It's not about the climb

Artist and mountaineer Dee Molenaar stands with a collection of prints, photos and maps from some of his artistic adventures during his life mountaineering. - Kristin Okinaka
Artist and mountaineer Dee Molenaar stands with a collection of prints, photos and maps from some of his artistic adventures during his life mountaineering.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka

Just as natural as it is for some to bring trail mix or a first aid kit, a set of paints always goes along with Dee Molenaar on every hike.

"I've always had watercolors when I climb or hike," said Molenaar at his Port Orchard home last week.

The 93-year-old has climbed Mount Rainier more than 50 times and has been a part of several national and international expeditions including on Mount St. Elias in Alaska and the Himalaya Mountains. He has painted — mainly in watercolors — on the scene of his many climbs.

Molenaar's artwork from his travels are on display at Old Town Custom Framing and Gallery in Silverdale. A reception, open to the public, will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18. The work will be available for viewing and purchase through the end of the month at the gallery.

Exploring mountains and being interested in art have always been a part of Molenaar's life from the start — always coinciding with one another. He said he's been drawing since he was a kid beginning with pencils and crayons. Originally from Los Angeles, Molenaar grew up hiking with his family in the Hollywood Hills. He began sketching mountains in the 1930s.

"I like to paint out on the spot. You get more depth in your paintings," Molenaar said.     A significant "on the spot" time was actually when the mountain was not right in front of him, but rather when he was stuck in his tent on the mountain.

Molenaar painted K2 from memory in his tent at an elevation of 25,000 feet on the mountain when he and the other members of the 1953 American Karakoram Expedition were trapped for 10 days in a storm. The painting is the highest watercolor in history, he said. K2, or "Mount Qogir," is part of the Karakoram Himalayan Range and is the second highest mountain in the world.

"I just did watercolors with the tent beating on my head," Molenaar said as he recalled the lack of oxygen and having to drink the water he used for his paints in an effort to save resources. He said he painted to pass the time while he thought about his family and whether he and the group would survive. One man died during the expedition.

Not all of Molenaar's expeditions have been tragedy-stricken. Seven years prior to the K2 expedition, he was part of the first American ascent and first south-side ascent of Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet.

But his mountaineering treks extend beyond getting to the top.

"The mountains meant more to me than the act of climbing," Molenaar said. "As I paint, I'm still visualizing mountains as sources of beauty and inspiration — spiritually as the abode of the gods or whatever we individually think of in a spiritual sense."

Molenaar retired from working as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in 1983. He has a degree in geology from the University of Washington. But, retirement means painting nearly every day — so long as there isn't any football to watch on TV, he added. He still visits Mount Rainier often for hikes around Paradise.

"I think that keeps him going — painting mountains," said his wife Colleen.

The couple met while Molenaar and his younger brother worked at Mount Rainier during the summer months of his college years as park rangers and guides. She worked at one of the gift shops and said Molenaar's new artwork wouldn't hang around long with visitors purchasing them.

"A lot of painters will paint from a photo, but he paints while he's there — it's more energetic," said Maria Mackovjak, owner of Old Town Custom Framing and Gallery. "His watercolors definitely take you on a journey."

Molenaar's journey has included many mountain peaks including during the late 1930s when he and his brother traveled around western Washington climbing various mountains like Mount Hood and Mount Shasta while picking up odd jobs such as fruit picking in order to pay for their gas money.

During World War II, Molenaar was a photographer for the U.S. Coast Guard. He also has many self-published landform maps.

In 1973, "The Challenge of Mount Rainier" was published — his book on his climbs on the mountain. The book is in its 10th printing.

Colleen joked that they can see Mount Rainier from their backyard, but in a sense, they can. A few years back, Molenaar painted the mountain on the side of their garage.

"I just like getting out. I paint the mountains," Molenaar said.



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