I’ve said their names so many times together that they’ve morphed into one word: MountRainierMountAdamsMountBakerMountHood.
The first major volcano I climbed was 11,249′ Mount Hood. I was 15. I didn’t really understand the BIGNESS of what I was doing at 15. I just followed my dad, Dee Molenaar, up to the top of Hood, and followed him back down again. I remember feeling like I was on a whole different planet, though. I remember the smell of sulphur from the crater, and I remember it made me a little nervous. I remember the top layer of skin on my face burning a crispy red. And I remember being back in high school on Monday morning.
The summer before I turned 21 I asked Dad to guide me, and some of my friends who worked with me at Paradise, up to the summit of 14,411′ Rainier. I better understood the bigness of what we were doing by this time – this was my second summer working on Mount Rainier and I’d been around enough climbers up there to know that some people prepared their whole lives for this climb. But I don’t think I yet appreciated how blessed I was to be able to call Dad to be my guide and then two weeks later to find myself climbing in his foosteps up to the summit of Washington’s highest volcano. Climbing mountains is just what the people I’d grown up with had always done and it seemed natural that I should climb mountains, too. Our climb of Rainier that weekend was awesome – like on Hood, I felt like I was in a whole different world, but this time I wasn’t nervous about it. I remember the suncups that looked like little ice castles. I remember the deep blue crevasses. I remember climbing under the stars, in the quiet and stillness of pre-dawn, and then watching the sun rise over little Tahoma down below. It was magic!
A few years later, as a promise I’d made to one of my bridesmaids, I, once again, asked Dad to lead me and my friends on a climb of Rainier. But this time felt different for me, and for Dad, too. He was 66, had already climbed Rainier 50 times by then, and I knew his heart wasn’t in this one. He was a little grumbly. So this time, as we left Camp Sherman, I told Dad I wasn’t feeling well (this wasn’t really true) and I could hear the lift in his voice as he happily unroped from the rest of the team and announced that he and I would be heading back to camp because I wasn’t feeling good. We had a wonderful time that day just hanging out at Camp Sherman together, preparing to be a support for the other climbers when they made it back down. Dad’s friend, Pete Schoening – who’d saved my dad’s life and the lives of four other climbers with his famous belay on K2 in 1953 – was with the team, and we knew our friends were in good hands.
A year after we got married, my husband, Scott, and I moved to the northern part of Washington State, near the Canadian border. Rainier was no longer a quick drive away. Now our closest volcano was Mount Baker – Rainier’s 10,786′ sibling. Baker is humbler than her big sister and less famous, but I began to think of her as “my” mountain – and her summit was calling to me. The summer before I turned 31 I called Dad and asked him if he could guide Scott and me and some of my teaching friends from Sedro-Woolley to the top of Mount Baker. And bless him, he agreed. Dad must have been about 69 then – at the time I didn’t think much of that, but now, from the perspective of someone who’s almost 66, I am in absolute awe of who Dad was at 69. He safely led the team to the top of Mount Baker – and (just as importantly) safely led us back down again, over and around crevasses that were widening as the afternoon grew warmer. It was another wonderful day with Pop in the mountains – and Mount Baker was the first summit my husband, Scott, and I stood on together.
The summer before I turned 41 I got it into my noggin that I wanted to climb Mount Adams, Washington’s second highest mountain at 12,280′. I picked up the phone and called my faithful guide, Dad. Dad agreed to guide Scott and me and Scott’s friend, John, up Adams – and when I think about that now I am astounded! Dad was 79. In retrospect, I can see that, even if I was oblivious to Dad’s age, he wasn’t. He invited another man with a lot of mountaineering experience to join us on the climb, and that proved to be a really good call on Dad’s part.
A couple of significant things happened on our climb of Mount Adams: first, I had an epiphany that changed the way I viewed mountain climbing – it struck me, as I looked down the steep, icy slope I was traversing, that I was a mom now – I had a a three-year-old and a five-year-old waiting for me back home – and it occured to me that I could no longer be so cavalier about my own life – I had little people I loved who needed me to stay alive for them; and second, at about 10,000′ Dad let us know that he was done – that he felt he was holding us back (he wasn’t) and he would stay down below at base camp while the rest of us went on up to the summit. It felt really weird to be climbing without Dad. It was like there was this empty place at the top where he should have been standing. When our troop made it back to base camp, Dad hurried out to greet us – his arms opened wide to hug me. He said, “This is the first time I’ve had to wait at base camp for you and I didn’t like the worry of it!”
Mount Adams was the first big volcano I summited without Dad, and it is the last big volcano I ever climbed.
I look at these mountains now – MountRainierMountAdamsMountBakerMountHood – and I think to myself: “What in the heck were you thinking?! Whatever made you think you could climb those mountains?!” But then I remind myself that I did, indeed, climb those mountains and I’m sort of blown away by that. And I realize that if I hadn’t been born with the Dad I was born with I probably WOULDN’T have climbed MountRainierMountAdamsMountBakerMountHood. How blessed I am to have a father who gave me the mountains! How blessed I am to have a bank of memories over-flowing with the mountain adventures I had with Pop! I’m not climbing big volcanoes anymore, but I still get into the mountains for some good hikes. And every hike I take, I bring Dad with me.
-Karen Molenaar Terrell
Photos: My boots next to Dad’s boots on Hood (upper left); teacher Jim Johnson, Dad, me, and Scott on Mount Baker (middle left); Scott and me on Mount Adams (bottom left); Dad, me, and my brother, Pete, on Rainier.