In Pursuit of Beautiful Sunrises

George Dunn’s 500 Mount Rainier summits

By Yitka Winn

George with wife Nancy and son Jeremy on the way down from the summit.
Photo courtesy of George Dunn

What would you expect of a man who currently holds the record for most summits of the icy, majestic, and often, unforgiving Mount Rainier?

While many accounts of glacier climbs focus on the drama of the sport – the brazen testing of human limits, the life or death moments, the triumphs of never-before-done climbs and the heart-wrenching tragedies of injury and loss along the way – the story of George Dunn and his record-breaking 500 summits is a much different picture.

Dunn is a quiet man who stumbled into his fame in the mountaineering world without any real intention of doing so. Born in Wichita, Kan. and raised in Washington state, his first taste of climbing came at Renton High School when he joined its fledgling (and short-lived) climbing club.

George signing the Summit book with Jeremy waiting. Photo by Eric Simonson

Something about the sport clicked with him, so when he needed a summer job one year, he signed up to be a guide on Rainier. Drawn in by the mountain’s beauty and an appreciation for the value of hard work, Dunn found ways from that summer on to keep himself on Rainier.

His ambition eventually led him to co-found the Ashford-based International Mountain Guides with several climbing friends, including Phil Erschler, whom he met in the early years guiding on Rainier. Erschler is in second place for Rainier climbs with 440 summits – an oft-mentioned detail in the media, but one Dunn says is due more to Erschler’s greater passion for exploring other mountains than anything else.

The two continue to climb together to this day and have led thousands of others – first-timers, friends, and fellow accomplished climbers alike – to the tops of peaks as far away as Mont Blanc in France and Machu Picchu in Peru.

Sarah Amrhein, general manager at Seattle’s Outdoor Research store and a first-time climber along for Dunn’s 499th trip to the top of Rainier, says that their entire group was in awe of Dunn. Try as they did to pry information out of him about his climbing accolades and imminent world record, Amrhein says that Dunn was not eager to play up his accomplishments. He preferred to let others do the talking, and instead spent his energy making sure all group members were comfortable, well-fed, and above all, enjoying themselves.

“You could tell he really cared about everyone on the team,” Amrhein says. “He must meet thousands of people every year, but he took the time to know and remember everyone’s name.”

For Dunn, the joy of climbing is not to be found in adrenaline rushes or pushing mortality, nor is it to be found in setting records. Even on the 500th climb itself, Dunn says that reaching the summit, let alone the magic number, was the last thing on his mind.

Cold feet, but not his on 500th attempt

A private expedition with his wife Nancy, youngest son Jeremy, Erschler, their IMG partner Eric Simonson, and several other friends, the record-setting climb took place on a stormy day in late July, 2010.

With clouds and snow threatening to thwart their summit, the biggest concern on Dunn’s mind was that his wife’s feet were getting cold. He’d just decided to turn around and trek back down with her, when the skies suddenly cleared overhead and opened up the possibility of a summit, so they opted to push on.

George, wife Nancy and youngest son Jeremy walking into summit crater. Photo by Eric Simonson

Dunn’s passion for climbing comes mostly from his appreciation for the majesty of mountains, for having fun, and for returning home safely to family and loved ones at the end of the day. His wife Nancy, who once worked summers as an interpreter at Mount Rainier National Park, joins Dunn for climbs here and there; this was her eighth Rainier summit. Both their sons have now summited Rainier as well, but Dunn says they generally prefer faster-paced sports like rock climbing or skiing to the slow, arduous challenge of mountaineering.

“As you might expect from the sons of a lifelong mountaineering guide, they look at Rainier and think it’s boring,” Dunn says. When his oldest son, Jimmy, climbed Rainier with him for the first time, Dunn says his reaction was skeptical at best: “He asked me, ‘Dad, how many times have you done this?”

Nevertheless, Dunn prefers his quiet, steady approach to the more aggressive climbing of his youth. In the early 80s, Dunn had joined a series of expeditions attempting a new route on Mount Everest. The first year, one member of their team was killed, and monsoon season quickly swooped in to foil their attempts to summit.

In spite of tragedy, those early attempts on Everest – which, after four expeditions, transpired into a successful summit for Dunn in 1991 – were what gave him the vision to set long-term goals and work hard to build a life and career around mountaineering.

People ask Dunn all the time if and when he’s going to join the ranks of other world-renowned climbers by writing a memoir about his experiences on the mountain. Dunn’s answer? Never. “My life is about beautiful sunrises and sunsets, not drama and death and pushing the limits,” he says. “Climbing is what I do for a job, but it’s not what life’s all about.”

Yitka Winn is a staff writer for Outdoors NW who prefers running mountain trails instead of climbing them.