Challenge of the North Cascades

Publication Year: 1970.

Challenge of the North Cascades, by Fred Beckey. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1969. 280 pages, including 22 pages Appendix; 47 photos; 13 maps. Price $7.95.

For years American mountaineers have been pondering the questions: How many climbs can a man like Fred Beckey rack up in 35 years of almost continuous activity? How many regions have felt the tread of Fred’s boot? How many generations of climbers has Fred outlasted?

Here is at least a partial answer, as North America’s most constant highly technical climber provides us a personal account of his explorations and pioneering ascents in the Cascade Range. Although somewhat mis- titled the North Cascades, which by current definition is that part of the range north of Snoqualmie Pass, the volume covers the author’s travels and scrambles in the entire Cascade Range of Washington and southernmost British Columbia, and includes Mount Hood in Oregon. One of the first climbers to accept the total challenge of the wildness of the Cascade Range, Beckey today still continues to lead in the number of pioneering endeavors in his home hills. His 1949 publication, A Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, helped set the stage for a spiraling interest in the recreational and scenic potentials of the area, a part of which ultimately gained recognition and establishment as North Cascades National Park.

The life of Fred Beckey, a bachelor, has been one of nearly total commitment to mountaineering. In 1936, at the age of 13, he started climbing as a Boy Scout, in the Olympics and Cascades. In 1938 he joined The Mountaineers and the following year took the Club’s Climbing Course. It was then that he was introduced by Lloyd Anderson to the North Cascades proper and to his first ascent of Mount Despair. Soon thereafter Fred and his younger brother Helmy began organizing their own trips. In 1942 the teenage youths amazed the mountaineering world by completing the second ascent – partly by a new route – of British Columbia’s formidable and oft-tried Mount Waddington. Though Helmy’s climbing career was cut short a few years later by aggravation of a knee injury suffered on Waddington, Fred had only begun to climb at this point.

After a period of service during World War II in the mountain troops, Beckey returned to the Cascades and from there spread his climbing to other regions of the world. His love of the home hills, however, gave him an almost proprietory interest in maintaining a clear record of its mountaineering and related human history. Beckey states, “This book is not just a story of physical adventure and obstacles, but retells some of the historic climbs in the North Cascades and shows what climbers have accomplished in our mountains … Some of the accounts will perhaps strike a strong nostalgic note for people who climbed through these times. For new alpine travellers, they will provide insight into events and personalities.”

The book’s 16 chapters describe as many areas, from Mount Slesse and the Chilliwacks along the 49th Parallel to Mount Hood south of the Columbia River. The author’s diligent research into the early history of mining, logging, road construction and dam building, and into the ascents by others who preceded him enhances the climbing details that follow. The volume is rich in anecdotes and the author’s personal impressions of his surroundings and reasons for being there. Beckey’s prose is a delight – and a relief from the oft-times dry and unrhetorical accounts of climbs reported in annual journal summaries. Here he does credit to the beauty of the Cascades and to the joy of its challenges and many moods. Those of us whose visits to the inner sanctum of the range have been less frequent and widely scattered over the years certainly will seek a renewal of the experiences brought back from the past by Beckey’s skilled pen. Those who have wearied of the statistics of the rock engineer’s climbing accounts, with their endless data on numbers, and sizes of bolts, screws, and pitons used, angles of slope, lengths of pitches, and hours of climbing, also will welcome such passages as:

The contrasts were striking. The mosaic of ice gullies on the stupendous walls above had depths of indigo-blue, and soon a blinding-white surface shone in the sun like a glowing curtain. In morning light the glacier variegated into every conceivable form of intricate grotto, with piles of ice masses, seracs, and crevasses. A series of natural steps in a ruinous staircase presented a fanciful picture. Long gashes cut these steps into cubes and towers, some of which were cracked off andtilted across chasms. Frail bridges provided another link in the exotic fairyland of ice architecture. Perhaps most wonderful of all was the serene quiet.


But now it was the beginning of September, often a time of premature winter in the Cascades. Opening the tent flaps in the morning, Helmy peered sulkily at the outdoors. There had been no light to waken us, and our suspicions were correct. The overhead canopy presaged a blow, evidence confirmed by two layers of scud lenticular clouds. Later in the day mists dropped over the craggy peaks. Then came a gray veil of rain, obliterating the landscape as we went to sleep. Why did it have to fall on us after such perfect weather and with several days of food left?


Nowhere is the contrast between apparent peril and actual safety more dramatic than in rock climbing.


… To which some of my friends would say, “I can see climbing a mountain like Rainier, but what do you get from scaling a rock needle?” To which I answer, there are those who receive a rich reward climbing peaks that allow a restful frame of mind, with only a rare spark of distant adventure glinting through the long plodding hours, but I find it necessary to keep busy in the hills – even if it is only gathering wood, sorting pitons, or planning future ascents. And to me, the emotional and imaginative benefits of mountaineering are intensified and magnified by the challenge of the unknown.

… The exquisite relief of safety after danger, the quasi-mystical happiness of moments when the mind has established complete dominion over the body, are part of the answer to “why we climb.” Climbing is perhaps the most complete physical sport, demanding continuous coordination of all the faculties. Each difficult ascent is a challenge to physical prowess blended with a peculiarly personal delight in conquest.

Of additional interest that will statistically please Beckey’s followers is an Appendix which chronologically lists his ascents during the period 1936-68, from his first scrambles in the Olympics (“to the worry of parents”) through the major mountain ranges of the continent and abroad. Here are over 600 climbs (mostly “firsts”): the Cascades (nearly 300), Olympics, Tetons, Wind Rivers, Sawtooths, Beartooths, Black Hills, Wasatch, Bighorns, Colorado Rockies, California’s Tahquitz Rock, Sierras, and Yosemite walls, Canadian Rockies, Selkirks, Bugaboos, and Coast Ranges, Alaska’s St. Elias, Fairweather, and Alaska Ranges, the Yukon, Alps, Nepal Himalaya (International Himalayan Expedition to Lhotse), and Africa’s Kilimanjaro (“My biggest concern was the Kukiyu tribesmen with pierced ears, and feather head-dresses. .”). The brief notations beside these climbs lend flavor to this evolution of the author into one of the world’s leading mountain climbers.

The only features of the book that invited distraction to this reviewer are the “new look” of not indenting the first lines of paragraphs, which creates an illusion of non-continuity between them; and the lack of an index whereby the reader could have a quick reference to the numerous peaks, climbs, and personalities about which Beckey writes. However, those who through circumstances have never climbed with the author and who may thereby harbor regrets at not partaking in fuller measure the challenge of the North Cascades will vicariously find in this book excellent substitute fare.

Dee Molenaar