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Home » Features » A Visit with Dee Molenaar (1918-2020)

A Visit with Dee Molenaar (1918-2020)

[Dee Molenaar died January 19, 2020, in Burlington, Washington, at age 101. Michael Ybarra wrote this profile for the Climbing Life section of Alpinist 36 (Autumn 2011). Ybarra died in the summer of 2012 while climbing solo along the Sawtooth Ridge in the Sierra Nevada, California. A tribute to Ybarra’s life by Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives can be found here.–Ed.]

Bob Craig (left) and Dee Molenaar in Seattle, 2011. [Photo] John Scurlock

Bob Craig (left) and Dee Molenaar in Seattle, 2011. The men were teammates on the famous 1953 K2 expedition. Craig died on January 16, 2015, at age 90. “Two titans right there,” said photographer John Scurlock. [Photo] John Scurlock

The pale watercolor sketch sits on an easel in the attic: the world’s tallest, most forbidding pyramid. The painter’s long finger gestures toward his highpoint: 25,500 feet on the Abruzzi Ridge. He never thought he’d get chosen for the team. The last day he stood there, he wondered if he’d ever get home. He’s painting K2 from a photo, although the memory–going on six decades–remains as vivid as the cobalt sky on a clear Karakoram day. “August 10, 1953, is the most memorable day of my life,” Dee Molenaar says.

(The handshake is strong, confident. You think he could still swing a tool, if need be. He walks up the stairs with a stoop, as if he were wearing a heavy pack. You hope you’ll climb stairs that fast in half a century.)

In the studio, there’s a triptych in oil, not quite finished: the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Mt. Rainier. “Mountains have always been my favorite subject,” Molenaar says. “That’s about all I paint.” The brushstrokes are thick, solid. The plasticity of the paint is like the tongue of a glacier pushing its way forward. He has stood atop all three peaks, but it’s the last one–the one that he was hired to guide before he even owned an ice axe–that most shaped his life. All ninety-three years of it.

In the basement, there are stacks of climbing books. Some he has written; many others are by friends and partners. And boxes of maps–his maps. Not slick software-designed ones, but lovingly handcrafted things, works of beauty. His map of Mt. Rainier is painted in muted tones, a bird’s-eye view of the snow-capped volcano, its ridges radiating like the arms of a starfish. On the backside of the map, there’s a mini-guide that includes the geological and mountaineering history. A series of small sketches depict flanks, glaciers and valleys. It’s less an exercise in cartography than a hymn.

(Close the door; don’t let the cats down there, says Colleen, his wife. You sure you don’t want some coffee or a beer?)

The basement gear room looks like–could be–a mountaineering museum. Wood-shafted ice axes older than you are. Ice screws you wouldn’t trust to anchor your partner’s pack. Pitons you’d be afraid to put a hammer to. His canvas, external-frame backpack from the 1953 Third American Karakoram Expedition. Although he has replaced the original sack, the newer one looks well-used and faded enough to pass as the first. “It’s a good pack,” he says.

(Back in the kitchen, the large, black cat has taken your seat. Lifting the cat, you think, My summit pack on Denali weighed less.)

Mountains, drawing them, studying how they came to be–the intertwined passions of Molenaar’s life–began with childhood hikes in the Hollywood Hills. He’s been painting so long he can’t remember a time when he didn’t. He and his brother used to venture into California’s lesser ranges, the dry, sunny, scrub-choked San Gabriel Mountains. When he was twenty-one, they went on a road trip to climb everything they could in the Cascades: Lassen, Shasta, Rainier. There was a week of rain at Rainier. They hung out in the guide hut waiting for better weather. A guide saw the garden tools they’d turned into alpenstocks and told them they could borrow real ice axes. Molenaar sent the guide a watercolor drawing of Rainier. The guide invited Molenaar to work for him. That was 1940.

(Molenaar’s goatee is white, thick, fuller than the hair on his head. His face is relatively unlined for someone who’s spent so much time outdoors. His eyes are clear behind horn-rimmed glasses. Even though he has a hearing aid, you still have to speak up.)

He guided the mountain for a couple of seasons; then he worked as a ranger in the park for several years. Sometimes the mountain seemed to be guiding him. As it did during those five days in June 1968 when he walked twenty-five miles around Rainier, crossing sixteen glaciers, the peak always above, the foothills below. He loved the comfort of familiar terrain mixed with the enchantment of the unknown. He climbed Rainier fifty times by fifteen routes, three of them new.

In 1971 he published The Challenge of Rainier, a history of the peak and the people attracted to it. He can’t seem to stop writing about the mountain. By now, he’s updated the book several times, most recently this autumn [2011] with a fortieth-anniversary edition.

“I fell in love with Rainier,” Molenaar says. “I don’t know why. It’s just a big pile of ice and rotten rock. It was my first love maybe.”

Ah, but what a pile! Rising to a height of 14,411 feet, towering 9,000 feet above the surrounding foothills and visible from 100 miles away, “Mt. Rainier is among the highest and topographically most impressive of the world’s volcanoes,” Molenaar writes in The Challenge of Rainier. Even the tiniest pieces of the mountain stirred his sense of wonder: “Passing through Glacier Basin, we brushed snow from small hummocks along the trail, uncovering clusters of yellow glacier lilies and western anemones temporarily thwarted in their proclamations of summer.”

(You would not call the house tidy–like the life, it contains multitudes. But the art, the books, the rocks–all seem of a piece. It sits–sags actually–in Burley, on the Kitsap Peninsula, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, a woodsy hamlet that’s green and lush in the way only the Pacific Northwest can appear.)

Molenaar stayed close to Rainier for college at the University of Washington, where he graduated with a geology degree in 1950. Work took him away–to Colorado, to Alaska, to Utah. But he always returned. He retired from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1983. His unpublished autobiography runs to 400 pages. Prospective publishers have told him there’s too much geology in it, but how can you write about mountains without wondering where they came from?

(Molenaar took Colleen to Mt. Hood on their first date. In the parking lot, he painted a watercolor. She was charmed. He was the biggest gentleman I ever went out with, she says. Her mother cried when she told her they were getting married. He’s a divorced mountaineer! her mother exclaimed. It’ll never last. In October 2010, they celebrated fifty-seven years of marriage.)

He’s left the orbit of Rainier now and then. When he was working as a civilian adviser in the Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale, Colorado, his friend Robert Craig told him they should both apply for the 1953 K2 expedition. “I didn’t expect to get picked,” he says. Before long, both were headed to Pakistan.

All eight climbers reached Camp VIII by August 2, 1953, just in time for a storm. The weather relented after five days, but then Art Gilkey collapsed, blood clots in his legs. Three days later, they began a desperate retreat, lowering an immobile Gilkey in a makeshift stretcher. There was a slip; one rope team fell, catching another and so on until five climbers were sliding off the side of K2.

It had the makings of one of the worst single accidents in mountaineering history. Instead it became a legend: The Belay. Pete Schoening held almost the entire team on his axe. When the stunned climbers returned to where they’d left Gilkey, he was gone–most likely swept away by an avalanche. Or perhaps, he untied himself to spare his friends from risking their lives in the hopeless pursuit of saving his.

The year before, as a Rainier ranger, Molenaar had checked the equipment of guides on the mountain. When he examined Schoening’s ice axe, he noticed that the spike looked pretty dull, almost like a ball bearing. The same axe saved his life.

The K2 teammates stayed in touch, held many reunions. But time has taken what the mountain didn’t. “Bob Craig and Tony Streather and I are the only survivors,” Molenaar says.

Molenaar last climbed Rainier in the mid-1980s. These days, he and Colleen hike to Alta Vista, the hillside above the park headquarters at Paradise, and he paints watercolors of the mountain. He jokes that the walk seems like climbing Everest. “That’s where our ashes are going to be when we kick off,” he says.

(On their honeymoon, Molenaar and his wife climbed Independence Monument, a 450-foot-tall sandstone tower in Colorado. A chipmunk greeted them on the summit. She’s also climbed Rainier a couple of times, as have their three children. She was never what people call a “serious climber.” She’s just always loved the hills.)

There are some regrets. He wishes he’d climbed Fuji, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua–easy mountains for a man who made the second ascent of Mt. St. Elias by a new route in 1946, but still icons in their landscapes. But it’s not difficulty as much as beauty and history that draws him. “In ’53 we were the only ones on the mountain,” he says. “I don’t think I’d take up climbing if I got started today. I’d probably take up hill walking, but I’d still be painting. I don’t like climbing in a big mob. I don’t blame people. I was just lucky there wasn’t that much competition back when I started.”

(Would you like a banana? Colleen asks as you leave. Next time we’ll go to a restaurant in Gig Harbor. They make the best Reubens. My treat.)

The visit was treat enough.

–Michael J. Ybarra, His Car, The Road

[About a year after this story originally went to press, in September 2012, Molenaar published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Dinosaur Mountaineer. In 2018, the Mountaineers published a tribute to Molenaar’s career in honor of his 100th birthday.–Ed.]