Matt Driscoll

He literally wrote the book on climbing Mount Rainier. Legendary mountaineer dies at 101

Dee Molenaar passed away on Sunday, Jan. 19, in Burlington, at the adult family home where he spent the final years of his long life.

He was 101.

If Molenaar’s name doesn’t ring a bell, there’s a decent chance you’ve never scaled Mount Rainier or studied the awe-inspiring history of those who made an art of it.

I certainly hadn’t until earlier this week when a reader reached out with a suggestion.

The reader thought a remembrance of Molenaar was in order.

Molenaar made it to the top of his beloved Mount Rainier more than 50 times, I soon learned, and literally wrote what’s widely considered to be the definitive book on its climbing history. He lived much of his life in devoted service and in adventure on the mountain — Tahoma —that here in Tacoma and Pierce County we’re lucky enough to claim just a little emotional ownership of.

Molenaar was a man of our mountain.

“If you do not recognize his name, please Google or go to Wikipedia,” the reader rightfully instructed. “He was a climbing legend.”

The reader was right.

About all of it.

Living to see 101 — or 101 and seven months as was precisely noted in his obituary — is no small feat, but it was just one of Molenaar’s many triumphs. In death, his life inspired a number of fitting tributes, each one ticking off the many mountains he summited and the historic climbs he was a part of.

Karen Molenaar Terrell, a daughter, and one of three children her father had with his wife Colleen, certainly knows the stories.

She’s heard tales of her father’s exploits many times.

Mostly though, in the days since he passed away, she’s been recalling the family time spent with the man she often refers to as simply “Pop.”

As a kid growing up in largely in Port Orchard, Terrell, now 63, said she quickly realized her dad was a big deal in the world of mountain climbing, at least “on one level.”

Robert Kennedy became a family friend, after all, after ascending Mount Kennedy in the Yukon with her father and a team led by Jim Whitaker. The expedition came two years after the assassination of Kennedy’s brother, and the 14,000-foot mountain had been newly named in the slain president’s honor.

Another time, Washington Gov. Dan Evans stopped by the house, simply to borrow climbing supplies.

“On another level,” Terrell said, “he was just my dad.”

Ask Terrell, and she’ll beam about her father’s stories and accolades. She’s “proud of his legacy,” she said Wednesday.

What really gets her going, though, are memories of the cherished private moments.

She said her father “gave us the mountain” growing up, noting that all the kids climbed Rainier with their father at some point.

“We had a lot of wonderful hikes and camping trips. Mom also climbed Mount Rainier twice — she was adventurous in her own right. We just had this really wonderful upbringing in the mountains,” Terrell explained.

“In the periphery, there were all these famous people entering our lives from now and then,” she said.

Her father’s renown, at least beyond skylines where Rainier stands tall above all else, can be traced back to K2 in 1953, and what’s widely considered to be one of the most famous expeditions in mountaineering history.

In hindsight, it’s strange that Molenaar will likely be most remembered for being part of an expedition that didn’t make it to the top.

It’s also strangely appropriate, since what transpired over 10 stormbound days atop the world’s second highest mountain came to stand “as shorthand for all that is good in mountaineering — teamwork, self-sacrifice, toughness, skill,” in the words of Adventure Magazine.

All of those attributes could describe Molenaar, but more than anything, according to his daughter and those who knew him best, his passion for climbing was about forging human relationships.

“There was no competitiveness with him. … With dad it was really all about the friendship he made in the mountains,” Terrell said.

“I remember the joyfulness with which he related to the mountain, and the people,” added Tom Hornbein, a fellow mountaineer, famous for his own 1963 climbed up Everest. “He was just a sweetheart of a guy.”

Today, Molenaar’s K2 expedition is legendary because of its climax, known simply in the world of mountaineering as “The Belay.”

Tied together in emergency retreat after 10 days atop the world’s second highest peak — which his compatriots spent anxiously waiting for the storm to pass while Molenaar spent watercolor painting in his tent — the group was miraculously saved from tumbling off the peak by one stretched-thin rope and the dug-in hold of climbing legend Pete Schoening.

Tragically, 26-year-old Art Gilkey, who had been stricken with blood clots in his leg and wrapped in a sleeping back for evacuation, later perished in what’s assumed to be an avalanche.

Some in the group later wondered if Gilkey let himself go as his compatriots made camp, to save them from having to save him.

For Molenaar, it was one adventure in a life full of them — many of which returned him to the mountain he loved.

After falling for Mount Rainier as a young man, Molenaar returned to the mountain after serving with the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, eventually spending years working for the National Park Service as a summit guide and ranger.

Rainier, according to Hornbein, was Molenaar’s “soul mountain.”

“It was the place that he cut his teeth and learned much of his skills,” Horbnein said. “That was sort of home base for him.”

True to his unique spirit, in addition to climbing, writing and painting — Molenaar’s K2 watercolor work is known to have been painted at a higher altitude than any in history — he was an accomplished geologist and map maker.

None of this is lost on Terrell, though with time now given to reflect on the amazing life her father lived, she’s still most drawn to the lesser known tales.

She recalls a family trip to Rainier, and a trek to Camp Muir with her then 8-year-old son, and how at 82, Molenaar slowly but surely made his way up to join the family he loved.

She hears him yodeling, as he was well known to do, on the hikes he still took into his 80s and 90s.

She remembers the trip to Mount Baker, organized by his caregivers at Cedar Grove Adult Family Home, where he went to live after the love of his life, Colleen, died in 2017.

She cherishes his last trip to Rainier, where family and his many climbing friends celebrated his 100th birthday.

Terrell looks back on 1965 and how just prior to climbing Mount Kennedy with Bobby, her father chased her and her siblings around the yard. He playfully removed their socks, she said, then fashioned a raggedy flag out of them, which he playfully posed for pictures with at the top.

In the official history of the expedition, it’s the historic mementos Kennedy left atop the mountain — like a copy of his brother’s inaugural address and his Inaugural Medallion — that is most often remembered.

Just not to Dee’s daughter.

“It was the Molenaar family flag,” Molenaar Terrell said of the makeshift flag, made from children’s’ socks..

“Thank you so much,” she later told me, “for taking the time to learn about Pop.”

I assured her it was my pleasure.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.