From the bookshelf: Mountaineer's life a grand adventure

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004



Washburn: Extraordinary Adventures of a Young Mountaineer

By Bradford Washburn

Appalachian Mountain Club Books

$18.95 (softcover)

Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration

By Michael Sfraga

Oregon State University Press

$24.95 (softcover)

Now that he is 94 years old, Bradford Washburn has slowed down enough for admirers to catch up to him in print. This year two new books look back at his remarkable and varied career as a mountaineer, photographer, explorer, cartographer and popularizer of high-altitude scientific adventures.

"Washburn: Extraordinary Adventures of a Young Mountaineer" is actually three old books in a new package. It reprints the text and selected photos from three slim volumes Washburn wrote in his youth for a series of boys' adventure tales published in the 1920s. They are "Among the Alps with Bradford," penned when he was 16, and its sequels "Bradford on Mt. Washington" and, of most interest to Alaskans, "Bradford on Mt. Fairweather."

The second book, "Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration" is the first biography of Washburn and the debut book by Fairbanks writer and scholar Michael Sfraga, a mountaineer, naturalist and associate vice president of the University of Alaska System Office. It, too, features a sampling of Washburn's acclaimed black-and-white mountain photographs.

Washburn was born in 1910 in Cambridge, Mass. His childhood included not only privileges of wealth and culture, but high expectations. He recalled that his parents told him, "Whatever you do, try to do it well."

His family supported an interest in outdoor activities, and by age 11 he was climbing New England's White Mountains. As a teen, he compiled a hiking guide to the area and vacationed in the French Alps.

Publisher George P. Putnam saw an article the precocious scholar-athlete wrote about ascending the Matterhorn and promptly signed Washburn up to write for his series "Boys' Books by Boys." Washburn recalled that he wrote the first manuscript in 10 days in the Pensione Calcine in Venice on his way home from the 1927 climbing season, and a few months later the book "Among the Alps with Bradford" was on store shelves.

Three generations later, these three volumes of juvenilia hold up well. The author's clear and jaunty prose reflects well on his editors, prep-school masters and his own keen intellect. These early accounts brim with energy and enthusiasm.

By the time he wrote about his first Alaska expedition in 1930, he was a 20-year-old Harvard student with a resume of published photographs, books and a budding reputation as a geographer and expedition leader.

"Alaska! The word alone thrills us with the glamour of exploration and adventure. Thousands of miles of unexplored rivers, vast expanses of virgin forest, glaciers, gold mines, pack trains — all these flash through our minds at the very mention of that magic country," the young explorer gushes.

What follows, however, is no smarmy travelogue but a compelling and straightforward tale of an attempt at a first assent of Mount Fairweather near Glacier Bay. The party of six young men discovered the realities of Alaska's coast and backcountry as they battled first heavy seas and then weather, insects, thickets and terrain. They traveled through Lituya Bay and up glaciers, sopping wet between the summer melt and Southeast rains, carrying packs weighing up to 100 pounds.

Although they failed to reach the summit, Washburn already had learned to hedge his bets by making detailed surveys and shooting quality photos of previously uncharted areas. The venture also demonstrated his unusual combination of ambitious confidence, shrewd hard work and mature caution.

Sfraga's book shows how Washburn fulfilled the promise of his precocious youth. It sets his later life's work in the context of 20th-century changes in the nature of exploration. The author sees Washburn, with his independence and multidisciplinary interests, as a modern descendent of the "Renaissance man" and the 19th century's Victorian gentleman scientist.

"At the very core of each of Washburn's expeditions can be found a few primary motifs: a fundamental love for high and distant places, a yearning to discover the unknown, and the desire to share with others the world's natural beauty and scientific wonders," Sfraga writes in his introduction.

Sfraga's biography began as a doctoral thesis at the University of Alaska. He consulted with Washburn himself and carefully researched archives to produce a careful and thorough account of the man's work.

The drawback is that the author's attention to documenting Washburn's cultural context sometimes detracts from the storytelling. For example, the chapter that discusses Washburn's early explorations in Alaska spends seven pages reviewing the history of Alaskan exploration before getting back to the protagonist. In other places Sfraga sacrifices chronological order to follow a train of thought, and he provides little about the man's personal life. Even Washburn's wife, Barbara, the first woman to summit Denali, gets little ink.

On the other hand, Sfraga excels when he takes us along on Washburn's adventures. The tales of mountaineering, surveying and testing equipment under harsh conditions make for riveting reading.

During his long and fruitful career, Washburn pioneered new techniques of aerial photography and cartography, worked closely with the National Geographic Society on varied projects and directed the Boston Museum of Science for decades. For many years, the project that captured his attention was the exploration and mapping of Denali, a mountain that fascinated him. His climbs there involved cosmic ray experiments, tests of cold-climate military gear, the investigation of a plane crash and pioneering the West Buttress route to the top.

"By 1960, Washburn's personal and professional involvement with Mount McKinley was so intimate and interwoven that he would, from then on share with the mountain a significant portion of his own identity. The names Mount McKinley and Bradford Washburn will forever be linked," Sfraga says.

The two books differ in tone and focus, yet they both shed light on a remarkable life. Other books on Washburn no doubt will follow, but either of these volumes helps readers get to know one of Alaska's legends.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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