Magazine article Geographical

Feeling on Top of the World: Stephen Venables Meets Bradford Washburn, a Photographer, Map-Maker, Museum Director and Mountaineer Who, at 91, Is Still Eager to Complete One Final Mission. (Interview)(Cover Story)

Magazine article Geographical

Feeling on Top of the World: Stephen Venables Meets Bradford Washburn, a Photographer, Map-Maker, Museum Director and Mountaineer Who, at 91, Is Still Eager to Complete One Final Mission. (Interview)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

RENAISSANCE MAN is not a term to use lightly, but just occasionally you meet someone who deserves that overworked epithet. Bradford Washburn is one such man. At 91, the American mountaineer, artist, map-maker, photographer and museum director still embraces new ideas and technology with an energy that shames most people half his age. And though he lives in the USA, Bradford still travels, and is visiting the UK this month to give various lectures around the country.

I first met him in 1990, when he was a sprightly 80-year-old, lodged at a temporary office in Royal Geographical Society, waiting to install his huge relief model of Mount Everest for a special London exhibition. "We've spent the whole week trying to get my model out of your darned British customs at Heathrow," he fretted. "They must think it's stuffed frill of cocaine or something." The model was released eventually and the only white powder involved was actually some innocent icing sugar dusted over the section joins of his stunningly accurate representation of the world's highest summit.

The model was based on the latest highly accurate 1:50,000 map of Mount Everest. This project had been masterminded by Washburn, using the pinpoint accuracy of aerial photos from a Lear jet to complement the ground-slogging surveys of the pre-war British explorers. These even dated right back to the 1921 Reconnaissance, when Washburn was a young boy in Boston taking his own first picture on a Brownie box camera, with compositional advice from his mother. For Christmas 1925 his parents gave him a Kodak `Vest-pocket Autographic Special' which he took on his first visit to the European Alps the following summer. The photos appeared in 1927 in his first book, Among the Alps with Bradford. Already at 17, he was showing the kind of commercial clout which would see him pay his way through Harvard and, later, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Boston Museum of Science.

At Harvard he took a degree in French history and literature, before majoring in cartography at graduate school. For him, this was no mere academic exercise. In 1935 he received backing for a major mapping expedition to the St Elias Mountains on the Alaska-Yukon border. His survey prompted a well-known climber, Walter Wood, to make an attempt on Mount Lucania in 1936. Wood failed and pronounced Lucania impregnable. "That was all we needed," recalled Washburn when I met him again last year. We were sharing breakfast at the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada and, despite a triple-bypass operation, he was still looking chipper. Never shy about blowing his own trumpet, he was happy to reminisce again about his formative years in the St Elias Mountains.

For once Walter Wood had thrown down the gauntlet, Washburn returned to Mt Lucania in 1937 with another Harvard mountaineering luminary, Bob Bates. This was one of the first expeditions to fly in to the area and unfortunately a skewed landing on soft slush damaged the plane. The team had to improvise repairs, then wait for conditions to improve. "Eventually we got an inch of crust on top of this fathomless bullshit and the pilot, Bob Reeve, said he would give it a try. He said, `You guys can skin your own skunks and I'll skin mine: I'm getting out of here and I wouldn't land again in this goddam place for a million bucks.'"

Stranded with a used one-way ticket, the two climbers struggled up Mount Lucania, complete with 9x12cm Zeiss Maximar camera. They descended the ridge Wood had failed on the previous year, then bagged the neighbouring summit of Mount Steele for good measure, before starting the unplanned 160km slog back to civilisation on foot. Forced marches, dangerous river crossings and subsistence on squirrel meat got them to within 40km of the road, when, utterly exhausted, they bumped into some native Americans on horseback. "These guys came up and asked, `Where are you going?' and we said, `We're going wherever you're going. …

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