Bradford Washburn

Mountaineer, photographer, mapmaker and first director of the Boston Museum of Science
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The Independent Online

Henry Bradford Washburn, mountaineer, photographer, cartographer and museum administrator: born Boston, Massachusetts 7 June 1910; Director, New England Museum of Natural History (later Boston Museum of Science) 1939-80; married 1940 Barbara Polk (one son, two daughters); died Lexington, Massachusetts 10 January 2007.

The story of Bradford Washburn and Bob Bates's 1937 ascent of Mount Lucania - then the highest unclimbed peak in North America - was epic by any standards. Their futuristic self-contained alpine-style ascent of the remote peak in the Elias Range in Yukon, Canada, matched anything that had been attempted in the Himalaya for boldness and difficulty.

The pair expended almost superhuman effort to overcome the huge logistical and geographical obstacles. From the very beginning of their venture, when the dare-devil bush pilot Bob Reeve crash-landed his light aircraft on the Walsh Glacier and was almost stranded with them, to the end, when the climbers had run out of food miles from habitation and resorted to shooting squirrels to stay alive, the dangers never ceased. In between, they managed the incredible feat of making the first ascent of the vast, hulking Lucania - hitherto deemed "impregnable" by climbers who had attempted it - despite the necessity of double carries of heavy loads through giant snowdrifts virtually all the way up the upper reaches of its 20,000ft slopes.

Following this gargantuan task, they only just retained enough energy to escape from the vast, trackless bush guarding its flanks, in a do-or-die trek to safety. In the modern era, such a rip-roaring adventure would receive media plaudits and like as not end up as a film. And yet, until David Roberts's account of Washburn's ground-breaking expedition, Escape from Lucania (2003), revived the story, the details of this astonishing journey remained largely forgotten, unaccountably kept in the shade by the glow generated by the higher-profile Himalayan expeditions of the inter-war era.

This was typical of many of Washburn's achievements: his character was conditioned by old-school American academic values, where understatement and modesty remained steadfast virtues.

Brad Washburn was born into a comfortable middle-class Massachusetts family in 1910. His father, an episcopal theologian and keen outdoorsman, introduced Brad and his brother Sherry to mountain walking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire from an early age. Brad summited Mount Washington when he was just 11 and shortly afterwards took up photography - another area in which he would excel. Showing intellectual as well as mountaineering ability well beyond his years, Brad Washburn had published a climbers' guidebook, The Trails and Peaks of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains (1926), by the time he turned 16.

The same year he visited the Alps with the Washburn family. The teenager climbed Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, returning the following year with his brother Sherry to learn the craft of alpinism from the famous guides Alfred Couttet, Georges Charlet and Anthoine Ravenel. Charlet was impressed by Washburn's attitude: "He said that most of his clients didn't want to be told what to do," Washburn remembered, "but we wanted to know if we did something wrong or stupid. We wanted to be better climbers."

Washburn learned fast: in 1929, aged just 19, he would make a major first ascent on the Aiguille Verte, the first via its North Face, with Charlet and Couttet, a climb still regarded as something of a technical watershed in alpine climbing. The children's publisher George P. Putnam, on hearing of the youthful Bostonian's precocious Alpine exploits, signed Washburn up to write a book. Before he turned 20, Washburn had published three books about his climbing, all illustrated with his own photography (Among the Alps with Bradford, 1927; Bradford on Mount Washington, 1928; Bradford on Mount Fairweather, 1930).

By the time he reached Harvard, he was already a climbing celebrity, inducted into the prestigious New York Explorer's Club and a member of the French Alpine Club's élite Groupe de Haute Montagne to boot, and helping to pay his college fees with the proceeds from lecturing about his adventures. Coming under the influence of Henry Hall, the President of the Harvard Mountaineering Club and an enthusiast for the exploration of the Canadian Rockies, Washburn began a campaign of exploratory mountaineering that would make him the foremost North American alpinist of the mid-20th century.

He was especially drawn to the Yukon and Alaska: "I was just fascinated, this was a new place. Very few people had been there." Starting as a fresh-faced sophomore in 1930 and ending as a grizzled veteran in 1955, Washburn would plan, organise, raise funds and execute numerous expeditions to the far north. They resulted in scores of first ascents of remote mountain giants and new routes including the famous West Buttress Route of North America's highest peak, Denali/Mount McKinley in 1951.

In the mid-1950s, however, Washburn effectively retired from major expeditions to concentrate on his career as the Director of the New England Museum of Natural History. He had been recruited aged 28; the youngest director ever appointed to a major US museum. Over the next 40 years he would transform it from an old-fashioned and ramshackle Victorian collection into the Boston Museum of Science, one of the leading institutions of its kind.

Washburn also greatly advanced the technique of aerial photography and mountain cartography during this period. Initially interested in gaining topographical information in order to help plan his exploratory mountaineering, he pioneered the use of large-format cameras, removing the side door from single-engine aeroplanes and lashing himself to the bulkhead with ropes along with a 50lb Fairchild F6 camera to avoid being sucked into thin air.

Washburn's pictures, however, transcended mere utilitarian purposes. Showing the influence of his friend Ansel Adams, the doyen of American landscape photographers, many of his large-format monochrome prints of mountains, beautifully composed and exposed and packed with spectacular detail, are now regarded as works of art. As with Washburn's mountaineering, wider public recognition of this aspect of his work came late, with the photographic world becoming fully aware of his legacy in 1990 after Tony Decanaes "discovered" his 15,000-strong collection and began exhibiting Washburn's pictures at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston.

Washburn's achievements did not stop there, however. In between he managed to advance the cause of mountain cartography significantly, producing exceptionally detailed maps of, amongst other places, Denali, the Grand Canyon and Everest. Aged 89, he helped carry out research into the elevation of Everest that led to a more precise redefinition of its height. At the time of his death, he was working on a map of his retirement community in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Despite his extraordinary achievements in mountaineering and photography, Washburn remained most proud of his work in science education. "The top of Mount McKinley was thrilling," he said, "but there's nothing on earth more exciting than the eyes of a youngster at the instant of discovery."

Colin Wells

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