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Dee Molenaar, legendary mountaineer, artist and author, dies at 101


Anyone who has climbed Mount Rainier in the past 80 years has walked in the steps of Dee Molenaar.

Mr. Molenaar, who died of congestive heart failure on Jan. 19 at 101 years old, knew Rainier so well that he referred to it simply as “the mountain” where he hiked as a young man, a father, a National Park Service climbing ranger, a geologist and as an artist.

When he turned 100 in 2018, Mr. Molenaar sat at the base of Rainier in a wheelchair for one last visit with his old friend.

Mr. Molenaar was one in a galaxy of accomplished Seattle-area mountaineers, but his star wasn’t as bright because he didn’t climb for the record books, or to feed his ego. For him, it was a way to study the earth as it rose to the sky, and to build community.

“A lot of climbers are competitive,” said Karen Molenaar Terrell, Mr. Molenaar’s daughter. “Who can get up there the fastest or the highest? But my father just loved being in the mountains and the friendships he made.”

Some bonds were tighter than others.

In 1953, Mr. Molenaar was on the first team of Americans to attempt a summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. They reached the 25,000-foot mark of the 28,000-foot peak when one man developed a blood clot in his leg and the group turned back. On the way down, one climber slipped and the group almost perished. Another was swept away by an avalanche.

“That influenced how my father felt about climbing,” Terrell said of the event known as “The Belay.” “He didn’t have that drive to get to the summit.”

In 1965, Mr. Molenaar and mountaineer Jim Whittaker — the first American to climb Mount Everest — led Sen. Robert F. Kennedy up Mount Kennedy, a 14,000-foot Canadian peak named to honor President John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. The two men got RFK to the summit, where he tearfully left mementos of his slain brother.

When he wasn’t climbing, Mr. Molenaar enjoyed life in Port Orchard with his wife, Colleen, and their children, Karen, Peter and David.

Terrell was just 4 years old when her father took her up Pinnacle Peak. (In 2018, she wrote a book about their adventures called “Are You Taking Me Home Now? Travels with Dad”).

“I was always so confident when I was with him,” Terrell said. “I was never afraid.”

Every decade, for her birthday, Terrell and her father climbed together: Mount Rainier when she was 20, Mount Baker when she was 30 and Mount Adams when she was 40. Mr. Molenaar was 80 then, and felt he was holding the group back, so he waited at the base camp.

“It was the first time I reached a summit without him, and it felt weird,” Terrell said. “It just didn’t feel right.”

When they came down, Mr. Molenaar had a taste of what his family had endured for years: “I never had to wait at base camp for anyone,” he told his daughter, “and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the worrying.”

David Molenaar remembered his father waking him early to hike: “I would be thinking, ‘What the heck is going on?’ and then you get up there and say, ‘Oh, yeah. It was worth it.’

“He taught me to appreciate the outdoors in the most comfortable, warm way,” he said. “I take that with me everywhere I go now. It was precious.”

Said his son, Peter: “He loved putting one foot in front of the other. There was something deeply meditative about it.”

Mr. Molenaar was the author of three books (“The Challenge of Rainier,” “Memoirs of a Dinosaur Mountaineer” and “Mountains Don’t Care, But We Do”); a ski instructor and an artist. He was also a cartographer who made detailed maps of mountain trails.

“Rainier is not a ‘simple mountain, without guile,’ ” he wrote in 1971’s “The Challenge of Rainier.” “Those who have climbed it the most are also those who have the greatest respect for its many moods.”

Tom Hornbein, one of the first people to summit the notorious West Ridge of Mount Everest (and who wrote “Everest: The West Ridge”), remembered visiting Mr. Molenaar in 2017, before standing in for him when The Mountaineers gave him a lifetime achievement award.

“We arm-wrestled,” Hornbein, 89, said with a laugh. “He had these bulging biceps and was still very strong.”

Hornbein — a retired anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine — spoke of Mr. Molenaar’s sprawling intellectual curiosity and creativity: “His watercolor paintings, the maps he drew, his writing, which has stood the test of time. Even his yodeling.” (Mr. Molenaar’s daughter recorded him doing just that on Mount Rainier in 2010.)

Mr. Molenaar was born to Dutch immigrants in 1918 and grew up in California, where his father took him hiking in the Hollywood Hills. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II and graduated from the University of Washington in 1950 with a degree in geology. He was a civilian adviser in the Army’s Mountain & Cold Weather Training Command and a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He retired in 1983.

He met his wife, Colleen, when they were both working at Mount Rainier — he as a climbing ranger and she in the gift shop (she had climbed Rainier twice on her own).

In 2017, both Mr. Molenaar and his wife fell ill and were admitted to the same hospital. When Mrs. Molenaar was about to be released, a nurse wheeled her husband down to her room to say goodbye. She died at their daughter’s home the next day.

“With Dee’s passing, we have lost a bit of American mountaineering history,” said Tom Vogl, the CEO of The Mountaineers, which published Mr. Molenaar’s books.

“I was nervous to meet him,” Vogl remembered. “It was like a basketball player meeting Michael Jordan. He was an absolutely remarkable human being.”

Mr. Molenaar is survived by his children and four grandchildren.

A public memorial will be held on Sunday, April 12, at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center.

Correction: An early version of this story included an incorrect publication year for “The Challenge of Rainier.”

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