Dirtbag: The Legend Of Fred Beckey


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dirtbag: The Legend Of Fred Beckey
"Some impressive material has been unearthed from the archives and O'Leske fills in the gaps with more general footage of some of the mountains the climber ascended in his youth."

He stood by the side of the highway holding a cardboard sign that read 'Will belay for food.' He phoned people he barely knew in the middle of the night to congratulate them on climbing accomplishments and ask them to go on expeditions with him. He made it to the top of his first previously unconquered peak at the age of just 19 and was still climbing in his late eighties. Fred Beckey was a legendary figure, a hero to many climbers and yet somebody whom others went to great lengths to avoid. Dave O'Leske's documentary attempts to paint a portrait of this charismatic yet difficult man who always seemed to be living on the edge whether he was at ground level or at 14,000 feet.

For many of its biggest names, climbing is much more than a hobby: it's an obsession that overwhelms everything else in life. Beckey's obsession began as a child when he could disappear for an afternoon only to be spotted at the top of one of Seattle's most challenging peaks. Initially he took his brother with him, though when an injury put paid to young Helmy's climbing career (he went on to become an opera singer and famous in his own right) he lost interest in him completely, something that seems to have been an indicator of how his adult relationships would develop. Nevertheless, Helmy has quite a few insights to deliver here, as do other key figures from Beckey's life, such as former long term girlfriend Vasiliki Dwyer. A section devoted to the climber's prolific love life might seem like a distraction but has quite a few parallels with his attitude to mountains - his persistence in the pursuit of his desires and his constant compulsion to move on to the next challenge.

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As much as it is a study of mountains, this is also a study of homelessness as a lifestyle choice. Beckey's devotion to his central passion saw him unwilling to spend resources on anything else, so he slept outdoors even when he wasn't on expeditions, or lived in his car, apparently rarely washing or changing his clothes - there is plenty of filmed and pictoral evidence to support this. Drifting from place to place, he got by with as little as possible, an approach to life that clearly unsettled a lot of people and which exposes tensions between two ideas of America: the traditional idea of the truly self-sufficient man who values nothing more than his freedom and the modern idea of the socially conscious consumer. Even living as he did, how did Beckey afford the travel and the gear he needed for his climbs? The rumours about a secret source of funds would make a compelling film in their own right.

Over the course of his career, Beckey is believed to have achieved around 5,000 first ascents - more than anyone else in the history of the world - and the prodigious notes he took, sometimes whilst wedged into a crevice with a climbing partner dangling from the end of a rope, have ensured that he will remain an active influence on other climbers' lives. Though there's a sense of something within him that is never completely captured - he may not have analysed it himself - his interviews in this film provide a significant degree of insight into his passion and his methods. Numerous other interviewees contribute their stories, but O'Leske doesn't limit himself to the entertaining ones - there's also a reflection of the troubled expedition that led to many climbers refusing to work with him. One gets the sense that he found mountains easier to understand than people.

The amount of actual climbing footage here is limited because Beckey isn't the sort of man who went looking for film crews and, filmed here in his late Eighties, he was still impressive but not at his best, with the good sense to know when to retreat. Some impressive material has been unearthed from the archives, however, and O'Leske fills in the gaps with more general footage of some of the mountains the climber ascended in his youth. One cannot help but spot a theme in the names: the likes of Mount Terror and Forbidden Peak. Places previously shunned.

Beckey died shortly after this film was completed, and not in the manner anybody had anticipated. It is perhaps not much of a monument to a man who has his name associated with thousands of towering chunks of granite, but it does provide an intriguing insight into a way of life taken to the extreme, and it's a well crafted film that will doubtless appeal to up and coming climbers clean to follow in the dirtbag's footsteps.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2018
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A documentary about the legendary climber.

Director: Dave O'Leske

Writer: Darren Lund, Dave O'Leske

Starring: Fred Beckey, Conrad Anker, Helmy Beckey, Vasiliki Dwyer

Year: 2017

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US, Canada, China


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