‘Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey’ at Mountainfilm in Aspen
August 26, 2017
Fred Beckey, the elusive and mercurial climbing god, was too busy racking up first ascents throughout most of his legendary climbing career to slow down and let somebody make a movie about him.
But 12 years ago, at age 83, the original “dirtbag” gave Colorado filmmaker Dave O’Leske intimate access to his life and archives. O’Leske spent the following decade at Beckey’s side making an extraordinary film about adventure, aging, sacrifice and a truly one-of-a-kind mountain character.
“Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey” screens Friday at Mountainfilm in Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House.
The film chronicles his climbs from 1939 to nearly today. Beckey made hundreds of first ascents – far more than any other North American – and wrote definitive mountain guides. But he remained an enigma. Rarely interviewed, always allergic to self-promotion, Beckey never landed on magazine covers or became a celebrity. He just kept climbing.
O’Leske wanted to honor and preserve the Beckey legacy before it was too late. The incredible impact of climbers, he believes, is too often lost to history.
“They’ll die and all you’ll see is a little blurb in the back of a climbing magazine,” O’Leske said recently from home in Telluride. “Fred’s life story deserves to be told in a bigger way.”
But convincing the gruff and intensely private Beckey to sign on was no easy task. Countless others had tried and failed.
“I’ve always been intrigued by Fred and the stories and the campfire lore that surrounds him,” O’Leske said.
He got Beckey’s mailing address from the pioneering ski filmmaker Dick Barrymore and wrote Beckey a letter in 2005. To the filmmaker’s surprise, Beckey responded and the pair met over coffee in Salt Lake City. The octogenarian Beckey was planning a first ascent of a remote peak on the Sichuan Province in China.
“When I first pitched him on the idea, his response was, ‘Why would anyone want to see that?'” O’Leske recalled with a laugh. “”He doesn’t dwell in the past. He’s always looking forward.”
Over the following year, O’Leske befriended Beckey, climbed and camped with him and earned his trust in the process.
“It was a year before a camera was ever turned on or discussed,” O’Leske said.
The filmmaker spent the following decade gathering footage, digging through Beckey’s extensive archives and making what would become “Dirtbag.”
To capture Beckey’s complex personality and restless soul, the film includes interviews with rivals, friends, admirers, ex-girlfriends and climbers (including the late Aspen legend Bob Craig). Yvon Chounard calls Beckey “the ultimate dirtbag,” though Beckey himself rejects the term. Another warns, “Beware of Beckey. He’ll steal your woman and he’ll steal your climb.” Animated interludes help give this fast-paced, fun and ultimately moving documentary a lively spirit.
Born in Germany in 1924, Beckey emigrated to the U.S. as a child and was introduced to climbing through the Boy Scouts. While still a teenager, he was bagging first ascents in the Casacades near his boyhood home. During World War Two, he trained ski troops at Camp Hale but was honorably discharged before his unit deployed for Europe. From there, he started barnstorming North America, climbing everything he wanted to for decades and living out of a pink Ford Thunderbird. On his legendary climbs, he’d wear old coats stuffed with the pages of Louis L’Amour novels and carry duct tape for first aid, scribbling notes to himself on loose scraps of paper as he climbed.
When we first meet Beckey in the film, he’s in his 80s, still living off of fast food and roadside camping, carrying a McDonald’s coffee cup with him for months of free refills to fuel his climbs.
“I don’t take vitamins and I’m not a health food addict,” Beckey says early on in the film. “I just try to stay active.”
(He is seen at one point on a roadside holding up a cardboard sign that reads “WILL BELAY FOR FOOD.”)
“Climbing doesn’t cost that much,” he adds. “Food is really available in North America if you know where to look for it.”
Countless climbers and skiers and mountaineers have adopted the “dirtbag” label with pride in recent decades. But Beckey is a different species. While most balance van life and adventures with jobs, relationships and responsibilities – and often give up their wandering by middle age – Fred Beckey’s only commitment was to the mountains.
“To continue it for a whole life, like Fred did, that’s on another level,” said O’Leske.
While today’s most renowned climbers, like Alex Honnold, may live in a van and climb year-round, Oleske noted, they are paid professional athletes. Beckey was never even willing to take on the responsibility of sponsorships, for fear the gigs would keep him out of the mountains.
Along with celebrating Beckey’s achievements, examining his impact on climbing culture and painting a rich portrait a complicated man, “Dirtbag” ends up being an unexpectedly poignant look at the inevitability of growing old. (It’s the rare climbing film that transcends its niche audience and will appeal broadly to documentary audiences.)
Beckey is remarkably fit at the film’s start, but grows weak over the next decade and is forced to slow down as he nears and surpasses age 90.
“It became clear to me that this was a bigger story than documenting the legacy of a climber,” O’Leske said. “It became more, ‘What happens to someone like that as they age?'”
O’Leske continued filming for so long simply because Beckey kept going. Beckey continued planning new adventures and first ascents and, though he failed more often than not, he was rarely discouraged.
Beckey, now 94, attended the film’s premiere at Mountainfilm in Telluride in May.
“He was transfixed,” said O’Leske. “We tried not to shy away from the true story with Fred, about how many bridges he burned. But he loved it. To me, that’s the proudest moment.”