Fred_Beckey,_about_1990
Photo courtesy Pat Ament

Documentary about climbing legend brings fresh perspective to the grind of student life

By Danielle Grant, April 6 2018 — 

Graduate studies can be rough. Some weeks a project takes a million wrong turns or you make too many commitments and run out of time to get everything done. Either way, you the end up curled in a ball on the floor with your cat. In those stress-filled moments, you seriously envy your feline friend and contemplate how lovely napping all day must be. That was the tone of my week when I attended a march screening of DIRTBAG: The Legend of Fred Beckey at the Plaza Theatre in Kensington.  

The documentary follows the story of eclectic climbing legend Fred Beckey and was brought to Calgary by IMCLIMBING and Spirit West. Their efforts to bring Calgary’s climbing community together was an undeniable success. The film compiles breathtaking vistas, vintage footage and personal interviews to capture the eccentric and fascinating life of Fred Beckey.

Beckey is accredited with hundreds of first ascents of mountains in Canada and the pacific northwest. He even created new routes on Mount Hunter and Mount Deborah in Alaska. He was completely consumed by his conviction to go where no one else has. He pioneered the “dirtbag” lifestyle of abandoning societal conventions, like a stable income and clean clothes, in favour of climbing.

Throughout his eight decades of mountain life, he developed a low-budget, no-hassle approach, relying on his car to get him from the Cascades to the Bugaboos and anywhere else he planned a route. There’s a famous photo of Beckey staged as a hitchhiker holding a cardboard sign reading  “Will Belay for Food”, embodying the traditional dirtbag climbing aesthetic.

Beckey chose the life he wanted and lived it without question. Settling down, getting married or “growing up” in the conventional sense wasn’t a priority. Years of drinking out of soggy coffee cups and opting for a ratty sleeping bag instead of a bed shaped Beckey into North American’s most distinct mountaineer. Rather than putting the lead ropes away and finding a 9–5, Beckey turned his meticulous route notes into invaluable alpine guides.

Some of his closest trademark routes to Calgary are the Beckey Route of the Liberty Bell and Outer Space on Snow Creek Wall in the Cascades. Despite Fred’s unbelievable mountaineering record, when asked if he accomplished his climbing goals, he wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Not even close.”

During DIRTBAG’s screening, I was transfixed by mountain panoramas and sippets of Beckey grumbling. Delving into this captivating life and dreaming about mountain adventures was an escape from my stress-filled reality. However, the film was more than just entertainment. It made me reflect on my life choices. Like most students, I’m pursuing a dream through my academic endeavors. The bottomless cups of coffee, late nights and stress overloads all serve a purpose.  

But some days, academia is overwhelming and ends up reducing that sense of purpose and replacing it with anxiety and dread. In recent years, there has been a growing body of evidence outlining the high mental health risks for graduate students. A 2018 Nature Biotechnology study identifies a crisis in poor mental health among graduate student populations. The study’s authors advocate the necessity of work-life balance for greater well-being — but this is easier said than done.

Fred Beckey was consumed by his passion and climbing was his purpose. He sat on the opposite end of the spectrum from many students by wholeheartedly forging work and life together through his passion. Beckey didn’t have a balanced lifestyle, instead balancing sacrifice and reward. Living the type of life you want doesn’t need involve a perfect balance of work and life. Beckey’s alternative lifestyle is a reminder that we have far more autonomy in carving our paths than we often realize. Whether you are in the middle of a mid-degree crisis or not, DIRTBAG can help you step back from the school stress and check your focus and aim it where you want.

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