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Dee Molenaar, Last Survivor of Legendary 1953 K2 Expedition, Dies at 101

Dee Molenaar died January 19 at 101 years of age.

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Dee Molenaar. Photo © Jim Herrington.

Dee Molenaar was born in Los Angeles in 1918 to Dutch immigrant parents. During World War II, he served as a photographer in the U.S. Coast Guard in the Aleutians and western Pacific. After the war Molenaar worked as a park ranger and mountain guide in Mount Rainier National Park, climbing the mountain over 50 times as a guide and on personal trips via more than a dozen different routes including three first ascents.

In 1946 he made the second ascent of the second highest mountain in the US, Mount Saint Elias, on the Yukon/Alaska frontier.

[Also Read Robert Craig, K2 Survivor, Author and Educator, Dies]

1953 saw him on the Third American Karakoram Expedition to attempt K2 in Pakistan, the second highest mountain in the world. The team was pinned down by a storm for 10 days, high on the mountain. Molenaar, tent-bound during the tempest at 25,500 feet, managed to turn out some fine watercolors, however by the end of their desperate bivouac, with precious fuel for melting snow for drinking water running low, his team mates made Molenaar drink his rations from his remaining pigment-laced water. One of the members became critically ill during the storm and a dangerous retreat had to be undertaken. During the descent there was a mass fall with one fatality, the remainder of the group being saved by a now legendary boot-axe belay provided by Pete Schoening, a member of the party.

I photographed Dee in his home near Seattle several years ago. His house was full of the detritus of a long, well-traveled life; paintings, photographs, maps, books—all kinds of stuff you’d want to spend days looking through. He had traveled and climbed from Alaska to Antarctica, New Zealand to Helsinki and everywhere in between. He and his wife were very cool, vibrant people, funny and alive. Unfortunately she died a few years before he did and the the great house was closed up and he began living in an assisted living home.

I’m so glad that I was able to meet the great man and include him in my book. His was the kind of bookshelf I’d want it to sit upon.

Jim Herrington is a photographer and author of The Climbers, a book of sixty black-and-white portraits of early-to-mid 20th Century mountain climbing legends. The book, published in October 2017, won the Grand Prize at the 2017 Banff Book Awards, as well as the Mountaineering History Award.

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