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Dr. Bradford Washburn, director of Boston’s Museum of Science , was one of the greatest of all Alaska adventurers -- without ever living in the state. Yet in more than 70 trips to the North Country, Washburn established a reputation as a pre-eminent mountain climber, mountain photographerand mapmaker.
The first climber to three times ascend 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America , Washburn pioneered the West Buttress route in 1951 at a time he was warned ascending that way would result in his certain death. Instead, Washburn proved it was the best path to the top. Ninety percent of citizen mountaineers follow that route each year. Washburn also climbed McKinley in 1942 and 1947. When his wife Barbara joined him on the 1947 journey, her ascent marked the first climb of McKinley by a woman.
Washburn’s map of the peak and its surrounding area is considered the definitive cartography of the region and remains in use a half-century after it was completed. He also mapped Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon .
Strapping himself into the open door of a low-flying plane, Washburn produced a memorable body of aerial photographic work that was both artistic and informative about otherwise inaccessible areas of Alaska . In all, Washburn completed 13 northern first ascents, including Mount Sanford , Mount Crillon, Mount Marcus Baker, Mount Bertha, Mount Hayes, and Mount Lucania (on the U.S.-Canada border) between 1933 and 1955.
In addition, by arranging food and supply drops by airplane from the 1930s on, Washburn demonstrated that climbing parties could be replenished during expeditions and did not have to carry all of their equipment on their backs on months-long trips.
The Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum was opened in Golden, Colorado in 2008.
– Lew Freedman
photo courtesy of Panopticon Gallery
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