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Wednesday, September 08, 2004 - Page updated at 11:01 A.M.

Snapshot / Eastside people and places
Mountain guide climbs into Rainier record book

By Doug Merlino
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
George Dunn, 51, flanked by tools of his trade, has climbed 14,411-foot Mount Rainier more times than anyone else.
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Who: George Dunn, Fall City mountain guide who has climbed Mount Rainier 473 times, more than anyone else.

An abiding passion: Dunn first climbed the mountain as part of an excursion by the Renton High School climbing club when he was a teenager.

"Things just clicked and I never looked back," said Dunn, now 51.

While a student at the University of Washington, he got a job guiding people up Mount Rainier. He loved it, and began thinking about ways to do it for a living.

He started a mountain-guide business — International Mountain Guides (IMG) — in the 1980s, and now guides on mountains around the world. This year, he's taken groups to Colorado, Alaska and the Alps, among other places. In addition, he guides groups up Mount Rainier a couple months a year for Rainier Mountaineering Inc., which has a contract with the National Park Service to lead Rainier climbs. He estimates he's out guiding about 200 days a year.

He conquered Mount Everest on his fourth try, in 1991, but says he wouldn't do it again. It takes up to three months to make the ascent, and he doesn't want to spend that much time away from his wife, Nancy, and two sons, Jeremy, 10, and Jimmy,14.

COURTESY OF GEORGE DUNN
George Dunn poses at base of Mount Rainier in June. He has climbed the mountain a record 473 times, as well as summiting mounts Everest and McKinley.
What motivates him: "When I started as a climber, I liked the physical and mental challenge," said Dunn, who is tall and thin. "Now, the greatest joy for me is sharing it with others. I love that idea — to go to wild, remote parts of the world and take people to see things they've never experienced."

Phil Ershler, who's known Dunn since the early 1970s and holds the record for the second-most climbs of Rainier — 421 — calls Dunn "the consummate mountain guide."

"He's unflappable," said Ershler, a partner in IMG. "It's hard to imagine George getting riled up about anything."

"He's not overbearing or overpowering, but he's always in control," said Dennis Irvine of Houston, 52, a client who has climbed with Dunn around 20 times.

Dunn said that even after almost 500 ascents, leading people up Rainier is always interesting.

"Climbing Mount Rainier strips people of everything but their true worth," he said. "Everybody is equal on the mountain. To reach the summit takes a tough and very mentally focused person."

Safety first: In Dunn's second year guiding on Mount Rainier, a man on a rope line in his group fell. Dunn's fellow guide and others went sliding down the mountain.

A woman died, the only time Dunn has lost a client on a trip.

"It opened my eyes," said Dunn. "I was 21. I didn't understand the meaning of death."

The event shaped his approach as a guide.

"Life is precious. We don't go into the mountains to die, we go in to celebrate life."

Dunn said safety is his primary concern.

In June, on a climb up Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier, rock fall convinced him to turn his group back. On the way down, they met two other climbers who were headed up.

"I voiced my concerns and they graciously accepted my input," Dunn said. But they continued up the mountain. A few days later, they died.

Dunn is reluctant to judge the decisions of other climbers. He says experienced climbers, such as the two he met on the way to Liberty Ridge, rarely have accidents on Rainier.

But he cringes when people go into the mountains without understanding what they're doing.

"It's like playing Russian roulette without knowing the number of bullets in the gun," he said. "There are people who go up into Muir snowfields and freeze to death because they get lost and didn't know the way down."

A special place: Although Dunn has made it to the top of such famous peaks as Everest and McKinley, Mount Rainier has a special place in his heart.

"Everything I love and treasure I found at Mount Rainier," he said, including his wife, whom he met in the early 1980s when she was working as a naturalist at Paradise.

He'll spend September guiding people up Rainier, and then end the season rock climbing in California's Joshua Tree National Park in October.

After 30 years, he said, he's just happy to be able to do what he loves.

"Everybody told me I couldn't make a living as a guide," he said. "But I did."

Doug Merlino: 206-464-2243 or dmerlino@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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