Fred Beckey is something of a myth, a celebrated “dirtbag”—think a vagabond ski bum for the mountaineering set—who sacrifices everything to climbing. Normal people don’t know his name, but the hardcore speak of him with reverence and awe. It’s difficult to live up to such hype, but when we meet the man himself in Dave O’Leske’s documentary, Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey, he more than lives up to the billing.
At one point, an ex-girlfriend—one of many—calls him, “A different sort of creature,” and there’s no better description. Beckey makes for perfect documentary fodder. He’s led a fascinating life and had a wide-reaching impact, but outside of certain small circles and a specific niche, he’s almost wholly unknown.
And he’s also a total a wingnut. While it recounts his earlier years, Dirtbag also keeps up with his current life, tracking him from his mid-80s into his 90s, where he’s still trying to summit mountains and leave his mark. Even today, he talks a mile a minute, always with an eye towards the skyline.
Singularly driven, starting as a youth in Seattle, Beckey began climbing mountains and never stopped. He owns first ascents on peaks all over the world and has climbed just about anything you can climb. But like any obsessive, this comes at a high cost. He never married, had kids, or settled down; he’s left a trail of burned bridges behind him; and watched colleagues, friends, and lesser climbers become stars, get all the glory, and find success. Not that any of that matters to him. For the most part, he appears perfectly happy and satisfied.
Beckey is an iconoclastic outsider by choice. Everything in his life takes a backseat to the climb. There’s an enviable freedom to this way of living, where he’s beholden to no one and nothing but himself. Dirtbag features endless stories from friends about Fred dropping everything at a moment’s notice to drive cross-country for an ascent or to find the next adventure. This is the kind of story that makes you want to ditch your worldly belongs, pack a bag, and hit the road with nothing but the clothes on your back and exploration on the mind.
There’s an unbridled joy to Beckey’s tale, but there’s also a lingering sadness. Again, he’s paid a steep price. A meticulous note-taker—he’s written multiple climbing guides and books—he lives surrounded by envelopes cataloging various climbs, ascents, and routes. He has friends and well-wishers, but while it’s funny to watch him scroll through his phone looking for his next climbing partner, it’s equally heartbreaking to see him fail and realize how alone he is.
And while his mind remains sharp, over the course of the film, we see age finally start to catch up with and overtake him. Though his spirit remains willing, he continually, doggedly tries and fails to conquer mountains, trails, and routes he could have done with his eyes closed in earlier days. This takes a toll, and though his heart is still in the game, his body simply can’t keep up.
Rebellious and uninhibited, Fred Beckey inspires and frustrates, enthralls and confounds. It’s easy to see why he attracted people to him like moths to fire for his whole life. He’s compelling, engaging, and kind of a dick, which all makes Dirtbag, playing SIFF Cinemas, fascinating and entertaining as all hell. [Grade: B+]
This is a reprint of a review originally published during the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. In the interim, Fred Beckey passed away in October of 2017 at the age of 94.