of climbers. Beckey defiantly continued climbing until he passed away in October, 2017 at the age of 94.

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Ship Rock, New Mexico. The scene of a 1965 first ascent and one of Beckey’s many notorious falling outs with a climbing partner. Photo: Eric Bjornstad

O’Leske filmed with Beckey for nearly 10 years before his death. He had access to decades worth of photos, personal journals and rare film. The picture blends new interviews and contemporary climbing footage, as well as archival photography and film with quirky animation. It also features a healthy smattering of American climbing royalty such as Layton Kor and Yvon Chouinard.

The result is a quite humbling film: hilarious, emotional and very watchable. Beckey was one of the last of a dying breed. An explorer of new ground. A man whose legacy to the mountains deserves our attention.

FredBeckey-RedRocks-2009-med_Photo-DaveO'Leske
Beckey climbed right up until his death aged 94. Photo: Dave O’Leske

About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer with a PhD in Exercise Science. He lives in the UK and has also written for Rock and Ice, Outside, UK Climbing etc. He recently led a 634km foot crossing of a frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia. See more at www.ashrouten.com.

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