Washburn led climbing life to its fullest

January 21, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

It doesn't happen but maybe once or twice a lifetime, if you're lucky.

It's the chance to meet someone so smart, so courageous, who inhales life so fully that you'd swear he or she couldn't possibly be for real.

For me, that person was Dr. Henry Bradford Washburn.

He wouldn't have liked what I just called him. The doctor part. Or the Bradford part. Or God forbid, Mr. Washburn.

"It's just Brad," he'd say, waving his free hand while shaking yours.

In ancient times, Washburn would have been prowling the New World or inventing something to see new stars or leading pirates against the establishment.

But Washburn, who died Jan. 10 at the age of 96, had to make do with the world of the 20th and 21st centuries, and he did, becoming "a roving genius of mind and mountains," according to photographer Ansel Adams.

Washburn treated each day like the Age of Discovery, whether it was taking photographs of Alaska's Mount McKinley in the 1930s while hanging out the door of an airplane at 20,000 feet, or mapping the Grand Canyon by hopping onto towering mesas from the skid of a helicopter, or walking 200 miles of trails with tape measure in hand to measure New Hampshire's Presidential Range.

He climbed 20,320-foot Mount McKinley four times, once with his wife, Barbara, in 1947, making her the first woman to ascend North America's tallest peak.

Adams once said of his friend: "You recognize the explorer in Bradford Washburn at first sight. There is something about his eyes, the set of his chin.

"[He] is one of the very few people who have combined spectacular experience in the wilderness with equally spectacular achievements in the world of civilization."

Washburn decided early on that great discoveries weren't exclusively the domain of experts and scholars. To give the public a window into his world, he turned the dusty, dark New England Museum of Natural History into the vibrant Boston Museum of Science.

In his typical self-deprecating style, Washburn said he took the museum job at age 29 because no one else wanted it. But Washburn was not a caretaker. He raised money to build a new center on the Charles River and served as its director for 41 years before retiring in 1980.

Why the devotion?

"The top of Mount McKinley was thrilling," he once said, "but there's nothing on earth more exciting than the eyes of a youngster at the instant of discovery."

With Barbara, he created in 1988 a detailed relief map of Everest that was published by National Geographic. In his eighth decade of life, he led the effort to re-measure the world's tallest mountain, discovering that it is 29,035 feet, 7 feet higher than previously recorded. A replica of Everest, 12 by 15 feet, is displayed at the Boston museum.

For all of his swashbuckling, though, Washburn was no fool. He turned down being Amelia Earhart's navigator on her ill-fated, round-the-world flight because he thought her radios weren't up to the job.

I had interviewed Washburn by phone for this story or that for a number of years, but had never met him.

When hiking friends of mine and I decided to spend a winter's night on top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington (home of the world's worst weather) in the summit observatory, we called Washburn to see if we could meet him on our way back to Maryland.

He gave us directions to his suburban Boston home and invited us for lunch.

While we were at the summit, he called to make sure we were having fun and to inquire about weather conditions. The good doctor, it seemed, was also a director of the observatory.

When we arrived at his townhouse, he gave us a grand tour. The walls and bookcases were filled with the kind of stuff you'd figure an adventurer would have.

We followed him into his first-floor den, where prints from his book Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photography along with correspondence, awards and pending projects covered the floor like carpet. It was impossible to avoid stepping on his photographic treasures.

"Don't worry," he said, "there's more where they came from."

I later found out he took more than 15,000 large format black-and-white photos.

Then it was off to lunch at one of his favorite spots - Friendly's - for burgers and fish sandwiches and Fribbles.

What, no grilled caribou? I thought.

In the restaurant, Barbara sat next to me. We commiserated about the fact that clothing manufacturers did not make women's outdoor wear as serious as that made for men.

When she climbed 10,203-foot Mount Bertha in Alaska in her first month of marriage and later McKinley, Barbara Washburn confided, she was forced to wear cutoff and rolled up men's clothes to stay warm.

"Why did you go?" I asked her.

"Well, I wanted to be with Brad, and that's where he was going," she replied, smiling. Somehow, they found time to raise three children.

Both small and wiry, they made a cute couple. He hired her to be his secretary at the museum, and they ended up exploring the world together for 67 years.

"It was the best thing I ever did," said Brad, his eyes twinkling.

The customers around us were oblivious to the cute elderly couple and four grungy hikers yakking and laughing. It was the greatest Fishamajig sandwich of my life.

Washburn always ended conversations with, "Carry on."

We will, but it won't be the same.

Rockfish summit

Three fishing advisory commissions will meet tomorrow night in Annapolis to review Maryland's proposal for the spring striped bass season.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers are expected to ask regulators to eliminate Maryland's annual quota in favor of an allocation used by other Atlantic coast states.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet Jan. 29 in Alexandria, Va., to vote on the proposal and decide if Maryland must pay back overages in 2005 and 2006.

Last year, ASMFC approved Maryland's plan by the narrowest of margins.

The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. in the first-floor conference room at DNR headquarters, 580 Taylor Ave.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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