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This Octogenarian's at the Heights of His Career : Mountaineer, Photographer and Cartographer Bradford Washburn Sees No Reason to Quit Now

November 20, 1998|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF | THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON — Bradford Washburn has a favorite phrase: "Skin one skunk at a time." The critters out there know better.

At 88, Washburn still walks, shoots and maps mountains, and he directs projects simultaneously as the mountaineer, photographer, cartographer and manager he's been in a 65-year career that won't quit.

"I can't see playing shuffleboard in Florida," he says. "I'm on the cutting edge of the twilight of life."

His is a life in love with cold vertical surfaces. He climbed Mt. Washington and other New England hills to ward off hay fever as an 11-year-old in 1921. (It worked.) Then came Europe's Matterhorn and Mont Blanc as a teenager, and Alaskan peaks after his 1933 graduation from Harvard.

For many years, he influenced climbers by writing articles and taking photographs for American Alpine Journal, suggesting new routes he was too busy to try.

"I got almost as much of a bang out of that as if I had climbed them myself," he says.

Washburn has a lined, weather-worn face and a trim frame that darts back and forth as his blunt, sometimes profane, talk caroms off different topics. Lately, Washburn has been measuring mountains with the satellite Global Positioning System--and courting controversy.

Washburn says his photographs and GPS measurements, made in July with his wife, Barbara, 84, conclusively establish that explorer Frederick A. Cook never made it to the summit of Mt. McKinley in 1906, as he claimed.

It's hardly a new thought--Washburn has been debunking Cook's claim for 40 years. But this evidence, he says, is definitive.

"So long, Dr. Cook," he crowed in a public announcement last month, adding with glee, "The Cook people will tear us to pieces."

Sure enough.

"Washburn's relentless, obsessed by this; he won't let it rest," answers Russell W. Gibbons of the Frederick A. Cook Society, which continues to insist that Cook was the first or could have been the first on top.

From his office at the Boston Museum of Science, which he headed for 41 years before "retiring" in 1980, Washburn also directs a Mt. Everest project that placed a GPS device at the summit this year to measure the speed at which India pushes under the Tibetan plateau and raises Everest.

"Mountains move in centimeters," he says. "Everest is rising and going northeast. Nepal is getting a tiny bit of China daily, and no shots are being fired."

Washburn has known many adventurers. In 1937, Amelia Earhart and her husband interviewed him as a possible navigator on her flight around the world.

Washburn, a pilot, advised them to put a radio on tiny Howland Island, 2,000 miles from Australia, or, he said, she would never hit it. Earhart disagreed, did not offer him the job--and flew off to vanish over the Pacific.

"Her death made me sick. It was so preventable," Washburn says. "She was a delightful girl and was in many ways an excellent pilot [but] pathologically self-confident. Amelia didn't listen to anybody."

Washburn hikes a little and water-skis on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, but no longer does technical mountain climbing--with ropes, pitons, ice ax and crampons. He misses it terribly but tries to surround himself "with lots of bright young people."

Washburn made several first ascents in Alaska and Canada. In 1951, he and six others pioneered the West Buttress Route on McKinley, now the most popular. His other ascents of McKinley were in 1942 and, with Barbara, in 1947, when she became the first woman to climb the mountain. She has reached both the South Peak (20,320 feet) and the North Peak (19,470).

She says she had to make the climb.

"If I hadn't gone, I'd have been bored stiff listening to him talk about it when he came back home," she says. "You have to share things in marriage."

Barbara, who married Washburn in 1940, came to enjoy climbing: "I liked the adventure, the companionship of sitting around at night, the marvelous scenery."

Washburn's maps delight climbers; they also hang in lowlanders' homes and in museums as art. Ansel Adams, perhaps America's leading outdoor photographer, regarded Washburn's aerial pictures of McKinley as "the very first of their kind and still the finest ever made."

Washburn's startlingly detailed pictures, taken over 50 years, became definitive maps of the St. Elias Range in Alaska and Canada, Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest and New Hampshire's Mt. Washington, as well as McKinley.

David Roberts, an accomplished climber, author and Washburn's partner in writing "Mt. McKinley: The Conquest of Denali" (1990, Abrams), recalls meeting Washburn in February 1963. Members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club wanted advice about new routes to climb McKinley.

"Our ambitions were fairly modest," Roberts wrote, "but Washburn brushed aside our demurrals and urged on us a 'line' he had scouted from the air that went straight up the east central section of McKinley's 14,000-foot Wickersham Wall.

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