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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Climbers

Oct 31, 2017

Fred Beckey, Legendary American Climber, Dies at 94

Fred Beckey, the American climber whose list of epic first ascents reads like a history of North American climbing in the twentieth century, passed away yesterday.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

The East Ridge of Devil’s Thumb, in Alaska; El Matador, on Devils Tower in Wyoming; the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Slesse, in British Columbia; the West Ridge of Mount Hunter, in Alaska; The Beckey-Chouinard, on South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos, British Columbia. Fred Beckey’s climbs litter the ranges of North America, and the routes he authored tell the story of climbing in the twentieth century.

On Monday, October 30, Fred Beckey, one of the most prolific American climbers and a pioneering first ascentionist, passed away at 94 years old. Climbers young and old lamented the loss of the community’s elder-most statesman. And, up until his last day, Beckey was still gunning for more time in the mountains. In Outside magazine’s obituary, Beckey’s friend Megan Bond said, “We were planning another trip to the Himalaya for next spring. He had a lot more to do.”

While Beckey’s profile among dilettante climbers never reached the levels of his climbing contemporaries—like Edmund Hillary—or compatriots—like Yvon Chouinard—among serious climbers he was as revered as they come.

Fred Beckey hitchhiking and holding a sign that reads, “Will Belay for Food!” in South Lake Tahoe, California. Photo: Corey Rich.

Beckey was born in 1923 in Dusseldorf, Germany, and came to the United States with his parents at two years old. He cut his teeth climbing in the Pacific Northwest in the Cascades and the Waddington Range, and in 1942 made the second ascent of Mt. Waddington with his brother.

Perhaps his best year ever in the mountains was 1954, when he made the first ascents of Mount Hunter (4,442 meters) and Mount Deborah (3,761 meters), and pioneered a new route on Denali via the peak’s Northwest Buttress.

Though he roamed North America untrammeled and enjoyed unrivaled successes, Beckey’s climbing in the Himalayas invited controversy. On an expedition to Lhotse in 1955, Beckey left his ailing partner high on the mountain, ostensibly to go get help. According to an obituary in The New York Times, Beckey’s partner, “snow-blind and nearly frozen without a sleeping bag, was rescued by others, but it was a misadventure that Mr. Beckey never lived down.”

Fred Beckey during the 1955 Lhotse expedition. Photo: Fred Beckey archives.

Having been burned in the Himalayas, Beckey continued to focus on the shorter but harder hidden gems in the North American ranges. The 1960s were another fruitful decade for Beckey, with famous climbs like the first ascent of Mount Slesse’s Northeast Buttress, a route that would go on to be included in Steve roper and Allen Steck’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America. (Beckey established a disproportionate seven of the 50 classics on the list. Among them are his previously mentioned climbs on Mount Hunter, South Howser Tower and Devils Thumb.)

Fred Becky (left) with Eric Bjornstad. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Bjornstad.
Fred Beckey in the mountains. Photo: Don Liska.

In his later decades, Beckey maintained an undimmed passion for climbing of all types. A photo of Beckey in his early 80s, standing on the side of a road, draped in climbing gear and holding a cardboard sign upon which the words “Will Belay For food!!!” are scribbled gets to the heart of the man. Patagonia used the photo, taken by Corey Rich, in an advertisement in 2004. In “STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: The Creative, Spontaneous Life of Fred Beckey,” Rich writes that the advertisement “really seemed to provoke a positive, emotional response in people. Part of that is because Fred really has set the bar for what it means to be dedicated to the climbing life, and this photo captures what Fred represents to the climbing community.”

“But,” Rich continues, “the real reason the photo works is that it goes beyond being just a representation of an abstract ideal; it captures who Fred is genuinely … This photo IS Fred Beckey, through and through.”

A documentary film about his life and climbs, Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey, is currently making the rounds at film festivals. Keep an eye out for a screening near you to learn more about Beckey and his singular influence on North American climbing.

Fred Beckey in front of Shiprock in 2016. Photo: Dave O’Leske.

Feature Image: A portrait of Fred Beckey, legendary first ascensionist, mountaineer and rock climber, in Lover’s Leap climbing area, just outside of Lake Tahoe, California in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo: Corey Rich.

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Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

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