1941 Mt Rainier guides at Paradise. Clark Schurman at left. Dee Molenaar fourth from left. Photo courtesy Dee Molenaar.
  A Neophyte Guide on Mount Rainier  
  by Dee Molenaar  

Oct of Providence

As a teenager I began a diary of my travels, inspired by stories of my mountaineering heroes of the 1920s and 1930s. I had read accounts of their adventures in the travel sections of newspapers, magazines, and the few mountaineering books published in that bygone era. People still asked, “Why do you climb mountains?” Since then, my life has been a succession of fortuitous circumstances. Although the breaks never made me rich, they provided a bounty of fond memories of places and events, good friends and inspiring people.

Dee Molenaar with painting. © Lowell Skoog
Dee Molenaar with painting. © Lowell Skoog
The event that shaped my destiny more than any other was my visit to Mount Rainier in the summer of 1939, with my brother Cornelius (known as “K”) and two Los Angeles friends. Arriving at the Paradise Ranger Station in my 1928 Model A Ford, we sought permission to climb the mountain without hiring guides. After much questioning about our experience in mountain climbing (“We’ve just done Lassen, Shasta and Hood”), we were issued the required permit for a one-dollar fee. We promptly visited the nearby Guide House to check on the rental price of equipment. There we met Clark Schurman, Chief Guide of the Rainier National Park Company (RNPCo). Little did I realize that meeting this intense little man would be the most providential contact of my life.

Schurman noted our homemade ice axes and smooth soled, knee-length boots—better suited for hiking the Mojave Desert of our native California—and said he’d rent us what we needed at half the normal price. Somehow he seemed to take a liking to us, perhaps through empathy for our combined enthusiasm and obvious lack of much experience climbing these glacier-clad volcanoes.

Fortunately for us, the weather did not cooperate and we were stormed off the mountain at 11,000 feet by a massive cloud cap on the summit.

We continued our trip around the western U.S., and upon returning to L.A. I sent Schurman a small watercolor of the mountain, asking if he remembered the four poorly-equipped kids in the Model A Ford. Schurman responded immediately and wondered what I was doing with my life. When I said I was milking cows on my uncle’s dairy he suggested that I go to college and study art and come to work for him the next summer.

Somehow the old scoutmaster had perceived in my thank-you note and painting a youth who would fit into his world of mountains. He took a chance and invited me to guide on the mountain, starting in the summer of 1940. Following World War II and several years earning a geology degree at the University of Washington, the door was opened to my serving in the Park Service at Mount Rainier and eventually a career in geology.

Clark Schurman

After losing his wife and son in the notorious influenza epidemic of 1918, Clark Schurman raised a daughter and spent much of his life in Seattle as a scoutmaster. He worked with the area’s youth, while his creative mind and artistic talent gave him a career as a commercial artist. His scouting activities led to his involvement in the early climbing course of The Mountaineers. In 1939, the same year he designed Monitor Rock (later named Schurman Rock) at Camp Long in West Seattle, Schurman was invited by the RNPCo concessionaire to operate its guide department at Paradise.

With his rather brusque military manner and appearance, Clark Schurman reminded me of General John Pershing, famed leader of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.

Several of Schurman’s guides were recruited from his Seattle Scout Troop 65, and they were accustomed to addressing him as “Mr. Schurman,” and responding with “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” to his requests in the Guide House. But he also hired a few teachers and college professors, and some of them quietly balked at playing the subservient role in this manner. Yet beneath Schurman’s stern surface I found a kindred artistic soul. He had taken a chance and given me the opportunity to enter the world of real mountaineering, and I had no problem treating him with respect.

Fellow Guides

The guides of 1940 were a varied cast of characters. They included my friend Ken Spangenberg, who had been with me on the previous year’s trip to the Northwest; Worth McClure, Jr; Bob Hoxsey, one of Schurman’s Eagle Scouts and a pre-med student at the University of Washington; Bob Sutermeister, assistant professor of economics at U.W.; Jim Wortham, English professor at the University of Kansas; and Les Yansen, a year-round fixture at Paradise who worked for the RNPCo in winter running the ski rental and repair shop. With his tanned and ruggedly handsome Norwegian features, Yansen was the only one, alongside us college kids, who looked like a mountain guide. But as the sole support of an aging mother, he never climbed the mountain, staying instead in the lower zone of ice caves, meadows, and pretty waitresses.

In 1941, Schurman’s staff included Maynard Miller of Tacoma. An outstanding student at Stadium High School, Miller earned a scholarship to Harvard University, where he majored in geology while honing his climbing skills on the icy summits and gullies of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During the summer of 1940, Miller had been a member of Bradford Washburn’s successful expedition to Mount Bertha in southeastern Alaska. He spent part of the summer of 1941 in Alaska as a member of an American Geographic Society expedition that surveyed the termini of glaciers near Glacier Bay. In Miller I found a kindred spirit. After the war, Miller invited my brother K and me to join an expedition to Mount St. Elias. It was Miller’s influence that got us interested in geology and glaciology, and we subsequently earned geology degrees at the U.W., which led us to careers in the earth sciences.

We Rainier guides all wore alpine-style uniforms dictated by “The Chief”—black gabardine knickers held up by Tyrolean-style suspenders, green wool shirts and knee-length stockings, and green felt alpine hats. Not all of Schurman’s younger guides had their own ice axes. Coming from Los Angeles, I was the last of the summer staff to be greeted by Schurman, and all the best ice axes had already been picked over. All that remained was an ash-shafted, short-pointed, narrow-adzed ax stamped with the Fulpmes-Garantie brand. Although I had to settle for that small ax bought for $6.00, it has been with me ever since, serving through the thick and thin of virtually all the peaks I’ve climbed over the past 60 years. Today I still use it as a walking stick and not yet a garden tool. This probably speaks for both my sentimentality and frugality.

Today I’m amazed that prior to World War II our RNPCo guided clients were never issued ice axes. The sharp-pointed instruments were considered too hazardous for use by the uninitiated. Instead, we provided them with alpenstocks, resembling rake handles fitted at one end with a sharp metal point and the other end with a leather-thong wrist strap. Our clients used these to work their way up and down the Kautz Ice Cliff and Ice Chute routes, both considerably more challenging technically than the present guide path up the Ingraham-Disappointment Cleaver route. I still have sepia-aged photos of our clients being belayed down the ice cliff, firmly grasping these wooden staffs.

Day Trips

Although the summit trips were the glamour part of guiding, we occasionally took parties up Pinnacle Peak in the nearby Tatoosh Range and on crevasse photographing trips on the Nisqually Glacier. But the bread-and-butter business during the "See-America-First" days of the 1920s through early 1940s were the twice-daily trips to the Paradise Ice Caves at the terminus of the Paradise Glacier. The caves were formed by warm exterior air that melted the ice where meltwater streams emerged from the glacier. Skilled photographers found the scalloped, blue-ceiling caverns good subjects for the first Kodachrome films of the late 1930s.

Dee Molenaar strapping on crampons. Photo by Bob and Ira Spring.
Dee Molenaar strapping on crampons. Photo courtesy The Spring Family Trust for Trails.
Most of our clients for the half-day hikes were registered guests at Paradise Inn, arriving from Seattle and Tacoma via long, red RNPCo buses. To recruit clients for the ice-cave trips, we guides were expected to hop the running boards of the buses as they rounded the last bend below Paradise Inn. We’d give a hearty “Welcome to Paradise, folks!” followed by brief spiels about how guided trips on horseback or foot were the only way to see the mountain.

We also were encouraged by Schurman to dance with the matronly women in the Inn after the evening programs, talking them into taking our ice-cave trips the next morning. This was the least satisfying part of the job, especially with the old scoutmaster’s frowning disapproval if we looked too long at the attractive RNPCo waitresses and other feminine employees. He would brook no hanky-panky on his watch.

For the four-hour round-trip to the ice caves, we outfitted our clients in the Guide House with all the necessities: dark snow goggles, long alpenstocks, hob-nailed boots, small Army rucksacks, khaki-colored wool shirts, rimmed hats, and paraffin-soaked trousers—“tin pants,” which afforded somewhat drier sitting glissades down snow slopes on the route to the ice caves. Most of the khaki clothes were relicts from World War I, obtained from Army-Navy surplus stores.

The hikes began with a group photo in front of the Guide House. In 1941 the pictures were taken by aspiring, later-to-be-famed Northwest photographer Ira Spring. After the Guide House photo, Ira would race ahead with his heavy camera pack and position himself on the snow slopes and in the ice caves for more photos of the tourists. Then he raced back to the photo shop, and by the time the party returned to Paradise the photos were developed, printed and displayed still wet on the Guide House wall. These 8 x 10 inch glossies were sold for a dollar each as an appropriate souvenir for our adventuresome guests.

One of my chores in the Guide House was running the large and rather antique slide projector during the evening programs in the damp and musty basement auditorium. There Schurman showed the hand-tinted, glass-sandwiched 4 x 5 inch transparencies of that era and extolled the beauties of the mountain and the allure of mountaineering. These programs further inspired Inn guests to join a guided trip. More than once I recall dozing off on the stool behind the projector—usually after returning from a summit climb that afternoon—and being brought back to the present and the next slide by Shurman’s impatient tapping of his ax on the wood floor of the stage.

Paintings by Dee Molenaar
View Popup Gallery
Mount Rainier from Summerland
^ Mount Rainier from Summerland.
Ptarmigan Ridge, Mt. Rainier.
^ Ptarmigan Ridge, Mt. Rainier.
Mount Rainier from Klapache Point.
^ Mount Rainier from Klapache Point.
Mount Rainier from Sunrise.
^ Mount Rainier from Sunrise.
Mount Index.
^ Mount Index.
Mount Baker and Shuksan.
^ Mount Baker and Shuksan.
Devil's Paw, Alaska.
^ Devil’s Paw, Alaska.
Mt. Aberdeen from Sentinel Pass.
^ Mt. Aberdeen from Sentinel Pass.
Kangshung Face, Mt. Everest.
^ Kangshung Face, Mt. Everest.
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