Fred Beckey’s embrace of ‘the process’: Lessons for climbing, running and life

Fred Beckey is seen at the right. His eight-decade career in climbing included first ascents of difficult mountains including Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter. His embracing of the difficulties of mountaineering and climbing has lessons for all of us. (Ray Borbon photo)

This past weekend, I watched a documentary called “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.” Even though I’m not a regular climber, I’m a sucker for good climbing movies. It probably has to do something with all those mountains.

Anyway, there was one line in the movie in which an interview subject tries to answer a question about why Beckey put himself through so much hardship, right into his 90s, just to climb.

But first, a bit about Beckey: Before his death, he wrote numerous climbing guidebooks. Most notable first ascents in the Pacific Northwest are his. He eschewed a normal life and lived on the road, working a few odd jobs while driving to climbing sites, sleeping on the ground, and enduring some at-times heinous bushwhacks just to get to the wall or mountain he sought to climb.

And another bit about mountaineering: it’s hard. Damn hard. Suffering is part of the equation as you log miles underfoot with a beefy pack on your back, dodging storms, sleeping cold (if at all), testing your nerve and putting your body through rigors most people will never understand. Even the most basic ascents are hard work. Add some difficulty and it’s a wonder anyone climbs mountains at all. We use light-hearted euphemisms like “type 2 fun” and “sufferfest” to describe mountain climbs, but the pain involved can include serious illness, injury and death.

But going back to Beckey, and the quote about why he spent close to eight decades dedicated to the climb: The interviewee said above all else, even when it was clear he couldn’t do a lot of the climbs he planned anymore, Fred Beckey enjoyed the process.

“The process,” in case you don’t know, is the hardship. And if there is a key to enjoying climbing mountains, it is embracing the hardship so you can attain your goal. Otherwise, you’d never do it again.

The quote itself was a short aside, but it got me thinking, and not just about climbing mountains. “The process” is involved in so many things that are tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Right now, I’m a month into training for a half marathon, and as is the case every year, my goal isn’t just to finish. I want to finish faster than the year before.

The process is in two parts. Part 1 is the training schedule. The schedule includes how many miles I’m supposed to run on any given day, and what each workout should look like. Shorter runs are fine. Longer ones are a grind. Speed work is always difficult, and really, no fun at all. As the mileage increases week by week, the process hammers you anew each day with greater intensity.

Part 2 of the process involves the elements. I started building up my base in August and began the program in earnest in September. August was hot. Real hot. This September in Tulsa was the hottest since 1931, back in the Dust Bowl days. Nineteen days above 90 degrees, and with the humidity, heat indices were regularly in the 90s and 100s. Getting your long runs done in conditions like that flirts with demoralizing.

But there is also an excitement to doing it. When I got back from my ill-fated Colorado trip in July, I leaned in on conditioning. I found the hilliest routes around my home and ran in the heat. Putting together my training program was fun in a nerdy way. I knew those weekly speed workouts would suck, but I plugged them in anyway. And in the back of my mind, I realized that if I forced myself out the door, despite what the thermometer might say, all that heat training would make me faster. And probably tougher. By the time things cool off, I’m counting on a performance dividend because my past shows me that heat training works.

So my lungs burn on speed days, and my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest. My brain boils on hot-weather runs that take a good 45 minutes from which to cool down. I feel like I could sleep 10 or more hours most days because of the toll the sun takes.

But that’s the process. Like Fred Beckey’s relentless pursuit of new lines on unclimbed peaks, success doesn’t just happen – some suffering must occur, a tempered-by-fire ritual of hours, days and weeks to reach that summit. Or in my case this fall, hopefully cross a finish line faster than last year.

In either case, it’s entirely personal. No one forces people to climb a mountain, and no one is putting a gun to my head to train for this race. But I think it’s healthy to test yourself. Pushing boundaries has a carryover into other areas of life. Learning to love the process, and all the highs and lows that it brings, is a worthy habit.

Bob Doucette

So you want to climb all the Colorado 14ers? Here are some thoughts and advice from three people who have done it

If you’ve gotten started on the Colorado 14ers, you’re going to notice a significant difference between the walk-up peaks and the more technical climbs. Pictured here is Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus.

One night last summer, I was at a pub with friends when I got into a conversation about mountains. The fella I was talking to and his wife had recently hiked to the top of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks known as the 14ers.

As the conversation continued, he told me what he hoped to do. He planned to climb them all.

In another case, I watched with amazement as another friend went on a 14er rampage over the summer while also getting ready to run the Leadville 100. He amassed a couple dozen 14ers during that time, and like guy I mentioned earlier, he expressed interest in tagging all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

This is a big goal, but a doable one. I don’t say that as someone who has done it. I haven’t. But I know several people who have. Thousands of people have completed the list, and the number grows every year. But it’s not a small accomplishment, and there is a dividing line the confronts anyone trying to do it.

Thirty-nine of the 14ers are what we call “walk-ups.” That means they are ascended via hiking. No matter the mountain, even the walk-ups will be hard work, and some are harder than others. But generally speaking, the walk-ups are nontechnical and don’t have the big drop-offs and fall hazards that you see on steeper peaks. It’s mostly a test of endurance, mentality and keeping an eye on the weather.

But to finish the 14ers, you have to climb the rest of the list, which includes 19 mountains that aren’t walk-ups. Harder routes, the demands of climbing and higher risks of things like rockfall, loose rock and exposure to drop-offs. Some aren’t too bad. Others are objectively dangerous.

So if you’re one of those folks who has a few walk-ups under your belt and think you’d like to polish off the entire 58, what do you need to know?

Like I said, I’m not a finisher. My own list is mostly the walk-ups, sprinkled with a few of the harder mountains and routes. But I know a bunch of the finishers, and figured I’d ask them and pass along their answers to you.

First up is Bill Wood. Bill is a 14er finisher who is working on his second lap. He’s also climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba. His thoughts?

“Give it time – don’t try for quick success because while many people have done it quickly, it’s not as fun a trip along the way. Stay relatively healthy and in shape; read the dotcom (14ers.com) for advice as needed, trip reports as needed and find a couple of mentors who have been there and done that and willing to do it again.”

Solid stuff. I’ve done a few peaks with Bill, and I’d trust him on all of those.

Next up is Annalise Grueter, another finisher, ultramarathoner and overall mountain athlete. She’s had her fair share of alpine successes in Colorado, Latin America and Europe, the type of experience that provides good perspective.

“So, it takes a stubborn person. Whether you spend decades or years working on a goal, it’s something that you’re fixated upon completing eventually.

“Flexibility can be crucial. Having plan Bs and Cs for the class 3 and 4 peaks is super helpful and makes it easier to adjust on short notice when weather is being weird.

(Class 3 and 4 routes are those where you transition from hiking to climbing. Class 1 and 2 routes are hiking. Class 5 is roped, near-vertical to vertical technical climbing.)

“It takes some degree of stupidity, aka reasonably high risk tolerance. You need to be aware of when you’re in a dangerous spot, but also able to mute that part of your brain and proceed calmly and logically (using fear productively as opposed to panicking).

“As others have mentioned, I don’t think physical fitness plays into it quite as much. Yes, you definitely want to be sure you’re somewhat acclimated, but folks of all shapes and sizes and different types of fitness have finished the 14ers. If it’s something you value, endurance training certainly helps, and being at low elevation, intervals can help you as well, but those pieces aren’t mandatory per se.”

Lastly is Michael Weddell. He’s a finisher who is known by his friends as the expert on the Elk Range, home to the hardest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. Between that and all the other big mountains he has on his resume, he’s legit.

“When you are planning peaks throughout the middle section of the list (he’s speaking of the mountains where hiking gives way to climbing), be flexible. For example, if you are going for Mount Lindsey, and the forecast is bad, maybe the San Juans are the way to go. Increase your chances for success.”

(In this case, Mount Lindsey is a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; the San Juans are southwest of that mountain, making a potential alternative destination if weather in the Sangres is looking bad.)

“For myself personally, I have a small window of time for upper class 3s and 4s. I only plan on them from about the third or fourth week in July until the first dusting of snow in September. I don’t like complicating a climb with snow. I’ll leave that for someone above my skill level!”

(He’s being modest here, but the point is worth repeating: give yourself the best opportunity to succeed by picking the right seasons.)

To sum up their advice: Don’t rush it. Be stubborn, but don’t be in a hurry. Be in shape, but don’t think you need Olympic-level fitness to do the job. Test your risk tolerance, and allow it to grow by moving, step by step, from easier peaks to harder ones. Identify and plan for the best times of year to climb so you can increase your chances of success. And always have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.

Other pieces of advice I’ve heard include taking up rock climbing, and practice those skills in places that can simulate the tougher routes you’re hoping to try.

So there you have it. I’m not one to give out advice on something where I don’t have authority. But listen to these three. They’ve been there and done that. If you’re still game – whether you’re a mountain state resident or a flatlander like me –  then give it a shot. The 14ers await.

Some helpful links:

Fourteener fitness

Fourteener gear

Picking your first Fourteener

Ascending your first Fourteener

If your want to read more about Annalise’s adventures in the mountains and in running, check out her blog here.

Bob Doucette

A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

Friday distraction: Some of my favorite summit views

Man, this has been a bummer of a week in the news. We could all use a short distraction from the horrible headlines and gloomy predictions, so this is my contribution. I went through some of my older images and found a few of my favorite summit views. So sit back, forget the angry world outside and relive some alpine goodness with me.

1. North Eolus

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness from the summit of North Eolus.

The mountain itself is sort of an afterthought of the four big peaks that rise over Chicago Basin. But I found this view from North Eolus particularly impressive. I love the San Juan Mountains, and this view of a sea of wild, jagged peaks exemplifies the range’s rugged nature. “Awe-inspiring” is an understatement.

2. Mount Sneffels

The view west from the summit of Mount Sneffels.

Sticking with the San Juans, this view from the top of Mount Sneffels is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mount Sneffels is, by itself, an impressive peak, but it’s joined by a family of high mountains that add to the ridiculously scenic area around Yankee Boy Basin. To date, climbing Mount Sneffels remains one of my favorite days in the mountains.

3. Missouri Mountain

Looking into Missouri Gulch Basin from the summit of Missouri Mountain.

I’m a repeat customer at Missouri Gulch Basin, and I know I’ll go back. Five years ago, I did a solo climb of Missouri Mountain and was rewarded with this dramatic summit scene. The basin is beautiful, but is particularly impressive from the south end, guarded by the wall of rock that is Missouri Mountain. An unforgettable fall day.

4. Wetterhorn Peak

Looking north from the Wetterhorn Peak summit.

Back in the San Juans, Wetterhorn Peak remains my favorite mountain. It’s got all the goods for hikers and climbers. No less impressive is the payoff at the top. A summer solstice climb revealed a range still clothed in snow, and looking north from Wetterhorn’s summit gave me this lasting memory of 13,000-foot peaks that guard the northeast flank of the San Juans.

5. Mount of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Ridge from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

There are so many great views from Mount of the Holy Cross, but this one of Holy Cross Ridge hits the mark. It’s a striking ridge, made even more so by the presence of snow contrasting with the dark coloring of the rock. The peak’s Cross Couloir is its most famous feature, one that has captured imaginations for well over a century. But there’s more to this mountain’s beauty than its namesake scar.

6. Uncompahgre Peak

Northwest view from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Back in the San Juans, there’s no shortage of excellent views from the highest peak in the range. This one got my attention, giving you a decent perspective on the height of the mountain and the expanse of the kingdom it oversees. The San Juan Mountains are captivating.

7. Sunset Peak

A unique view north from Sunset Peak’s southern summit.

I couldn’t finish this list without at least one summit view from my home state of Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains make up a collection of ancient crags and domes that are out of place in the surrounding Southern Plains. While not as lofty as most North American ranges, they still pack a lot of punch. The gnarly cedar remains of a tree on Sunset Peak’s southern summit caught my eye and is one of my favorite mountain images I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, I have a lot of other memories of great summit views from dozens of other mountains. But these rank as some of my favorite photos from any given mountaintop. Hopefully you can get out and make a few mountain memories of your own and, for a few hours or days, forget about the bad news floating around right now.

Bob Doucette

Of thrilling victory and tragic defeat: A tale of two climbs on El Capitan

El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia commons/Little Mountain 5 photo)

Years ago, ABC used to air a weekend program called “Wide World of Sports.” It was a staple for many who were interested in watching events that weren’t part of the “big four” of American sports, that being football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But the show’s most lasting imprint on popular culture didn’t come from the sports it televised. It came from its intro, a montage of clips from a variety of contests. The narrator speaks of “the thrill of victory,” then cues up a downhill skier wiping out violently during a race before continuing, “and the agony of defeat.”

The stakes of sports are what make them compelling. The higher the stakes, the greater the drama. Nowhere is that more true than in the mountains, and we saw both the thrill and the agony play out within days of each other on one of the most iconic rock faces on the planet.

On June 2, climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein were on El Capitan’s Freeblast route when they fell, ultimately plummeting more than 1,000 feet to their deaths. Both were accomplished, experienced climbers on a section of the route described as well within their abilities when the fall occurred.

On Wednesday, June 6, climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were also at El Capitan, trying to set speed records on the Nose. They accomplished this – twice. The new speed record for climbing this route stands at 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, an astonishing feat on a route that takes most people days to complete.

Two solid climbing teams, two very different outcomes, on the same mountain. Wells and Klein are mourned; Honnold and Caldwell are celebrated. Only four days separated them.

This is the dualism of mountaineering. Obviously, there are other possible outcomes. You can get turned back by weather or route conditions, or perhaps forced into retreat by illness or injury. But there are few sports where the reward for success is, in reality, so modest, and the toll of failure (even if you did everything right) so painfully high.

It’s something I think about every time summer draws near. Exploring the mountains is becoming more popular every year. Most aren’t climbing El Capitan, but they are venturing into wild places that aren’t inherently safe or forgiving. Many thousands cut their teeth on the easier peaks, then try tougher challenges as time goes on. The vast majority do OK. But some don’t make it back. That’s how it works in the high country.

I won’t waste time grousing about the unnecessary chances people take, or social media pressures to go bigger each time. That’s been covered. But it does make me stop and think. Last year, scores (hundreds?) of people successfully climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But within a span of six weeks, five people died on that same mountain. Other peaks, in Colorado and elsewhere, had similar stories, I’m sure.

It would also be silly to ask why people bother, given the risks of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry exploration. Mountains draw us in. Wild places fascinate us. Summit views, the sounds of the woods and the quiet of wilderness are always going to be a draw. The good parts, and the feeling of accomplishment, have their own special allure. That’s our version of the thrill of victory.

But I suppose it’s worth considering the agony of defeat. I’ve had a few close scrapes, but have come out of those OK. Others haven’t, even if they have many times before.

Maybe that’s the lesson from Yosemite Valley last week, just in time for the crowds who are heading into the mountains now.

Bob Doucette

Eight key attributes to being a leader in the outdoors

Being a leader or a mentor in the outdoors is more than just telling people what to do or where to go. Much more.

I’m lucky to be blessed with the company of folks who could show me the ropes in the outdoors. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to share things that I’ve learned. In between all that is a bunch of give-and-take when it comes to being the leader or the learner.

The more time you spend out there, the better the chances are that you’ll end up being a teacher, leader or even a mentor. How you perform this task can have a huge impact on how well people grow in their own outdoor pursuits. Here are eight things you ought to know:

  1. Be an open book. Be honest about your experiences, whether it’s the activity at hand or the place you’re in. When people ask you questions, give the best answers you can. And do it in a way that’s accessible and clear. Clarity, honesty and approachability are key when people look to you for guidance. And never lie about or exaggerate your experience and qualifications. If you do and get found out, all your credibility is immediately lost.
  2. Let people learn some things for themselves. Part of growing into a role is trying things, making mistakes, and learning from the experience. You don’t want to be the person who micromanages someone’s adventure. It’s annoying, and eventually people will tune you out. That said…
  3. Be assertive when the stakes are high. There are some situations that call for a firm hand. High-risk activities like mountaineering and rock climbing are no places to stay quiet when you can see something about to go terribly wrong. If you wander up to a bear or a buffalo and your buddy wants to get closer for a wildlife selfie, that’s a good time to speak up. Same might be said if you’re about to ski into an avalanche-prone area, or if a big thunderhead begins to form over the mountain you’re ascending.
  4. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done yourself. This is an integrity thing. You should be willing to do the hard, or tedious, or unglamorous tasks. Lead by example and do those things. Demonstrating this will go a long way with a group.
  5. Be the leader, but create a team. History is filled with top-down taskmasters in famous expeditions. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But you can be guaranteed that if your partners believe they have a say in things and that their input is not only valued but expected, that creates buy-in. It can also be helpful to get different perspectives on problems you might not have seen.
  6. Listen to the team, but if you’re the leader, make decisions. After you’ve gained input from your group, you don’t want to dawdle in overanalysis. That often leads to inaction. Consider the facts and ideas, then make a decision. This is especially true in emergency situations, where decision-making is critical. This is one area where you don’t want paralysis by analysis.
  7. Admit when you’re wrong. If you’ve chosen a course of action and it was wrong, fess up. Everyone will probably know anyway. Denying it will only erode your position as a leader or mentor. People can forgive a mistake. It’s harder to forgive stubborn arrogance or denial.
  8. Strive for future adventures. By this, I mean that you should be the type of person someone would partner with again. Keep things enjoyable, safe and fruitful for your partner or group. In the back of your mind, let your personal conduct and your competence make those around you think, “When I’m going to do X, I want this guy/gal with me.”

So there you go. The great thing about these ideas is that they apply not only in the outdoors, but in everyday life. Got some thoughts of your own? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Colorado 14er Disasters’ by Mark Scott-Nash

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

We’ve seen an uptick in the allure of alpine adventure, and nowhere is this more true than in Colorado.

Specifically, the state has seen a spike in interest and visitors to its 14ers, the peaks that rise to heights of 14,000 feet. It’s a rite of passage for many in Colorado to climb one, and as I can attest, the attraction goes well outside of Colorado’s borders.

But as is true of any wild place, the mountains can be risky places to be, particularly for the unprepared and inexperienced. Even seasoned hikers and mountaineers can get caught in a bad place in the high country.

And that’s the point of Mark Scott-Nash’s “Colorado 14er Disasters,” a compact book detailing incidents that have led to major rescue efforts, serious injuries, and even deaths on the high peaks.

I came into this book hoping for something akin to “Death in the Grand Canyon,” a sizable tome that recorded every recorded death there. This is not that book – there are far too many incidents, too many deaths, and too many unknown and unrecorded stories to cover. Instead, the author picks a number of accidents and incidents that are representative of what happens in the mountains when things go sideways.

In putting this together, Scott-Nash goes through incident reports, news reports and interviews with people involved in the accidents or those who took part in rescues. The reasons for these mishaps vary – weather, getting lost, accidental falls, rockfall/avalanche, etc. Most times, the fault lies with something the victim did or did not do.

Scott-Nash doesn’t pull punches. Where he finds fault in the individual, he says so. Some people may find some of these observations harsh. But at the same time, the stark description of mistakes and assumed risk also serve as important warnings for those new mountain adventures.

The book contains helpful appendices and a glossary of terms and is peppered with informational blurbs concerning relevant information in each chapter.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that I’m familiar with some of the stories he tells and have been to some of the mountains where the accidents he profiles took place. Viewing Humboldt Peak, for instance, I can see exactly where the dangerous portions of this otherwise tame mountain could be. I can see where people could get lost on Mount of the Holy Cross (though trail improvements, including huge cairns on the mountain’s northwest ridge have helped), and can easily spot the problem areas on Longs Peak, a burly mountain that is routinely underestimated by far too many climbers.

It’s a matter-of-fact book that doesn’t go into narrative storytelling. Rather, “Colorado 14er Disasters” is more like an expanded compilation of mountain incident reports, organized and written in a way to help readers understand just how tenuous life can be in the high country. Most importantly, it dissects each incident and provides relevant information readers can take with them the next time they plan a mountain adventure.

Bob Doucette