All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien


Athletes & Explorers

Feb 28, 2019

The Last Belay: Fred Beckey’s Final Climb

Hailed as one of the most prolific and pioneering climbers of all time, Fred Beckey almost became a myth in his own lifetime, with stories of his climbs often passed on by word of mouth.


Ambrose Bittner

In August of 2017, I and a few friends went rock climbing at Squamish, British Columbia, with another old friend who hadn’t been getting out much recently. I’d first climbed with this friend nearly thirty years ago, and we’d had a few great, spur-of-the-moment adventures together in the BC Coast Range and the Cascades. Although we both continued to climb extensively—he more than I—we hadn’t climbed together in the last twenty years.

We went to a crag that would be readily accessible and easy to toprope. My old friend was tentative—to the point that he wasn’t sure he even wanted to put on his harness or rock shoes. So we just let him watch and think while the rest of us gave various climbs a try.

I think that seeing our enjoyment on the rock-inspired him, and after an hour or so, he worked up the gumption to gear up and be ready. For a while, he continued to sit in his wheelchair and look at the rock, as if wondering whether it would be worth it to try something that would have felt simple when he was in better shape, but might seem extremely difficult now, when he was no longer sure that his body would rise to the challenge.

Eventually, he announced that he wanted to give it a shot. With the rope tied into his harness and his rock shoes on, supported by two people, he managed to amble the fifteen feet to the base of a crack and start climbing up the clean, warm granite cliff. I belayed him, while the others gave a helping hand and pointed out holds and places to put his feet. His gnarled hands remembered how to grip the rock and use the constrictions in the crack to hoist himself up. But I kept a tight belay, cheating a bit by pulling him up with the rope as much as I could. I wanted the experience to be positive for him.

He climbed up about five or six feet on that first go, before saying he’d had enough and going back to his wheelchair to rest. We were all a bit disappointed because we could sense his frustration as he groused about not feeling better. But we were enjoying the perfect afternoon and we climbed some more while he watched.

To my surprise and admiration, he decided to give it another try. So, I belayed him again and kept it tight while the others assisted, once more, pointing out the holds and even placing his feet so they wouldn’t slip. This time, he struggled up about ten feet, impressing us all before his muscles lost their energy, and I lowered him to the ground.

My friend turned ninety-four years old earlier that year. He passed away less than three months later. He was my mentor at times, and an idol of sorts. By being able to observe his dedication to climbing until near the end of his life, he gave me the gift of knowing that adventure is always possible and should be pursued—because it gives purpose to your life and relationships and others will want to be a part of it.

He was Fred Beckey, and I’m glad to have known him.

Fred Beckey was born in 1923 in Germany, but his family moved to Seattle in 1925. It’s there, as well as the mountains of the world, that he called home until his death in 2017. He became a climber through the Boy Scouts and began exploring the Cascade and Olympic mountains of Washington State as a teenager. At the age of 16, he made the first ascent of Mt. Despair in 1939. Still a teenager, he and his younger brother put the North American mountaineering community on notice when they made the second ascent of Mt. Waddington in the remote British Columbia Coast Range in 1941. He logged hundreds more first ascents throughout his life

Despite climbing being the central focus of his life, he never worked as a guide or instructor. He received a college degree in 1949 and made a living doing odd jobs, writing projects, and writing mountaineering guidebooks for the Cascade Mountain range in Washington State—the bibles for any aspiring or experienced mountaineer in the state. In the process, he became an expert on geology and a true historian. He authored more than a dozen books and contributed hundreds of reports to the American Alpine Journal and Canadian Alpine Journal. He was well known to his climbing partners for having a gruff, irascible personality with an unmatched focus. He continued to climb and ski until months before his death of natural causes at the age of 94. Fred is the subject of the documentary Dirtbag: the Legend of Fred Beckey.

All photos by the author, Ambrose Bittner, of Red Lantern Journeys.

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Mar 19, 2019

Is ‘Sidecountry’ a Four-Letter Word?

A team of Avalanche experts define the word, and discuss how to deal with the phenomena. Do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive, or shape the definition and attempt to harness its power?


This article originally appeared in The Avalanche Review, a trade and scientific journal serving the American Avalanche Association Membership. It was written by Scott Savage, Simon Trautman, Ethan Greene, and Doug Chabot.

Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience and WHAM! – we are lost somewhere in a very successful feedback loop. Ski area avalanche professionals and backcountry avalanche forecasters, however, are scratching their heads about how to deal with the phenomena; do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive in its tracks or do we embrace the term, shape the definition to benefit our mission, and attempt to harness its branding power to educate the various user groups that recreate in terrain adjacent to ski areas?

One of the great slopes on Gornergrat with plenty of sidecountry opportunities, near the top, with the ever-distracting Matterhorn in the distance. Location: Zermatt. By Doc Searls Santa Barbara, USA

Currently, defining sidecountry is similar to defining pornography; people disagree on a formal definition but you know it when you see it. In our opinion, sidecountry is very useful term for describing a certain combination of human behavior and geography. It is intuitive because most people understand that sidecountry refers to the terrain adjacent to ski area boundaries. This terrain is easily accessed, easily “lapped”, and in many cases highly visible. Observing this reality and thinking about the term in a geographical and behavioral sense is important because it showcases the idea that sidecountry terrain is used differently than backcountry terrain, and as such, suggests that sidecountry users may have different needs than those traditionally addressed in avalanche education. We believe that using the term benefits avalanche professionals by allowing them to relate to audiences and be succinct when speaking, writing, or educating on sidecountry topics.

“Sidecountry is backcountry”

“Sidecountry is backcountry” is a recently coined phrase that is also highly descriptive and accurate regarding particular aspects of sidecountry. Sidecountry avalanche rescue is effectively a backcountry rescue – regardless of the proximity to a ski area, organized rescue may not arrive in time. Since ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain, the phrase is probably an effective tool to communicate avalanche danger, especially to novice and casual sidecountry users. “Sidecountry is backcountry” is a simple message that is easy to understand. There is power in this: power to educate, power to simplify, power to feel that one is addressing the problem. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a simple problem or a singular, simple user group.

Ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain.

Novice, casual, and experienced sidecountry users have different levels of expertise, attitudes, decision-making techniques, and educational needs. In addition, novice and casual users are highly influenced by experienced users. A cursory look at recent sidecountry accident and near-miss reports reveals that experienced sidecountry users appear to be involved more frequently than the less experienced individuals. The experienced group generally visits the same sidecountry terrain frequently enough to become familiar with terrain features, may actively manage or mitigate avalanche hazard (slope cuts, cornice drops, etc.), and at times may have more intimate knowledge of the slope-scale snowpack structure and stability than local avalanche professionals. Most importantly, an “I’m going there because it’s there and I want to ski” attitude seems to be common; experienced users access the terrain and then decide whether to mitigate or avoid hazard or just forge ahead. Will telling these more risk tolerant individuals that “sidecountry is backcountry” reduce their risk? Will it help us communicate with them? Sidecountry may be the same as backcountry in some ways, but routine sidecountry users and backcountry users are disparate user groups.

Skilled, experienced professional avalanche educators can create effective sidecountry-specific educational programs and presentations. As we have learned while reaching out to snowmobilers, relevancy is everything. Just as force-feeding traditional avalanche education to someone who never gets off their sled is ineffective, so too is drawing a “backcountry box” around someone who skis out-of-bounds 50 days a year, but rarely or never uses skins or established backcountry stability evaluation and decision-making techniques. Sidecountry is a growth market for snow sports equipment and clothing manufacturers, and these companies may be interested in supporting educational and outreach efforts to sidecountry users (their customers). Instead of abandoning or over-simplifying the term, maybe the ski and avalanche community would be well served to take advantage of the strong, established sidecountry brand by partnering with the media and outdoor gear retail industry to accomplish the following:

  1. Define sidecountry as the unique geographical and behavioral issue that it is, focusing on the specific dangers associated with sidecountry recreation
  2. Identify and define specific user groups
  3. Tailor, market, and promote user group specific educational programs

The term ‘sidecountry’ is descriptive, intuitive, and useful. We agree with the recent NSAA Journal Editorial “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’ ” that the avalanche and snowsports communities must better communicate that riders are on their own when they leave ski area boundaries. Our common goals are to educate the public on the inherent risk of avalanches outside that boundary and to help users reduce their risk in this terrain. In our opinion, we can enhance communication by acknowledging the difference in behavior and risk tolerance between user groups, by identifying and targeting the needs of those groups, and by partnering with those that have the marketing and promotional power to deliver the message.

Read Next: Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guidebook Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

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