From rock climbing to canyoneering: Bo Beck and the call of adventure

Bo Beck has lived a life of epic adventure. He has put up rock climbing first ascents throughout the St. George area, plowed through towering whitewater as he paddled through the Grand and Cataract Canyons, and ascended some of the highest, most difficult peaks in the continental United States. Beck was at the forefront of the growth of canyoneering and recently completed his 20th (and possibly last) descent of Heaps Canyon, one of the most difficult slot canyons in the Southwest. He has met, known, and shared the rope with some of the biggest names in climbing, like Ron Olevsky and Jeff Lowe, to name just two. He is the author of a popular hiking guidebook and the manager of the Desert Rat outdoor retail shop. So much of his life has revolved around the outdoors that it’s hard to tell where Beck ends and the desert begins.

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneering
Photo courtesy of Bo Beck

“Bo Beck probably would have his face on the Mount Rushmore of the St. George outdoor community,” Jason Hurst, president of Hurst Ace Hardware (and the Desert Rat) said. “He has put up heady climbing routes in Snow Canyon, explored virtually every hike and slot canyon in and around Zion National Park, has donated his time on Zion National Park search and rescue, sold many a boy scout their first hiking shoes, backpack, and sleeping bag.”

His story begins in New Mexico, where an early interest in skiing and bicycling brought him to the outdoors. Beck would ski and hike in the Sandias Mountains outside of Albuquerque, going out in all seasons. He spent most of his skiing time at Taos Ski Area. It was the thrill of alpine downhill skiing that provided Beck with that initial spark.

“Mom and Dad bought me a pair of skis and a lift ticket,” Beck said. “That’s sort of in a way how I got into the outdoors, I got involved in a snow ski shop, an outdoor shop similar to the Desert Rat. It was called Mountain Sports Limited. I learned how to mount bindings on skis. I also worked on bicycles.”

“I bought a backpack and a sleeping bag and a tent and I would go out and solo in the winter in the mountains of Santa Fe just to prove to myself I could do it.” – Bo beck

After high school, Beck joined the United States Air Force, and he took one more step towards a lifelong obsession with the outdoors. After enlisting, he eventually became a survival instructor, and his instruction for that job was a key stepping stone for him.

“Part of my training to become  a survival instructor was pretty extensive, and one of the phases was rock climbing. … We went out and climbed in combat boots and we’d use Swiss seats (an early form of harness), we’d go up on the rocks and they’d explain to us how to climb … and how to rappel.”

When Bo moved to St, George years later, he caught the climbing bug.

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneering
Photo courtesy of Bo Beck

“I moved here to St. George, and I thought this rappelling is pretty cool and I bought a rope and a harness and and went out and rappelled. That stimulated my interest for about two weeks, but what really stimulated me was going back up. That’s when I began rock climbing.”

“I went out by myself and had no clue what I was doing,” Beck said. “Probably should have died but didn’t. Some fellows here locally, Jorge Visser, Matt Kindred, John Tainio and Ron Olevsky, who were the local climbers. Fortunately, Matt Kindred took me under his wing, took me out and taught me how to do it properly.”

“[19]90 is when I pursued it hard, I got really interested and the bug bit me hard, that’s when every dollar I had and every minute I had was spent on climbing gear and pursuing climbing.”

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneering
Photo courtesy of Bo Beck

Beck became one of the route pioneers in the St. George climbing scene, establishing numerous first ascents in Snow Canyon and other climbing areas nearby. He has also climbed all over the U.S., exploring crags and towers in search of difficult climbs. He says his favorite climb out of all he has ever done was the first ascent of Aftershock in Snow Canyon, a route he put up with Visser and Wayne Harding.

“It took me a period of a couple months,” Beck said. “Went out in my free time, working from the ground up, then finally going up and redpointing (practicing the route first and then lead climbing) the four pitches. That’s my favorite, because the gratification of the fact that I put that route in … it still sits in my memory more than any climb I’ve ever done.”

Beck has also been an avid canyoneer since his first visit to the area in 1985.

“I did Mystery Canyon and a few other canyons up there [in Zion] and fell in love with it,” Beck said, recalling his introduction to the sport. He has descended many of the numerous difficult slot canyons in the Southwest, including the majority of the canyons in Zion. Earlier this year, Beck returned to Heaps Canyon, one of the more difficult canyons in Zion, and completed what he says is his final descent down the highly technical gorge.

 “Bo is just a tremendous resource to any adventurer interested in where to go, when to go and how to be safe” — Jason hurst

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneeringBeck was for many years a paid member of the Zion National Park Search and Rescue, assisting in locating and retrieving  lost hikers, climbers, and canyoneers. He began his career with the team in June of 1996 and became a member of the first response team and a High Angle Technician. He has taken part in numerous difficult rescues, plucking injured climbers from the sheer walls of Angels Landing and descending the cavernous depths of the many slot canyons. It was a job that kept Beck very busy. He remained on the rescue and recovery team until 2012 and is still on active call-out.

As an outdoor retailer, Beck has been selling gear for close to 40 years.

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneering
Photo courtesy of Bo Beck

“It started with my adolescence,” he said. “Working at Mountain Sports Limited, I enjoyed the retail business. I enjoyed the outdoor product, it was cool, I wanted it. After the military … I needed work, and there was a shop that had opened up, called the Outdoor Outlet, and I went in and … they said ‘Hey, we want to do an alpine ski rental business, can you help us?’ and I said ‘Sure,’ so I developed a program, got a hundred pair of skis and set up a rental program for them. I enjoyed the work very much.”

A year later, he was asked if he wanted to manage the Outdoor Outlet in St. George. Beck said yes, so he and his wife Maria drove to St. George. He interviewed for the job and was hired. Soon afterwards, however, the CEO of Outdoor Outlet asked Beck to open a shop in Vermont, so he left St. George and moved east to start the new business.

Bo Beck rock climbing canyoneering
Photo courtesy of Cameron McMillan

“I ran that store from ’86 until ’89. I moved back here in ’90 to the St. George store, became manager, and ran it until December of 2008 when they finally closed that business down. I came over to Ace Hardware looking to scrub toilets, sweep floors, and Jason [Hurst] said ‘No, open me a store.’ I started January of 2009, coming in here and gutting this building, trying to order merchandise, I got enough stuff in to the store to open on April 15 of 2009.”

So what does the future hold for Beck?

“I don’t know [laughs]. I just bought a boat. I want to spend some more time on some rivers. I would enjoy doing that, but I still anticipate getting out and doing plenty of good hiking, scrambling, peak bagging. I don’t anticipate quitting any of that. I’m real anxious to get up into Wyoming, Idaho, California, and Washington and doing some rivers on my boat.”

Friend and fellow adventurer Cameron McMillian, who accompanied Beck on his last descent through Heaps Canyon, had this to say about him: “It’s hard to describe Bo. Saying he is great or awesome doesn’t even cover it. He is one of a kind. His heart runs deep and he has a true passion to help people in the outdoors. His kindness and acceptance of me transformed my life to more ways than I can describe. He is top-notch and has carved a lasting impression in my heart. I am blessed to call him friend.”