A mountaineer’s grand vision

A life of adventure and achievement, capped by creation of a great museum

Bradford Washburn, right, after summiting Mount Lucania with Bob Bates. Bradford Washburn, right, after summiting Mount Lucania with Bob Bates. (Bradford Washburn/Panopticon Gallery)
By David M. Shribman
August 9, 2009

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We think of him atop some peak in the Alps or Alaska, or in the bend of a glacier, or holding a flag in a snowfield, or occasionally in his office atop the Boston Museum of Science, a man half mountaineer and half myth, a figure from the recent past but really a pathfinder from another age.

Bradford Washburn was one of the Magellans of the mountains, one of those whose deeds in the high altitudes were no less daring and courageous than those of the explorers and commanders of the high seas. But he was also a pathfinder in urban Boston, finding a role and then a new home for its most farsighted museum. He was someone whose vision, reach and accomplishments were global but whose character was unassailably New England.

Now David Roberts, himself an accomplished mountaineer and author, has written a breezy, readable volume that is one part adventure story and one part biography, which is as good a way as any to describe Washburn’s life.

“The Last of His Kind’’ is both title and epitaph, and in the pages of the book are tales, stunning and stirring, of mountaineering in the high peaks of Alaska, the Yukon, Europe, even lowly New England. What emerges is a portrait of an explorer, adventurer, instructor, writer, photographer, cartographer, pilot, and high-peaks evangelist. His expeditions filled his own books, the pages of Life and National Geographic, and the folklore of mountaineering.

Washburn’s story is a tale of daring ascents, plane wrecks, perilous weather, humbling disasters, and high-stakes brushes with death.

Washburn collected what Roberts calls “the most extraordinary roster of first ascents in Alaska and Canada ever compiled by any mountaineer,’’ enough to pronounce him “the greatest mountaineer in Alaskan history.’’ In truth, the stories of these ascents are breathtaking, but they are as much a story of steely intelligence as they are of stubborn will.

For Washburn was a Harvard man, and he was as much scholar as adventurer. Most of us will never encounter his trails to the high summits of faraway wildernesses. A healthy handful of the readers of this account have encountered his photographs and indispensable maps. But none of the readers of this newspaper has been unaffected by the museum he turned into one of the landmarks of virtually every Boston childhood.

That is Washburn’s doing, for Boston’s Museum of Science at the mouth of the Charles River is his most important contribution to the landscape, the supreme irony being that this man of the outdoors left as his greatest contribution a series of displays and interactive exhibits viewed indoors. The museum was not always what it is today, of course. In its decrepit Back Bay past, it attracted 35,000 visitors a year. Washburn’s creation passed the million-visitors-a-year mark three decades ago.

For more than 40 years Washburn presided over what once was the New England Museum of Natural History, and now no one thinks of his mountain intervals, which continued during his museum days, as “little better than truant flights from the serious business of directing the museum,’’ as Roberts characterized some museum trustees’ resentments in the early days. Washburn died two years ago at 96.

This is a book, and perhaps a life, of action and not of introspection. There are, in these pages, few pauses for reflection. The closest Roberts comes is this: “To put it simply, most climbers get tired of risking their lives. And every serious mountaineer keeps a roster in his or her head of friends and acquaintances who were killed climbing. . . . Some climbers mellow out when they get married, and many quit altogether when they first have children.’’

Washburn’s quit was in slow motion, though it is hard to imagine that the man did anything slowly. He turned his attention to mapping - his maps of Mount McKinley, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Everest are classics. But for our purposes his most lasting legacy might be his 1988 masterpiece, the definitive map of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. New England climbers cherish their copies of this map.

Near the end of his book, Roberts tells the story of a mountain passage of his own. He was in Alaska, at Denali Pass, and he and his band were “ravenous with hunger.’’ Then they happened upon a cache and discovered, from its markings, that it had been left by Washburn’s expedition in 1947. Inside were packets of chipped beef. “It seemed an honor,’’ he wrote, “to digest rations left on Mount McKinley by Brad Washburn.’’

Thus a metaphor in the mountains, and of the mountains. Future generations will discover what this man of the mountains and of New England left behind, and it will be an honor to digest rations left on hillsides by Washburn. We should all leave behind such a cairn and such a legacy.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

THE LAST OF HIS KIND: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer
By David Roberts
Morrow, 352 pp., illustrated, $25.99

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