Master of the mountain
CRAIG HILL; Staff writer
One morning this week George Dunn, his crampons crunching through the snow atop Mount Rainier, likely will make history and it won’t even be the highlight of his day.
The 56-year-old guide plans to climb Rainier on Friday with friends and family and become the first person to summit the 14,411-foot peak 500 times.
The ironman feat astonishes even those who were guiding when he was in high school.
It means 4.5 million vertical feet and 9,000 miles of climbing, each climb a two- or three-day test of endurance. And it doesn’t include the estimated 100 times he’s had to turn around short of the summit because of poor weather or other hazards.
“It’s always a physical challenge,” Dunn said. “I’m tired every time.”
Of the thousands of people who’ve climbed Rainier, most do it only once. Eight have climbed the mountain 300 times and three have 400 summits.
“But it’s not about the numbers,” said Dunn, a director at Ashford’s International Mountain Guides. “The beautiful thing about this job is the people I’ve met and getting to share lifetime memories with them. That’s why I do this.”
So for Dunn, the best part about No. 500 will be that it will be summit No. 1 for Jeremy, his 16-year-old son.
“He never focuses on himself,” Nancy Dunn said of her husband. “He is very passionate about helping others have a great experience.”
But while Dunn’s pride will be directed at his son, those who know him and Rainier will use the landmark moment to celebrate his accomplished career.
“You can’t quantify how impressive 500 summits are because there are no words to describe that much effort,” said Robert Link, who has the eighth-most summits, 301.
“Climbing Rainier 200 times is an impressive career and he’s climbed it that many more times than me. He puts his head down and goes to work every day at the hardest job on the planet.
“To be the one to be first to 500, that’s huge. I’m in awe.”
FALLING FOR RAINIER
Dunn finished climb No. 499 on Friday. He doesn’t remember for sure the year of his first climb. He figures it was in 1969, when he was a student at Renton High School.
Dunn was born in Wichita, Kan., before his family moved west. He didn’t really have an interest in mountaineering until he heard about his school’s climbing club.
“Of all the fluky things,” Dunn said. “I swear the club only existed while I was going there. Then I think they realized, ‘This is crazy. We can’t do this.’”
Bad weather forced him to turn around on his first two attempts. He carried a kite to the summit when he finally reached the top on his third attempt, but he couldn’t get it to take flight because the weather was so calm.
The same couldn’t be said for the gangly kid’s stomach. As is the case with many on their first ascent, he spent most of the time on top lying in the crater, feeling nauseous.
But shortly after he staggered down the mountain and thought about what he’d just done he had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that was so cool’ and it was like boom,” Dunn said, snapping his fingers. “I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.”
He likes to say the loves of his life are tied to Rainier.
“It’s been my home and my playground,” he said.
It’s also been his office. He even met Nancy at Paradise where she worked as a park ranger in the 1980s.
MAKING HIS MARK
George Dunn was a 22-year-old student at the University of Washington in 1975 when he took a job guiding for RMI. He picked out two older guides, Phil Ershler and Eric Simonson, to be his role models.
Ershler and Simonson were quickly carving out reputations as some of the best guides on the mountain, with boundless energy and aspirations of leading international trips.
They climbed Rainier as often as they could, so Dunn did the same.
In 1976 he set a record by summiting 30 times.
A good-natured rivalry soon sprang up among the three as they raced to see who could be the first to 100, 200 then 300 summits.
“It was the slowest race in history,” Ershler said, and Dunn lost them all.
But Simonson started slowing down after 200. He now has 282 summits. Ershler was the first to scale Rainier 300 times, but Dunn passed him soon after and never looked back. Ershler still has the second most Rainier summits with 439.
Both men will accompany Dunn on his 500th summit.
“The significance of Number 500 is that it symbolizes his dedication,” Simonson said.
And it was never about the stats for any of the men.
In 1986, they formed International Mountain Guides along with fellow guide Paul Baugher and started leading expeditions all over the world. Today they put more people on top of Mount Everest each spring than any other American guide service.
Along the way Dunn has stood on top of Everest and Kanchenjunga (the world’s third-highest peak), he’s trekked across Antarctica and led numerous trips in the Alps.
“He’s done so much more than Rainier,” Baugher said. “That’s one of the other things that make 500 summits so impressive. He’s so durable. It’s an honor and privilege to have a guy like that as a partner.”
The thing that impressed RMI guide Paul Maier most about Dunn had very little to do with climbing.
When the two guided winter climbs together for RMI, Maier remembers many days when nasty weather forced them off the mountain.
They’d typically get back to Ashford around 8 p.m. and Dunn would drive home to Fall City to spend a few minutes with his family before they went to bed. He’d then get up at 5 a.m. to return to work.
“He’d get by on six hours of sleep so he could tuck his kids in at night,” Maier said. “And not just once. All the time. I always appreciated that about George.”
While Dunn still guides international trips, he scaled back that work to be on Rainier closer to his family.
“He loves adventure, but he’s a family man, a great guy,” Nancy Dunn said. “He never sits back and watches TV when he’s home. He always pitches right in.”
The hazards of Dunn’s job are very real to his wife. Her brother, Tom O’Brien, was a 19-year-old guide for RMI in 1981 when he was one of 11 people killed by an avalanche on the same route Dunn has used for most of his climbs.
“It’s hard sometimes,” she said. “But there is an inherent risk in any activity. It was a very fluke accident and you have to go on with your life.”
Dunn’s impeccable safety record helps put her at ease and she says she never considered asking him to look for a different line of work.
“Climbing is who George is,” she said.
A GUIDE’S GUIDE
When Mike Haft took a job at IMG last year, the young guide was a little nervous about working with Dunn.
“The idea of being around George is intimidating,” said Haft, 26. “But he is very calm, very collected and makes you feel very welcome.”
On occasions when Haft has guided with Dunn, the trips have turned back below the summit because of unsafe weather. This can frustrate and even anger clients, but Haft says he’s always amazed how Dunn makes the most of these situations.
“It can be hard to make it a worthwhile experience for those who are paying for it, but George can always make it a wonderful experience,” Haft said. “He’s very charismatic and I’ve seen him mesmerize many people.”
As a young guide with 21 summits, Haft appreciates that Dunn allows him to make the decisions.
“He is a great guy to learn from,” Haft said. “He’s done everything on this mountain.”
Maier was in a similar role when he started at RMI in 1986. Now he has 371 summits, fifth-most of all time.
“There were a lot of strong personalities (among the experienced guides) that the young guides would gravitate toward,” Maier said. “It took me a few years (before) I learned that George was the guide to emulate.”
Maier was struck by Dunn’s relaxed demeanor, which never changes even in the rigorous, dangerous, sleep-deprived world of mountaineering.
“When it gets rough you could always look up at George and see a smile spread across his face,” Maier said.
Dunn said the idea of guiding on Rainier didn’t excite him when he started at RMI in 1975. He thought helping less fit, unskilled climbers slowly scale the mountain would be boring.
“But my perception was wrong,” he said.
Ershler remembers watching Dunn find his niche on Rainier.
“While we were competing to climb it the most, the real competition was to be good guides,” Ershler said.
“I’m biased, but I really don’t think there is a finer guide in every sense of the word than George Dunn. Anybody who gets a chance to climb on his rope has won the jackpot.”
At 56, Dunn is still fit and youthful in appearance with the thickest head of hair of any guide from his generation.
While he appears ageless, he admits his knees and back have gotten older.
“It’s harder to keep up the intensity,” said Dunn, who’ll try for his 501st summit next week.
His office responsibilities permit him to climb Rainier only about five times a year, but he still loves climbing as much as the day when he decided it would be his life’s work.
“He says he will never retire,” Nancy Dunn said.
He guided his father to the summit when he was 69. His dad made easy work of the climb, passing much younger climbers, so Dunn figures he has many good years left.
He has no aspirations of 600 summits. He’ll borrow his next goal from Simonson, who will tag along for No. 500 to extend his own record of 41 consecutive years with at least one summit.
“That is a good goal,” Dunn said. “I’d like to climb it at least once a year for the rest of my life.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497