Living in and around mountains, as we do in Summit County, we learn to have an appreciation and a respect for the high limits of our peaks. This fondness for the alpine experience is a sentiment shared by renowned mountaineer, Dee Molenaar, whose career has spanned many decades, and whose book, The Challenge of Rainier, recently marked its 40th Anniversary in 2011, with the release of the updated 4th Edition, including a new Foreword by legendary climber, Ed Viesturs.
Dee Molenaar’s name was already familiar to me from K2-The Savage Mountain, Charles Houston’s account of the infamous and epic 1953 attempt on the world’s second highest peak. Molenaar’s experience on that Karakoram giant was shared by Summit County’s own legendary sportsman, Robert Craig, founder of the Keystone Science School and The Keystone Center.
What I did not know, until reading the dense, but engaging pages of Molenaar’s The Challenge of Rainier, was that he and Bob Craig had met before, sharing a climbing rope for their own adventure on Mount Rainier. “Dee and I did the first direct ascent of the Nisqually Icefall in 1947,” Craig said about his collaboration with Molenaar. “In 1953, we were teammates on the memorable American K2 Expedition. Dee was the ideal companion in high places - - steady, courageous, unselfish, and above all, humorous.”
Aware that the 14,410 foot volcano is unique in the annals of mountaineering lore, I was prepared for a thorough documentary, but Molenaar’s deep knowledge of the mountain’s history impressed me. Unlike many authors who have documented historic climbs, Molenaar goes far beyond describing his own many years of experiences on the peak’s ridges and faces, choosing, instead, to detail Rainier’s mystical status throughout history, beginning well before the Europeans first spotted the massive peak rising above the waters of the Puget Sound.
Carefully documenting the volcano’s geologic birth, and the resulting distinct features that make the mountain such a coveted prize for mountaineers, Molenaar proceeds to “climb” the many routes on the mountain, as they were conquered, one by one since the first adventurers climbed up in their wool jackets and hob-nailed boots, often carrying nothing more than an alpenstock and a pocketful of prunes.
The precision of Molenaar’s descriptions often tended toward tedium, but being an “arm chair” fan of mountaineering literature for many years, and thus having become familiar with much of the terminology, I persevered, gaining a true feel of the mountain’s challenging contours, which clearly should never be underestimated. Many casual climbers have journeyed up its slopes, confident of their abilities to master the mountain, but the unpredictable nature of Rainier’s location in the Cascade Range, which can receive immense amounts of heavy snowfall, and the dynamic array of glaciers, steam caves, and avalanche-prone slopes, all conspire to keep Rainier’s upper summits (3 named--Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap) unattainable for all but the most capable of people.
Clearly, Molenaar was himself perfectly capable of navigating the many summit approaches, having studied the details from below and meticulously recording his beloved mountain through painstaking drawings from every angle. The Challenge of Rainier is filled with these sketches, exhibiting the author’s passion for the mountain upon which he honed the craft of mountaineering and guiding.
Countless lifelong climbing careers began on the slopes of Rainier, and Molenaar covers many of them, detailing the transitions ambitious youths made from eager beginners, diligently toe-kicking their way up the snowy inclines to the ranks of mature and highly-trained guides, rangers, or high-altitude expedition leaders. Numerous climbers, with their sights set on the most coveted of trophies, Mount Everest, sharpened their skills on Rainier, where weather patterns and the varied terrain mimic much of what is found on the highest peak in the world.
Of course, chronicles of mountaineering feats would not be complete without an examination of the tragedies that are inherent to the sport. Rainier has seen its share of fatal missteps and accidents, but rather than making them the main feature of the narrative, as in many other similar chronicles, Molenaar allowed first-hand accounts from witnesses to speak for the deceased and for their places in the mountain’s fabled history.
As my reading of The Challenge of Rainier came to a close, I marveled at how much I had learned about this spectacular mountain, whose grandeur is often overlooked because it has the good fortune of being on our own continent, in close proximity to a major U.S. city, rather than in some far-off exotic land. Dee Molenaar is a convincing advocate for this nation’s own “mountaineer’s mountain”. Mount Rainier is worthy of attention and reverence, and his finely-crafted book is a testament to that.