Remembering Mountaineer Helmy Beckey

We recently learned that Helmut 'Helmy' Beckey passed away last year at the age of 93 in Munich, Germany. A youth member of The Mountaineers, he went on to record a great number of first ascents in The Cascades and beyond.
Megan Bond Megan Bond
Friend of the Beckeys
January 23, 2020
Remembering Mountaineer Helmy Beckey

Helmut Fritz Beckey, known as 'Helmy', was born August 7, 1925, in Seattle, WA, and died in Munich, Germany, on April 20, 2019. He was 93 years old.

Helmy Beckey established first ascents and new routes throughout the Cascades, many with his older brother Fred Beckey. He had learned the basics of climbing in his youth as a member of The Mountaineers, where his aptitude for mountaineering was recognized early on.

In 1940, he and his brother Fred made two extensive excursions into the Picket Range. That year they climbed the West Ridge of Mt. Thompson, made the first ascent of  Forbidden Peak, and completed first ascents on Phantom Peak, Whatcom Peak, Mount Challenger, Crooked Thumb, Luna Peak, Mount Fury's East Peak, McMillan Spire's West Spire, and Inspiration Peak.

In 1941, Helmy, along with his brother Fred, made first ascents and put up new routes on The Trylon, Picture Pinnacle, Guys Peak, Icy Peak, a new route on Nooksack Glacier (Mt Shuksan), both Mox Peaks (then known as Twin Spires), Mt. Spickard, Bear Mountain, and Seahpo Peak (Cloudcap Peak).

That same year, Helmy also achieved the first ascent of the South Tower of Houser Spire in the Bugaboos (in the Purcell Range of British Columbia) with Lloyd Anderson, Lyman Boyer and Tom Campbell. In 1942, within the Cascades, he made first ascents of The Tomahawk, The Fin, Half Moon, Wallaby Peak, Little Finger, Kangaroo Temple, Mushroom Tower, Big Kangaroo, Melted Tower, and a new route on South Early Winter Spire.

Later that same summer (1942) on a six week expedition into the Coast Range to climb Mt. Waddington, he and his brother Fred established a new routes on Little Thumb and Mt. Munday. The two teenage brothers made their objective of summiting the remote and challenging Mt. Waddington. It was only the second ascent of the peak, which had rebuffed a multitude of summit attempts since the first ascent. "I didn't want to go to Waddington," Helmy said. "Fred really had to talk me into it."

Fred Beckey wrote in the 1943 American Alpine Journal about the descent: "Helmy was hit on the knee by one of a flurry of rocks that sped down the mountain side. All hope of reaching camp that night was gone because of a heavy bleeding cut. This was Helmy's 17th birthday present, donated by Mt. Waddington."

Helmy continued to accompany his brother Fred on ambitious climbs, and put up a new route on The Tooth in 1942. In 1944 he made another first ascent, this time on The Needles in the North Cascades, with Larry Strathdee.

In 1945 Helmy and Fred  followed a line established by Lionel Chute (probably made in 1929, but the year is uncertain) on the North Peak of Mt. Index. The Beckeys continued on to the final summit, completing the route, which gave them credit for the actual first ascent of the dramatic peak.

Helmy was the first paid employee of the Recreational Equiptment Cooperative, cofounded by Mountaineers Lloyd and Mary Anderson and now known more broadly as the billion dollar REI Co-op. Helmy was in his mid-teens, and worked in a tiny attic space in Lloyd and Mary Anderson's home, whom he met through The Mountaineers.

He recalled to me that one hot summer day, as he was filling bags with dried milk powder, "Mrs. Anderson came in and turned a fan on to help cool the hot attic room down. The fan blew the milk powder everywhere, I was covered in white milk powder head to toe! I looked like a ghost!" They laughed about that for years. Most days he worked filling and sealing small bags with, in his words "climbing odds and ends". He also translated from German into English the documents that came in with the shipments of climbing equipment from Europe.

He was Valedictorian of his class, graduating from West Seattle High School in 1943. From there he entered the  University of Washington, where he intended to study medicine like his father.

After a year at the University of Washington he decided to pursue opera instead of medicine, and moved to California in 1945. Helmy had been advised that the Opera program at USC was the best on the West Coast at that time. The trauma he sustained to his leg while on Waddington necessitated several surgeries, which kept him out of World War II. The injury plagued him the remainder of his life.

Helmy was a competitive skier, and loved to swim. His interests were varied, and his passion for Opera was vivid and intense.

He was committed to the care of his mother, and quit his University studies early to find full-time employment in order to care for her financially. He moved her down to California in the 1940s to live with him. This freed his brother Fred up to climb and pursue his passions, but kept Helmy close to home until she died in 1966.

He worked as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer in the LA area. In 1974 he took his savings and emigrated to Germany to finally follow his dreams, and pursue his opera career full time. He sang in Opera houses in the Munich area, and was in operatic terms considered a Heroic Baritone.

IMG_20180227_123125.jpgHelmy in Fred's hat, taken in 2018. Photo by Megan Bond. 

Although the Beckey brothers were known to bicker, they remained fiercely close, loyal, and protective of one another over their lives, and wrote or phoned each other monthly, even though they lived on separate continents. Fred made many trips to Germany to visit Helmy, the most recent in 2015.

Helmy was a great supporter and fan of his brother, and Helmy was beloved by Fred. Helmy's home in Munich was filled with books on climbing, opera history, and crammed with scores of classical music.

"Looking back on my life," Helmy wrote to Fred in 1980, "I find that the happiest times I had was when I was climbing with you. Such adventures like the North Pickets, the South Pickets, Twin Spires, and Mt. Waddington were really remarkable, especially because of our youth..."

He was predeceased by his father Klaus in 1952, his mother Marta Maria in 1966, and brother Fred in 2017.

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