“I wanted audiences to walk out of the theatre and really think about their lives and what is important to them.” David O’Leske
Legendary American climber Fred Beckey spent most of his life on the road, moving from adventure to adventure, bagging first ascents and tricky routes. Along the way he acquired and lost girlfriends and climbing companions, frustrated admirers who never seemed to lose their affection for him.
In 2005 he finally allowed himself to be filmed for a documentary about his life, directed by David O’Leske, a process which took 10 years and resulted in the excellent (and fascinating) film Dirtbag: The Legend Of Fred Beckey.
I interviewed David about Beckey, who died in 2017 aged 94 – a climber and explorer whose unwillingness to compromise both helped him succeed and held him back. (Read my 4-star review and watch the trailer here.)
1, I found Beckey to be something of a romantic American hero despite (because?) he ignored society’s expectations. He was very physical, handsome, utterly dedicated, incredibly successful. How did you first hear of Beckey and what did you think when you first researched him?
David O’Leske: I have been a climber for around 30 years so Fred’s name would pop up time and time again in climbing circles and I always found the stories about him to be intriguing.
There was a type of mythology surrounding Fred Beckey. There was always someone in a group of climbers who either knew Fred or knew someone who knew him so these stories about him would spread and morph into something along the lines of a Yeti sighting.
The more I learned about Fred the more I wanted to explore the possibility of doing a documentary about his extraordinary life. He never married, never held a job for too long, he found a way to live on the edge of society and climb more than any other human being. He lived his life his way and that isn’t easy to do.
So, I wanted to explore the pluses and minuses of his life and the pure fact that he was still doing it age 82 when I met him and continued to do so for the next ten years of working with him.
2, What was he like when you met him?
When I first met Fred in 2005 he was friendly but definitely suspicious of me and my intent. I sensed that pretty quickly and decided the best thing to do was to try to spend as much time as possible with Fred.
So, over the course of the next year I would meet up with Fred all over the western US and go climbing. We would just climb and camp out and it was a great way to get to know one another. During that year, I never once mentioned the film idea or brought out a camera. We just became climbing partners and friends. I think I had to prove myself a bit to him. Then in 2006 we organized a trip to China to attempt an unclimbed 19,000 foot peak. At that point we began the filming.
3, He kept well away from any kind of documentary about himself until 2005. Did he tell you what made him change his mind?
That is a good question. He never told me why he decided to allow me into his life to make the film. I think it goes back to spending time together and him realizing I was all right and had good intentions. The trust between us grew with time and he would reveal more and more to me over the years.
I think it was about six years into the project when he told me about a box of journals he started writing when he was a child, and that I should read them and figure out a way to incorporate them into the project.
That was an incredible discovery which gave us so much more insight into Fred. Moments like that continued to happen even well into the edit and we’d have to figure out how to include amazing new materials.
4, His list of ascents, especially first ascents, is extraordinary – I was fascinated by those trips where he and his companion had to be dropped off in the wilderness then trek to the mountains. Is there anything left in America now for climbers to discover?
Fred is really one of those people who lived in the perfect time in history for what he loved to do.
The potential for first ascents were plentiful, especially for Fred who was willing to explore deep in the backcountry where no one was going. Many of the places he was going had hardly been mapped so it is much different today with technology like Google maps.
I do believe there are still unexplored places in North America but climbers are now exploring all over the world as it has become so much more accessible. I think for creative climbers/explorers there are lots of undiscovered places still out there.
5, And I guess following on from that, is it still possible to operate the way Beckey did, living on a pittance and essentially making your life a road trip?
Fred created the “Dirtbag” climbing culture but he did it accidently. He just figured out a way to climb as much as possible and by doing so generations of climbers have followed in his footsteps.
There are tons of Dirtbag climbers out there living like Fred did, but the big difference is longevity. Most Dirtbag climbers last a few years living that way. Fred did it his entire adult life. He was still sleeping in the dirt on the side of the road at 93 years old!
6, I loved the documentary and the mix of talking heads, animation, old film etc. When you first knew you’d be making a documentary about him how did you approach it?
I knew early on that there was a treasure trove of archival material so it was important to find as much of that material as possible and get in into a usable, organized format. So that was very time consuming but fun – discovering old films, photos and articles. In the end, we had over 10,000 still images.
In doing this research, I was able to come up with a plan of the people who I thought would be good interview subjects, based on time spent with Fred throughout his life.
Fred had climbed with the best of the best so it was really exciting being able to track down his old climbing partners and interview them. They are all amazing people and had great stories about Fred. Many of them have since passed on so I felt very fortunate to be able to sit down with them and hear their stories.
The biggest thing was to spend as much time with Fred as possible. Fred was a very unique human being so I wanted that to come across in the film as well as really document how he lived his life. Fred never wanted to be filmed so it was very challenging. He was super-funny, but if he knew he was on camera he would shut down so we had to be very stealthy when we filmed with him. No shots in the film were set up so it gives the film a real raw feeling.
Something that became apparent to me early on was that Fred was not stopping anytime soon. So, I started filming with him when he was 83 years old but he just kept climbing, so I kept filming and I knew the older he became the more extraordinary what he was doing became. It also gave the film a unique perspective on what it is like to age for someone who is so active their entire life. We watch Fred age from 83 to 93 and the difference is dramatic and gave the film a component that everyone can relate to.
The real challenge came in putting it all together. I teamed up with a very talented group of guys in Seattle for the post production. We had a wonderful collaboration of talent with Jason Reid, Darren Lund, Adam Brown, J. Baab, Joe Garber, Carl Nelson and Jon Garn.
7, What has the response been to your film both inside and outside the climbing community?
The response to the film has been amazing. I never set out to make a climbing film, I wanted to make a film about a very unique human being who happened to be a climber. So, it was really important to me that the film would resonate with both climbers and non-climbers. I think we succeeded.
The climbers have enjoyed learning more about this mysterious character they have heard about forever and the non-climbers are fascinated that someone could live such a life on the fringe of society. Everyone is inspired by Fred’s desire to keep pushing himself until he just physically can’t.
Fred’s mind never stopped, it was only his body that could no longer keep up and that is something we all have to think about. I wanted audiences to walk out of the theatre and really think about their lives and what is important to them.
Fred followed his dreams to the fullest but that might not be for everyone as there are definitely sacrifices to live a life the way Fred did.
8, People like Beckey and Alex Honnold, who achieve their goals by genuinely operating how they want, are getting a lot of attention at the moment. What is it that you think is appealing about them?
I think that it is very, very difficult to be able to live a life like that. Both Alex and Fred figured out how to strip their lives of things that would get in the way of their goals but that is not possible for most people.
Most people have more responsibility whether it be families, mortgages, jobs, etc. so I think it is a grass is always greener scenery for people with those responsibilities to watch someone only doing what they love.
The reality is that it really is not that easy to do and many important things in life would need to be put aside to live like Alex or Fred.
9, I loved that the climbers you spoke to for your film seemed to like Beckey even if he annoyed them – not just respect but also affection. Was that the general feeling about him, in the US and around the world?
Fred had a way of wearing people out, whether they were climbing partners or girlfriends for instance. So, many of his partners would get worn out and frustrated by Fred and then drift off for a few months or even years. Then Fred would reach out again after it was a distant memory and they would have forgotten enough to be ready for another round with Fred.
I didn’t meet anyone that had any animosity towards Fred, everyone laughed at the memories and I could tell they adored their time spent with him.
Fred’s brother Helmy was by far Fred’s biggest fan. He loved his brother and was very proud of all he had accomplished even after Fred didn’t pay as much attention to Helmy’s life once he stopped climbing way back in the 1940s.
10, How do you think he’d like to be remembered?
I think Fred would like to be remembered as an explorer and innovator of what was possible in the mountains. He really was the cutting edge climber of his time. Looking back his routes aren’t that hard by today’s standards but at the time they were as hard as it got and opened the road for the climbers that followed him.
Ultimately, I think he would be happy knowing he inspired people to get out into this amazing world we live in and find adventure.