Mapmaker, photographer, and explorer of mountains' majesties celebrated at Mugar Library exhibition
By Brian Fitzgerald
What makes a mountaineer want to climb? Many think that these so-called peak-baggers have some kind of death wish. Sir Edmund Hillary famously scaled Mt. Everest "because it was there." But Bradford Washburn (Hon.'96), first sought out high altitudes because of his sneezing.
"I had terrible hay fever," explains Washburn at BU's Department of Special Collections on November 18. He was there to mark the opening of an exhibition entitled Bradford Washburn: Papers of the Eminent Cartographer, Explorer, and Photographer. The 89-year-old Washburn, known for his maps and photos of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Everest, began reaching for the sky in 1921 to get a bit of fresh air.
"When I was 11 years old I went to Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and I noticed that I didn't get hay fever when I went into the mountains," he says. "I climbed Mt. Washington that year with a cousin." A few years later, his father, dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, went on a sabbatical to England. "My mother, my brother, and I joined him in Europe in the summer of 1926," he says. "We did a lot of good climbs in the French Alps. That got me really fascinated." He sold several articles on hiking to Youth's Companion magazine in his early teens, made his first Alpine climb at age 16 on Mont Blanc (15,780 feet), and published his first book, Among the Alps with Bradford, when he was 17.
Aerial photos as art
In fact, Washburn climbed mountains in Alaska with a team that had long experience in exploration and survival in freezing temperatures. During World War II he served as a consultant to the U.S. armed forces, reevaluating all American equipment for Arctic and sub-Arctic warfare. "In 1941 the U.S. was completely unequipped for this type of battle condition," he says. "It had gear from World War I. When the new equipment was developed by the summer, they couldn't wait six months for the winter to test it. So we went to Alaska."
In the Jack-and-Jill tradition
"The climb from 18,000 feet was relatively easy," says Barbara, who was also at the opening of the exhibition. "We had a comfortable camp and had been on the mountain for two months and were acclimatized."
Mountain climbing is no longer just a man's sport. Do today's women climbers ever contact Barbara? "Once in a while," she says. "A few years ago a newspaper reporter called me from Anchorage, Alaska. He said, 'A girl has just soloed Mt. McKinley. What do you think?' The first answer that came into my head was, 'Oh, the poor thing, she missed all the fun.' He asked me what I meant. Well, for me the best part of the trip was sitting around the stove every night having good conversation. Marching up the mountain out of breath and tired -- that was hard. It was the companionship that made it worthwhile."
The Washburns' climbing days are mostly over -- Bradford is busy at Boston's Museum of Science, where he was named director in 1939. In 1980 he was named director of the museum's corporation, and in 1985, was named honorary director for life. Two years ago, however, he did "christen" a climbing wall after a dedication ceremony at Milton Academy. "The kids said half-jokingly to Brad, 'Why don't you climb it?' Well, he surprised them," says Barbara. Washburn, at the ripe young age of 87, scampered right to the top.