Henry Bradford Washburn Jr. died of heart failure on January 10, at the age of 96, in a retirement home in Lexington, Massachusetts. His legacy, however, as a mountaineer, photographer, cartographer and all-around adventurer extraordinaire will live on.
To climbers, Washburn is most famous for his 1951 first ascent of the West Buttress on Denali, of which Washburn once said, had the route never existed, Talkeetna wouldn’t even be a town. After 22 days on the mountain, Washburn and a team of climbers from Colorado topped out on what would become the most climbed line in Alaska, making the highest peak in North America accessible to mountaineers of a wide range of skill level. The West Buttress was a seminal moment in Alaskan mountaineering, and its discovery was thanks to Washburn’s own aerial photograph, a skill for which he was equally famous.
Washburn was born in Boston on June 7, 1910. His father was a dean at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, who took his family to the Catskills, in New York, during the summers, and later, Squam Lake, New Hampshire. At 11, Brad climbed the highest peak in the Northeast, Mount Washington, the ascent captured Brad’s heart and imagination, perhaps only because, in the alpine air, his hay fever disappeared entirely.
Around the same time, Washburn bought his first camera for one dollar, a Kodak point-and-shoot. Before even entering high school, he was developing his own pictures. Later, heeding the advice of his mother, he began experimenting with large-format photography, which he used to document his ascents in the Alps. As a teenager, over the course of three trips, Washburn climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, Les Dru, the north peak of Charmoz and the airy needle of the Grepon. On his third trip, at 19, Brad, along with guides Georges Charlet and Alfred Couttet, made the first ascent of the imposing North Face of the Aguille Verte in a day, a landmark climb that he often referred to as his best.
Washburn, who by this point had already written three books, entered Harvard University in 1929. Even the way he financed his tuition was ahead of its time for climbers: he gave slideshows, only instead of presenting at the local gear shop, he lectured at prestigious institutions such as the National Geographic Society, and at Carnegie Hall. Washburn first acquired an aerial camera (with the help of a professor) in 1933, and headed to the Saint Elias Range the next year, made the first ascent of Mount Crillon with Adams Carter, employed the unprecedented use of glacier landings and supply drops and came away with enough survey data to make a map. The next year, Washburn and seven men from the Harvard Mountaineering Club spent 84 days crossing the Saint Elias Range, mapping over 5,000 square miles of previously unknown territory.
Climbers have relied heavily on Washburn’s photos for new route information. Here’s a short list of climbs done as a direct result of Washburn’s photos and charting efforts: Mugs Stump’s Moonflower Buttress, Mount Hunter; Lionel Terray’s French Ridge, Mount Huntington. And on Denali: Jack Tackle’s Isis Face; David Roberts’ Wickersham Wall; Ricardo Cassin’s Cassin Ridge. Washburn’s photos are not only useful, they’re beautiful. Artists have lauded his work, including one of his mentors, Ansel Adams, who called him one of the best mountain photographers of all time.In 1939, Washburn took a job as director of the New England Museum of Natural History (later to be called the Museum of Science), in Boston, a job he happily, diligently and expertly performed for 41 years. Over that time, he turned the old, rundown joint into the greatest children’s museum in the world. When he first took office, he was tasked with hiring a secretary, he only saw one applicant, a young woman named Barbara Polk, who at first politely turned down the job. Insistent, Washburn called her every night until she accepted the position, and within less than a year, they were married.
A loving husband, father of three, Washburn remained active up until just recently, completing nearly a century of innovation and productivity. In the later years, he contributed by literally taking the world up a notch, discovering the true height of Mount Everest to be seven feet higher than previously estimated.
Few people would ever be able to match the incredible breadth of Washburn’s contributions to society, though many benefited from them, as well as Washburn’s open, comfortable personality. Climbers and explorers, artists and scientists: all regard Washburn with esteem. Bradford Washburn is survived by his wife, Barbara, and their three children.