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On High; The Adventures of Legendary Mountaineer, Photographer, and Scientist Brad Washburn

On High; The Adventures of Legendary Mountaineer, Photographer, and Scientist Brad Washburn.

Brad Washburn, with Donald Smith. The National Geographic Society, 2002. 100 photos, 240 pages. Hardcover. $40.00.

Ask Brad Washburn to sign a copy of Among the Alps With Bradford, the first mountaineering book he ever wrote, and you’ll get more than an autograph. Washburn likes to doodle in the current year, sometimes underlined, sometimes accented with an exclamation point. I suspect he takes great pleasure in seeing today’s date alongside the book’s original copyright. Washburn wrote Among the Alps on the heels of an extraordinarily successful summer when he ticked a number of classic and coveted alpine summits including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and the Grepon. In Washburn’s case, however, it was all the more remarkable because he was only sixteen years old. The book was published the following year, in 1927.

Nearly 80 years later, Washburn has many more extraordinary climbs—most notably in Alaska—and a host of other books to his credit. Along the way, he and his wife Barbara have almost single-handedly built one of the world’s great science museums, he’s become a legend of mountain mapping and photography, and—perhaps most impressive of all—Brad and Barbara recently celebrated their sixty-third wedding anniversary. Despite Washburn’s mountain of published work, On High: The Adventures of Legendary Mountaineer, Photographer, and Scientist Brad Washburn is the first title that attempts to put everything into context by telling the complete story of his life. As the lengthy title implies, this is an autobiography (though it reads like a biography) with many facets. Perhaps this is why it has taken so long to get to print: Bradford Washburn is a tough character to boil down.

Washburn’s early years read like scenes from a turn-of-the-previous-century New England novel: born into a loving, intellectual family, his childhood evokes idyllic images of ivy covered prep schools and rough-and-tumble summers in the rugged lake country of New Hampshire. Washburn is barely a teenager when he climbs his first mountain, writes his first book (a hiking guide to the Presidential Range), and takes his first photographs. After that it is an almost inevitable progression: his early successes with mountain adventuring and writing lead to lecturing, which generates the means and necessity for more ambitious expeditions (Alaska and the Yukon) during which Washburn’s burgeoning talent for photography creates even greater opportunity for perpetuating this lifestyle.

And then Washburn makes a turn that may have modern alpine tigers scratching their heads: he marries and takes a full time job that he will work until retirement. And yet this is hardly the end. Barbara Polk Washburn is the kind of spouse every mountaineer—male or female—dreams of finding: smart, supportive, and a spirited adventurer in her own right (just three months after their wedding the couple tops Mt. Bertha in Alaska). Similarly, Washburn’s new job resurrecting Boston’s antiquated Museum of Science is no ball and chain. On the contrary, his museum directorship brings lasting challenge and meaning to Washburn’s life (as well as opportunity for further expeditions—including his pioneering trips to Mt. McKinley, which Barbara is the first woman to summit). In fact, science and photography provide the vital path for Washburn to segue into middle age and beyond and still maintain a strong and productive connection to the mountains and the world climbing community. We should all be blessed with such luck—or, in Washburn’s case, foresight.

Even Washburn aficionados familiar with his history will mine gems in On High. Tucked in among the well-known events and characters are a few unexpected surprises: the delightful early climbing partnership between Brad and his younger brother Sherwood “Sherry” Washburn is particularly poignant, as is the description of Brad and Barbara’s first night together (in separate bunks on a railroad sleeping car!). There’s even a fascinating connection between Brad and the doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

If this book has a shortcoming, it is the brevity of the presentation. The publishers have clearly aimed for mass appeal—it is a classy, visually strong volume filled with impressive photos, magazine-like sidebars, and easily digested chapters. But I often found myself wishing for more—in particular, more of the stuff not already chronicled in Washburn’s other books: more about the museum years, more details concerning the lives of peripheral characters and relationships (what ever happened to brother Sherry?), and more about the motivation for the zeal with which Washburn has devoted himself to debunking the mountaineering claims of Frederick Cook. And yet, in this book, it’s all been so skillfully reduced—like a fine cream sauce—into such a delicious and satisfying product, that whining about the size of the portions seems an ungrateful and piggy complaint. Until the day when a truly definitive and comprehensive Washburn biography is written (as it certainly will be), On High can stand proudly as “the Washburn book we’ve all been waiting for,” and provide a worthy testament to this extraordinary life.

David Pagel, AAC