Bradford Washburn suffered from terrible hay fever as a child and long told friends that he became a mountain climber because the mountains were the only place he could breathe. Others might say he became a mountain climber because he was stubborn.
His first three Alaska expeditions were failures, although the second and third were better failures than the rest. On the fourth, in 1934, his team summited Mt. Crillon, a massive 12,726-foot peak off the Gulf of Alaska that had never been attempted or approached and is still rarely attempted today.
After his fourth try, he never failed in Alaska, revolutionizing mountaineering with the use of bush planes, radios, and air drops of supplies. He succeeded because he was smart and driven as a climber, but he also succeeded — and sometimes survived — because he was tough.
A son of privilege born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1910, Washburn attended private schools, and by the time he enrolled in Harvard, he already had an impressive climbing resume from summer trips to Chamonix, notching a bold first ascent on the Aiguille Verte that was at the time the most difficult route ever put up by an American climber.
From 1933 to 1955, almost all of those years while working as the director of the Boston Museum of Science, Washburn studied and attacked Alaska’s mountains, organizing and leading expeditions that left his legacy all over the map: Mt. Crillon, Mt. Bertha, Mt. Deception, Mt. Hayes, and a half-dozen other summits of unclimbed peaks. If you climb 20,320-foot Denali, chances are about 90 percent you’ve climbed it by the West Buttress Route, the brainchild of Bradford Washburn. In 1947, Washburn’s wife, Barbara, became the first woman to summit Denali and Washburn became the first person to stand on the summit twice.
In the basement of the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, Colorado, where the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum was dedicated in 2008, 175 poster-size prints of grand, black-and-white Bradford Washburn mountain photographs hang covered on sections of chain-link fence for safekeeping. To say Washburn’s mountain photographs are stunning is a mammoth understatement — a self-taught photographer, Washburn became one of the best aerial photographers in the world, and is regarded as one of the two best mountain photographers to ever live, along with Vittorio Sella.
His photos, which guided many an expedition in Alaska’s mountains with their striking clarity, were earned: Washburn would remove the door of a fixed-winged plane, hang out into space at altitudes above 10,000 feet, shouting directions at the pilot, tethered to the inside of the plane, wearing a mountaineering suit, mitten on his upwind hand, glove on his shutter hand, snapping large-format photos with a 53-pound camera apparatus — a freezing outing for both Washburn and the pilot. He learned to click the shutter at the exact moment the small plane was at the top of its bounce, and to snap two photos in succession to create “stereo” images that revealed incredible detail.
The story David Roberts would choose to open his biography of Washburn,The Last of His Kind, is of Washburn’s 1937 attempt on 17,150-foot Mt. Lucania, at that time the highest unclimbed mountain in North America — which had ample chance to kill Washburn and Bob Bates, then in their mid 20s.
Walter Wood had led an expedition to climb Lucania the previous year, instead climbing its neighbor, Mt. Steele, and taking a photo of Lucania, saying in the caption of the photo in the second issue of LIFE Magazine, “Mt. Lucania remains virtually impregnable.”
Washburn convinced bush pilot Bob Reeve to land a plane on the Walsh Glacier at the foot of Lucania, where Reeve had ferried several loads to the glacier for base camp without incident. It was 120 miles from the nearest settlement, McCarthy. When it came time to drop the climbing party, he would leave Bob Bates and Washburn first, then the other two members of the expedition on a second trip. Except when he tried to land, Reeve’s plane sank into slush. It took five days for the glacier to firm up enough to attempt a takeoff, which Reeve did by stripping the plane down to bare bones.
Reeve never came back, effectively stranding Bates and Washburn at the foot of Lucania, the rest of their party sitting in Valdez wondering what was going on.
Most climbers would have bailed on the mission and concentrated on merely surviving the 120-plus-mile walk out to McCarthy, a village in the middle of what is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Washburn and Bates decided instead on climbing Lucania, traversing to Mount Steele (which had been climbed once), bagging the summit on the way, and walking out 140-some miles to a trading post at Burwash Landing on Kluane Lake — much of which was unmapped. (Washburn had drawn in some unknown glaciers on their map).
They ditched a sleeping bag (sleeping head-to-foot in a single one for the rest of the trip), cut out their tent floor, left Washburn’s beloved large-format camera, and tossed their air mattresses to get their packs down to 60 pounds for the summit and traverse. After summiting Lucania, dropping down and then climbing up another 2,500 feet to Steele, then downclimbing its northeast ridge, then started their descent. Believing Wood’s party had left a food cache 15 miles from Steele’s base, Washburn and Bates dumped most of their food, hanging onto enough for four or five days. They started a rather harrowing descent, arriving at the food cache the next evening, only to find it destroyed, all the cans punctured and drained by bears. And the terrain they had to cross was a completely blank spot on the map.
They arrived at the Donjek River to find it uncrossable, a raging torrent rushing with glacial meltwater from upstream. Their only hope of crossing the 300-yard wide river was walking upstream 25 miles to the Donjek Glacier, hoping it was the source of the river, and they could walk across it without crampons or ice axes, which they had left behind.
But at the Donjek Glacier, they discovered they’d have to cross the glacier, and the river — more than 50 braided channels — to the opposite shore. They built a makeshift 75-foot “rope” out of pack cord knotted together and fought the current, half-slipping, half-swimming, falling into the icy waters past their heads. Once on the other side, they followed the river, finding a horsepacking trail. On the 30th day of their expedition, they heard a clinking noise — men on horses. The men asked Washburn and Bates, “Where did you come from?”
Even after Washburn more or less retired from mountaineering in Alaska, he continued to inspire younger alpinists with big dreams in the big mountains, inviting them to his house or his office to look at photos he had shot, finding lines of possible routes. Washburn would sell prints to young climbers at cost, a steal, because he wanted to help them climb bold routes, as he had as a young man.
Washburn lived to be 96, dying at a retirement home in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 2007.