What filmmakers learned after spending a decade with Fred Beckey, perhaps the Northwest's most prolific (and salty) climber.
“Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey” chronicles the fascinating life of the eponymous Seattle mountaineer who lived like a vagabond while scaling the world’s most-challenging peaks.
Beckey, now 94, has been roving western states for decades and pioneered dozens, if not hundreds, of first ascents of climbing routes in the Cascade range. The climber, notable for his sparse lifestyle and surly nature, was also a prolific author of climbing guides and mountain books.
The film premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 4. The Seattle Times sat down with the Seattle filmmakers at their Georgetown studio ahead of the film’s local premiere. Director Dave O’Leske, who went on road trips and two climbing expeditions to China with Beckey, joined the conversation from Telluride.
It sounds like you’ve been working on this for more than a decade, Dave …
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O’Leske: “Back in 2005, I reached out to Fred and kind of tracked him down through some folks I knew that knew him. I’m a climber and had always heard the stories and folklore and mystique surrounding Fred Beckey’s name.”
“I ended up sitting down one day and writing him a handwritten letter, never expecting to hear back from him.
“It was about a year of meeting him in different spots to meet up to climb with him before a camera ever came out. … It took quite awhile to gain his trust.”
Was he reticent to have his life memorialized?
O’Leske: “The first time I talked to him about the idea of a film, the first thing he said was, ‘Why would anyone want to watch that? Why would anyone care about a film about me?’ … He doesn’t dwell on the past whatsoever.”
Producer Adam Brown: “He has no interest in self-promotion.”
On why they chose to make a film about Beckey and what the film is about.
Producer Jason Reid: “It isn’t just about climbing, it’s about following your passion in life, it’s about the aging process and coming to terms with what you used to be able to do versus what you can do now … or not coming to terms.”
Reid: “He really is under the radar [to non-climbers]. … From the mainstream, he hasn’t gotten the respect and credibility he deserves.”
O’Leske “The general public has this vision of climbers like, well did you climb Everest and if you haven’t climbed Everest you’re not legit … He never climbed Everest, but what he’s done is so far beyond someone that just paid a bunch of money to get guided up Everest.”
How did you acquire archive material for the film?
Editor Darren Lund: “The deepest well was from Fred, himself.”
O’Leske: “We came out to Seattle and asked to look at his photographs … and quickly realized we had a gold mine of material. It goes back to the meticulous organization he has. He kept everything. He kept newspaper articles from way back in the ‘30s or ‘40s. He kept all the stills. If he didn’t take the picture he got the pictures from his climbing partners.”
It seems like you had to be a climber to make this film, Dave …
O’Leske: “He wouldn’t have given me the time of day if I couldn’t prove to him that I could climb. One of the first things we did: I met him out in the Sierras and he and I climbed a four-pitch climb.” [A long alpine climb broken up into four sections].
“He doesn’t give non-climbers the same attention he gives climbers. … his comfort zone is deep in the mountains. Having his life portrayed in film is not a comfortable thing for him.”
What was a decade with Beckey like?
O’Leske: “He never wanted to be filmed, so that was super challenging … I’d have to sort of stealthily film him. If he started opening up at all, I’d literally have to set a camera in the corner and hope I framed him.
“When he’s not in a good mood, it can be tough to be around him … Part of that, over the years, was him realizing he couldn’t do the things he wanted to do. That was a major frustration for him. That would put him in a funk if he failed on a climb or something.”
The film documents Beckey’s struggles to climb big objectives into his 90s. How did you decide to handle aging in the film?
Reid: “Going through all the footage … In 2005, when you first saw that, you thought, ‘How is this old dude climbing, that’s amazing.’ And cut to 10 years later, he’s still doing it … we thought that would be pretty powerful for the viewer to experience.”
O’Leske: “We’ve got this material, this time frame of watching a person physically age and how they mentally deal with that.”
Lund: “It’s one of the essential elements of the story … he seems almost delusional to me. He refuses to accept he can’t do these things anymore.
“The most intense climbers climb for 20 years. Fred’s done it his entire life — 80 years now — that’s all he wants to do. … He has this optimism.”
Beckey could not reach the summit of the ambitious climbs O’Leske filmed.
O’Leske: “He would fail on these things and immediately be planning logistics for the next harder thing. And you’d be like, ‘What’s going on in his mind to do that?’ Most people would bury their head in the sand and quit. You’re kind of inspired by it … it’s also delusional and unrealistic, but he doesn’t see it that way. … His persistence is off the charts.”
How is Beckey doing now?
O’Leske: “Last fall was the biggest last thing he did. We took him to Squamish [a climbing area in Canada], and we got him up three climbs — single-pitch climbs 5.7 to 5.8 [ratings on the Yosemite Decimal system] — at 93 years old.
“He climbs better than he walks … it’s like this crazy muscle memory kicks in. He’s very graceful.
“Since that time, which was the fall of 2016, he’s really slowed down to the point where he’s getting around in a wheelchair. He still walks, but he gets tired out quickly.”
What does Beckey think of his legacy?
O’Leske: “He keeps things really close to his chest.
“His writing — that was his way of creating a legacy of inspiring people to get out and explore the mountains. Just with the Cascades climber guides [written by Beckey]– think how many people that’s gotten into the Cascades on adventures.”
Reid: “He’s less concerned about his cultural legacy, which is sort of the dirtbag lifestyle he helped create.
“I don’t think he sees that as a significant accomplishment or achievement. … that was just the means to get to climb all the time.
O’Leske: “He basically accidentally created a culture.”