American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

William Preston "Bill" Elfendahl, 1914-2004

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

William Preston “Bill” Elfendahl 1914-2004

Bill Elfendahl, 89, Boeing engineer, one of REI’s founders, mountaineer, skier, sailor, and Scout leader died June 7,2004, in Seattle following a stroke.

He was born November 30, 1914, in Alameda, CA, the son of Gertrude Louise Baxter and Preston Henry Elfendahl. He graduated from Seattle’s Garfield High School in 1931. In 1936, Bill earned a degree from the University of Washington in Mechanical Engineering and was a Lieutenant in the ROTC. Despite the memory of his cousin’s death in a 1930 airplane crash, and resulting family objections, Bill pursued his dream to help people fly and to bring them together.

Bill was employed by The Boeing Company from 1936 until 1979—43 years—and retired third in seniority worldwide.

He began as a draftsman in “The Red Barn.” His first design job was for an airplane restroom door handle. He helped design the seaplane underbody of the Boeing Clipper. His first chance to fly came in 1940 over Spokane when he was assigned to assist with repairs on a Douglas UC-78 trainer. When he was sought by the War Department for WW II, Boeing intervened. Engineers were desperately needed to set up the B-17 Flying Fortress production line. After WWII, Bill was on the maiden flight of Boeing’s Stratocruiser, directed Flight Test Instrumentation & Research Laboratories, helped design the 707 & 747, served as president of Boeing Supervisors’ Club, and was a clown for Boeing’s annual family holiday circuses.

Bill was very active with The Mountaineers, teaching, leading climbs, building lodges at Mt. Baker, Stevens and Snoqualmie passes, assisting Mountain Rescue Council, and sharing “Camp Crafter” trips with his young family. One of the founders of REI in 1938, he carried card #16. He and his friends began importing mountaineering equipment from Europe, which was unavailable in the US. His rock climbing tools are displayed in the Seattle store’s entry.

An editor of the American Alpine Club’s Climber’s Guide to the Cascade & Olympic Mountains of Washington (1961), Bill yodeled from the summits of many, many mountains inthe Northwest. He taught climbing at Olympic College. With Tom Miller, Dave Lind, Charles Cehrs, and Jay Todd, he shared the first ascent of the West Peak of Mt. Johannesberg (1949, North Cascades). He taught, “Nobody leaves the mountain until everyone is off safely.” He sponsored the first minority memberships in both The Mountaineers and Seattle’s Corinthian YC.

Bill was an avid downhill racing and alpine skier beginning in the 1930’s. Long before chair lifts or rope tows, his favorite place to ski was Paradise on Mt. Rainier. A typical day was skiing down and over Mazama Ridge, then down and atop the Tatoosh Range and then back to Paradise. Another favorite ski destination was a remote valley near Rainier. He camped in the snow and skied there in the 1930s and ‘40s before anyone envisioned it as a ski resort—Crystal Mountain. Knowing the terrain, he helped design the resorts ski trails and had fun leading three generations of family in a sometimes terrifying game of follow-the-leader begun with the cry, “Through the Trees!” He skied there until age 85.

William P. Elfendahl was preceded in death by his first wife of 38 years, Florence in 1978; his brother, Major Elfendahl, and his grandson, Charles W. Elfendahl. He is survived by Sarah, his second wife of 25 years; two sons, Gerald W. and Lawrence E.

Gerald Elfendahl

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