BURLINGTON — Among mountain climbers, Dee Molenaar is a living legend.
He recently celebrated his 101st birthday and though he no longer climbs, he still possesses a vice-like grip achieved over decades worth of clinging to ice axes and ropes and a quick memory that spans many years and continents.
The Mountaineers recently honored Molenaar with their Lifetime Achievement Award. He couldn’t attend the ceremony, so they brought the ceremony to him in Burlington. They were joined by another larger-than-life mountaineer and colleague, Jim Wickwire.
The two bantered back and forth about climbs, other climbers — those living and lost — along with rescues and adventures.
Wickwire was accompanied by The Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl and Development Director Amber Carrigan. Also showing up for the impromptu award ceremony were fellow climbers and longtime family friends, Don and Natala Goodman.
“We got to know Dee on our trips to Rainier,” Don Goodman said, “when he was living down south.”
Joining the party remotely from his home in Estes Park, Colorado, was Molenaar’s friend and fellow climber Tom Hornbein.
The gathering was a who’s who of climbing giants whose adventures are documented in numerous books, articles and documentaries.
Upon the crystalline award for Molenaar is the following inscription: “Dee Molenaar, author, artist, iconic northwest climber and mountaineer of international acclaim. For his devotion to wild places, the well-being of humanity, contributions to the mountaineering community, and loyal support of The Mountaineers.”
“Whoa,” Molenaar said as he was handed the award, “it’s heavy.”
For those not familiar with Molenaar’s exploits, he is known for his many climbs on Mount Rainier as well as the 1953 expedition to Pakistan’s K2 that led to “The Belay” of climbing lore.
A synopsis of that storied climb finds Molenaar, Robert Craig, Dr. Charles Houston, Art Gilkey, George Bell, Tony Streather, Bob Bates and Pete Schoening attempting to climb the remote 28,251-foot peak.
Only the fifth expedition on the mountain, the climbers reached Camp VIII at 25,500 feet, but were stopped by a blizzard. Nine days into the storm, Gilkey collapsed due to blood clots in his leg.
Needing immediate evacuation, Gilkey was secured in a makeshift stretcher made of a sleeping bag, rope and tent remnants. On day 10, the party began lowering the sick climber down slopes slick with freshly fallen snow and compact ice.
Schoening was easing the sled downward when disaster struck on the 11th day of the ordeal. A climber’s slip caused chaos among the ropes. The group and the makeshift stretcher were pulled from the mountain and careened toward a precipice.
Schoening, with only a boot-axe belay — his foot on a wooden ice axe sunk down behind a boulder — stopped the descent of all five climbers, including Molenaar. Four of the five climbers were injured and one was unconscious. Those able to do so descended to render aid and eventually made it to camp.
Several of the climbers returned for Gilkey, but the sick climber had disappeared, possibly swept away by an avalanche.
The efforts of all involved became legendary, spurring on climbers to this day.
“They were pivotal figures in my even beginning to climb,” Wickwire said. “I read about the expedition as a teenager, and I didn’t start climbing until I was 20.”
The inspiration was not just about getting to the summit.
“It’s about what happens on a climb. And in this case, I don’t think those guys really knew how important this would become in overall mountaineering history,” Wickwire said. “What they did up there was just amazing.”
Wickwire was one of the first two Americans to summit K2 and is also known for surviving a bivouac on the mountain above 27,000 feet. He’s also the author of “Addicted to Danger: Affirming Life in the Face of Death”.
He and Molenaar first attempted to climb a new route together on Mount Rainier’s Mowich Face in 1963.
“The conditions were bad, and we couldn’t see anything,” Wickwire recalled, “so we turned back before we got to any of the serious climbing. That was the first time I met Dee.”
As the party descended, Wickwire wrote the following about his experience: “On the way out, I had a chance to talk with Dee. For one of the most prominent climbers in America, one would never know it from his talk. He was quite modest in relating to me some of his experiences on K2 and Mount Saint Elias in Alaska. His attitude toward climbing in general was in complete agreement with my own sentiments. Though a big thing in our lives, climbing must still remain in its place and give way to the more important things in life.”
Among the other important things in Molenaar’s life was his artwork. He is known for painting a watercolor above 25,000 feet in elevation, and his works have been widely displayed, appearing in galleries and books. He also authored “The Challenge of Rainier: A Record of the Explorations and Ascents, Triumphs and Tragedies, on the Northwest’s Greatest Mountain.” He climbed to Mount Rainier’s summit 50 times.
Though Molenaar’s climbing days are over, he keeps a personal collection of ice axes, some wood and some metallic, that he used on his adventures.
Molenaar picked the oldest-looking ice ax off the table during an interview about his lifetime achievement award.
“This is the one I had most of the years,” he said.
Asked about his favorite climb, Molenaar replied: “All of them. Rock or ice. Whatever is in front of me.”