Film Review: ‘Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey’

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I’m going to cut to the chase and say upfront that this film is an absolutely delightful 95-minute journey through the life of recently-deceased climbing icon Fred Beckey. In fact, it’s also a history of North American climbing, so vast is Becky’s contribution to the development of new routes across the US and Canada. The film, like the man, takes an irreverent approach, splicing in animated sketches with archive images and footage with up-to-date interviews and outings with the 90+ year old Beckey as he continues to climb with the single-minded determination and passion that has marked his life in the mountains. Contemporaries such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard talk fondly of a man who has stayed true to his calling, eschewing ‘normal’ modern life in his dedication to spending his life doing what he was born to do – climb.

From his late teens, when he made first ascents of peaks in the Cascades, such as Mount Despair and Forbidden Peak, and it was clear that Beckey was something special. He went onto become the most significant new-router in American climbing history, travelling around the country and living out of his car, in an obsessive pursuit of his chosen vocation. The film is hard to watch at times, as a frail-looking Beckey struggles up mountain approaches and rock routes that in his prime he would have had for breakfast. And the viewer, briefly, questions whether a sometimes lonely life on the road without family or modern comforts to fall back on is any way for a nonagenarian to see out his last days. But Beckey, seemingly, wouldn’t have it any way, and if his wish was to carry on climbing until his last breath then he pretty darn well achieved that. Fred Beckey was a unique figure in the climbing and mountaineering world, unquestionably one of the greatest in its history, and this film is a fitting tribute to the man and his extraordinary life.

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