Passion is one of those concepts that’s easy to visualize if not challenging to define. The life of Fred Beckey, who spent the vast majority of his ninety-four years on earth rock climbing, is hard to describe without the word passion. Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey sought to explore the ethos behind the man who was fortunate enough to spend the bulk of his life doing what he loved.
The term “dirtbag,” used to refer to climbers who religiously pursue the less-than-glamorous outdoors lifestyle, was popularized by Beckey himself. Credited with more first ascents than any other North American climber, an achievement unlikely to ever be surpassed, Beckey slowly carved out his legacy over decades spent persistently pursuing any mountain he could get his hands on. Over the course of his life, Beckey published numerous books on climbing, and he received the seldom-awarded President’s Gold Medal from the American Alpine Club.
Dirtbag is mostly presented as a retrospective, chronicling Beckey’s extensive career. Director Dave O’Leske shot over ten years of footage of Beckey, who was still an active climber in the last years of his life. The documentary early on establishes Beckey’s reluctance to participate, an avoidance of the spotlight that perhaps explains his status as a cult hero within the climbing community. Using old footage and photographs, the film does an excellent job in giving the viewer a front-row seat to Beckey’s life over its various stages.
Reluctant as he was, Beckey makes for a fascinating subject. Unconcerned with his broader legacy, the old climber captivates the screen in each of his interviews, mixing philosophical observations with coarse humor. Even benign moments like watching Beckey call up companions for a prospective climb in the middle of a retail store provide interesting portraits into how greatness is crafted through sheer persistence.
The subject of women is one that the film handles in rather poor taste. Though there are numerous interviews chronicling Beckey’s womanizing habits, including a few from former lovers, the documentary includes a few crude animations that don’t really serve any broader purpose than to hype up that kind of behavior. The animations put the documentary in an awkward position, going a step beyond anything explicitly described of Beckey, and fail to add to the narrative in any meaningful way.
While Beckey may not have demonstrated much interest in introspection, the film makes a convincing case for his place in alpine lore. The documentary takes a look at some of Beckey’s contemporaries who went on to make big names for themselves on major expeditions that he was excluded from, as well as the simple fact that Beckey’s longevity is largely due to his embrace of the often lonely nomadic lifestyle. Beckey pursued his dream practically exclusively, at the expense of a family or any sense of financial security. O’Leske deserves a lot of credit for providing a balanced look at the complete picture of his subject.
Dirtbag paints a fascinating portrait of what it means to live life in full pursuit of one’s passions. Fred Beckey’s story is one that’s easy to marvel at without feeling any desire to follow suit. Whatever map can be drawn to plot the course of success invariably involves a heavy helping of determination. Above all else, Dirtbag challenges its viewers to consider the full ramifications of following your dreams.