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