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Central Washington climbing pioneers helped pave the way

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 2, 2022 at 5:29 p.m.

By Rebecca Pettingill Columbia Basin Herald

YAKAMA/EPHRATA — An exhibit in the Yakima Valley Museum called “Let’s Take the Sporting Route: Mountaineering in Central Washington 1949-1970” features pioneers from Central Washington who trail-blazed many first ascents of major mountain climbing routes.

“This particular exhibit showcased these people that we’ve identified who’ve had singular achievements in one way or another and they came from this side of the mountains,” said Peter Arnold, Executive Director of the Yakima Valley Museum.

He explained that they wanted to showcase the achievements of mountaineers from the east side of the Cascades who had made major achievements, especially in the Cascade Range, when equipment was still very primitive and weather forecasts were not very reliable.

The new exhibit opened on April 5, and will be a part of the museum for at least five years, Arnold said.

The exhibit features Dave Mahre, Erline Reber, Bob McCall, Gene Prater, Barry Prather, Fred Dunham, Louis Ulrich, Marion Monter Hessey, Bruce Gilbert, Bill Prater, Lex Maxwell, Tom Hargis, Fred Stanley and Marcel Schuster.

“Some of the stuff those guys did,” said Randy Bracht. “I mean, there was no guidebook, there was no description, I mean they went up and whatever happened, happened. So what Fred (Dunham) and (Jim) Wickwire and a lot of these Fred Beckeys of the world, I mean they were pioneers, totally out there off the grid, off the map and just really bold stuff and they’re still around today to tell the tale.”

Dunham, born and raised in Ephrata, has had many significant climbs but said that his favorite is whatever climb he is doing at that time. He grew up climbing with Wickwire, also of Ephrata and quickly formed a friendship with Stanley who began climbing in Wenatchee.

One of the more notable climbs was in 1975. Dunham was selected as a member of Jim Whittaker’s American expedition to climb K2 in the Himalayas, the world’s second-highest peak that towers at 28,251 feet along the Pakistan-China border. Mount Everest only bests K2 by 779 feet. The group consisted of Whittaker, Stanley and Wickwire, among others. According to REI Co Op’s website, weather, illness and an impassable route shut the team down and they turned around at 22,000 feet.

Whittaker, who was the first American to summit Everest, went on to attempt K2 again in 1978. The website states a 14-person team worked together to get four members to the summit, becoming the first Americans and third team in history to summit K2. Although Whittaker was not one of the four, Wickwire was.

There is a display in Ephrata dedicated to the trailblazing made by Dunham and Wickwire of K2 at Sun Basin Plaza also known as Rock Park Plaza, 32 Basin St NW.

“Wickwire, myself, Dave Mahre and Don Anderson made the first complete climb of Willis Wall,” said Dunham.

In June of 1963, the group made the 4,000-foot tall ascent up the wall on Mount Rainier and found their way back to the bottom in 22.5 hours.

“We were in a storm and one of the guys was not feeling good and had to get him down so we didn’t spend any time on top,” said Dunham. “There wasn’t anything to see anyhow because we were in a storm.”

Dunham noted that it is no easy feat to climb mountains and that anyone who chooses to do so has to be in really good shape and should prepare both mentally and physically for what they may face, especially on larger mountains.

“They’re very notable accomplishments in terms of the sport of mountaineering,” said Arnold. “We were able to demonstrate how the whole thing really grew from these fairly primitive beginnings, and a fairly small group of people who climbed in those days, into the huge sport that it is today.”

The Yakima Valley Museum, located at 2105 Tieton Drive in Yakima, can be reached at 509-248-0747 or info@yvmuseum.org.

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