The phone loudly rings and vibrates across my coffee table. I shake my head as the caller's name brings a smile to my face. It's Fred Beckey. Having spoken with Fred on the phone many times before, I know what to expect. Fred has the exuberance and drive of a climber in his prime, but the hearing of, well, an 89-year-old.
Fred is the forefather of many of the continent's mountain ranges and remains on the everlasting hunt for first ascents. For the last few years he has contacted me in the spring, intent on another venture into Alaska's Revelation Mountains. I have made five trips into the seldom visited range, but was not surprised to see that Beckey had been there twenty years before I started climbing. Although he is 61-years-older than me, he still reveres the mountains with a devotion that I cannot even feign to match.
“Hey it's Beckey,” he says. As I begin to speak, Fred starts talking over me. Perhaps he cannot hear me or maybe his payphone time is short. I quit speaking and let him continue. He bluntly says that he is coming to Alaska for a slide show and would like to meet up tomorrow. I'm not surprised. Fred's time frame is always short and advance notice is seldom given. “I'd like you to go over some pictures,” he says. “Maybe you can identify some peaks for me.” I hold the phone away from my ear as Fred yells into the other end. We arrange to meet at the Bear Tooth Grill, a local restaurant and popular haunt for climbers and outdoor enthusiasts.
The next day I stroll into the starkly lit lobby. A stretching picture of the Mooses Tooth massif crowns the restaurant's entrance. Fred attempted its first ascent in the 1950s and tried it again a few years ago at the ripe age of 86. Sitting on a bench, Fred is hunched over a stack of books and paper-ridden folders. In his Patagonia Capilene, soft shell pants, altimeter watch and La Sportiva approach shoes, Fred appears ready to embark on an adventure at a moment's notice. He seems more frail and wilted than the last time I saw him a year ago. We greet each other and I stare into his dull, tired eyes.
We slowly walk to a table and sit down., He orders a key lime pie and shrugs to the waitress when I say that I don't want anything. Fred gets right down to business. People look from across the restaurant as Fred talks loudly while sorting through a mess of folded black and white pictures. I cannot help but feel privileged to sift through Beckey's secret stash of photos. Normally such documents would be guarded from people like me. His gnarled, withered fingers point to distant ridge lines as he makes astute observations about rock quality and height. “That buttress seems pretty climbable. Looks like good granite,” he says. Random scribbles adorn the pages and pictures. “Angel? South Ridge?” one says. Most of them are spot on.
Fred's personality is so distant and internally focused that I have never really felt as if I knew him. As I make notes and he eagerly watches, I begin to feel a kinship to him and come to understand the man under the exterior. In Fred I see the aged shell of a man clutching infinite dreams. Someone who will be looking to the future until his dying day. He doesn't rest on the laurels of a memorable past. Perhaps he doesn't know how to do so. Fred survives purely on the scent of the next adventure in the mountains. As we scour over a treasure trove of photographs, I watch as he begins to ignite with the passionate flame of youth. He becomes more aware and engulfed with a renewed sense of energy.
When it is finally time to go, Fred throws a crumpled five dollar bill on the table and slowly makes his way to his feet. His arms still hold the definition of lean and well-toned muscle. Thin, white hair frames a sleek face weathered by 80 years in the mountains. When I ask about his tan, he says he has recently been in the desert climbing towers. His many wrinkles, which only minutes before contrasted in deep shadows, now seem to reflect a glowing happiness that beams from within.
I realize that while so many of us live to climb, climbing has been Fred's entire source of life. The simple mentioning of it awakens an eternal youth within him.
“I'd really like to get back to the Revelations,” he says. “I haven't had much luck in the mountains lately. Maybe this spring.” As we meander toward the door, I wonder if I'll ever see Fred again. I have never heard him address his own mortality, but he is approaching 90-years-old. Thinking of Fred's eight decades of accomplishments, I wonder what he would do with another eight. For a brief second I lament the many secret dreams he will never fulfill.
We talk for several more minutes and Fred rambles on about having a hard time finding climbing partners. Before we say goodbye, I take one more second to peer into his eyes and shake his hand. His grip feels strong and his face appears younger than it did an hour ago. His voice resonates with unshakable determination and fervent confidence. His eyes are alive with an indomitable gleaming, something deeply present and infallible. It is the unmistakeable look of continuance.
I linger, not wanting to say goodbye. Smiling at each other, I tell Fred how much I enjoyed getting together and that I hope to see him in the spring. “You too,” he says. “Take care, man.”
As I walk across the street, I look back once more. Fred is intently shuffling in the other direction, his mind already undoubtedly focused on his next objective. Getting into my car, I smile and shake my head. There is no doubt in my mind that I have not seen the last of Fred Beckey.
Several months later during a windy day in Joshua Tree, I look out from the car window as we drive in to Indian Cove. My friends scope sunny walls and point at arching granite cracks, drawn by lines of shade. A shadowy figure saunters towards shimmering granite. At the base of Moosedog Tower, harness on waist and head to the sky Fred Beckey makes his first move and climbs upward. Though I never stopped to speak to him, I shook my head and stared on in disbelief until he faded from view.