Mature Living Special Section: At 74, local woman is still blazing trails

Published on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 by By Tara Nelson

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Marjan Eicher, c., of Blaine, stands with members of the Mount Baker Club (formerly Mount Baker Hiking Club) during a trail brushing party near the Razor Crest trail area near Mt. Baker . At 74, Eicher is not only the president of the club, but is also an active member, hiking, kayaking or snowshoeing several times a week.  Photo by Bud Hardwick

For a woman afraid of heights, Marjan Eicher has done a lot of climbing.

At 74 years old, and standing at about 5 feet 6 inches, Marjan has a slight build, a wry smile and an exuberance for life that could move mountains. And it has, quite literally. Not only did Eicher summit Mt. Baker at the tender age of 21, fresh off the boat from Holland, but she regularly works building and maintaining trails in the Mt. Baker Wilderness area as part of the Mount Baker Club (she’s also the club’s president).

“I often hear younger people say ‘I can’t keep up with her,’ during our snowshoe excursions,” she said.

When I caught up with Eicher at her home in Custer, she was drinking tea, reading an issue of The Nation magazine underneath three large oil flower paintings she painted in the style of Georgia O’Keefe and was surrounded by her native-style wood carvings.

“I have so many books here, I can’t read them all,” she said, pointing to a stack that included local author Michael Impero’s “Dreams of Gold,” a history of gold mining in Whatcom County; “Koma Kulshan: The Story of Mt. Baker;” and Scientific American magazine.

She talked about Middle Eastern politics, America’s government and  growing up in her native Holland where she, as a child, survived a famine caused by the German occupation. Eicher – then Marjan Gerbracht – said she and her family were forced to subsist on boiled tulip bulbs and wild nettles in order to survive.

In 1944, during what was known as “Hongerwinter” also known as The Dutch Famine of 1944, they had no heat or power, and the food was nearly gone. Her family had been evacuated from their home because of an English invasion.

She said her mother would often leave the room crying as she and her brother would laugh at their bellies that had swelled from hunger.

“We would say, ‘My belly’s bigger than yours!’ And laugh,” she said.

At the age of 20, she left Holland on the Rijndam, a Holland America ship, celebrating her 21st birthday onboard.  Upon her arriving she met Fergus “Gus” O’Connor through her brother and the two immediately began dating.

“I knew I wanted to leave Holland, it was just too flat,” she said. “I wanted to see America’s beautiful outdoors and have adventures.”

Finding work as an immigrant wasn’t easy, however. Eicher worked many odd jobs and finally found steady work as a secretary for a magician.

“When you’re not born in this country, you’re not fully accepted – you don’t get the jobs you want and the pay tends to be lower,” she said. “But when you leave a country, you’ve already overcome the biggest obstacle so you know you can do it. When you have objects in your way you have to think about how you can use it to benefit your life. The beauty of life is to see opportunities.”

On May 27, 1957, just a week after Eicher’s immigration to Canada, the couple climbed to the top of the 400-foot Lions Gate Bridge tower. They had just spent the day rock climbing around Horseshoe Bay and were looking for another adventure.

According to articles in Canadian newspapers, O’Connor and Eicher told reporters they just wanted to see the view and didn’t anticipate they would attract so much attention that it would tie up traffic on the bridge.

By the time police arrived to order them to come down, traffic had backed up well into West Vancouver. Officers considered a public mischief charge but later decided against it and let the couple go on their way, according to news reports.
”It was well worth it,” Eicher had been quoted saying in The Sun. “The view was beautiful.”

Seven weeks later, they went on to summit Mt. Baker from the Heliotrope trail with Eicher sporting a pair of used hiking boots.
“I had no money and couldn’t afford proper boots, I had no ice axe and no crampons, either,” she said. 

Although the trip went fairly smoothly, the couple narrowly missed an avalanche on Coleman glacier, and Eicher fell off a bridge into a crevasse up to her armpits. O’Conner was able to pull her out, but Eicher said that was the first time she became concerned about their safety. As they got closer to the cabin, she realized her feet were hurting from blisters and removed her boots to find her socks covered in blood. She also nearly went “snowblind” from the brightness of the landscape because she had neglected to bring sunglasses. Despite her minor injuries, Eicher had fallen in love with mountain climbing.

“It’s the most thrilling feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It was such an adrenaline rush, I don’t think I’d ever had a rush like that. Ever. I can understand why people want to climb everything in sight; it’s such a feeling.”

The couple split several years later but Gus went on to be one of the first mountaineers to climb the ice wall between the east peak of Black Butte near Mt. Baker, otherwise known as the North Face route of Colfax Peak.

In May of 1965, Gerbracht married Frank Eicher, a cabinetmaker, and moved to Kent. Eicher, however, said she thought the Seattle area was too populous so the couple moved to Langley, B.C., in 1966 to build houses there.

The Canadian economy, however, was suffering at the time, so the couple moved to Bellingham in 1975 where they built homes near Lake Padden, Alabama Hill and Birch Bay Village. In 1981, they moved to Birch Bay so they would have a place to moor their sailboat. They made their last move to Custer during the late 1990s.

Today, Marjan can be found in the 1,500-square foot custom home she and Frank built themselves.

When asked if there’s anything she hasn’t done, Eicher mentioned scuba diving and skydiving but said she had a fear of heights.

“There are a lot of things I haven’t done,” she said. “But there’s still time.”