The Man Who Mapped NH's White Mountains
Bradford Washburn had a lifelong, passionate romance with mountains, starting with New Hampshire’s White Mountains and reaching the world’s most prestigious heights.
Washburn’s day job was running (some would say transforming) the Boston Museum of Science, but he is famous for a long list of accomplishments, a number of them succinctly chronicled in the book “Mountain Voices” by writer Doug Mayer (along with Rebecca Oreskes) — “the now standard route up Denali (Mount McKinley), mapped the Grand Canyon, Mount Washington and Everest.” But that’s not all; he also mapped Squam Lake, New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and Mount Kennedy, and his books and photographs brought mountains to people and people to mountaineering.
A former associate, Malcolm Taylor, of Holderness, says Washburn is hard to pigeonhole, but he was “first a cartographer of mountains and he’d say, [to do that] you have to go to the mountain.” The rest of his acclaim flowed from that basic pursuit. Taylor ruffles at the description of Washburn as rambling backpacker. “He wasn’t a hiker,” he says, “[For Washburn] it was never recreational.” He was a participant, not an observer, and always driven to discover wild places and painstakingly record them for others to enjoy. It was not unusual, Taylor says, to receive a call at midnight from Washburn to go over tiny details of a mapping project.
“Brad’s legacy lives on in more than just the data he collected,” says Mayer, who knew Washburn since his days as young intern at the Mount Washington Observatory, “but in his rigorous method of scientific inquiry.” He demonstrated again and again, he adds, “how to bring clear, level-headed and smart thinking to tough problems, whether they were climbing routes or scientific challenges.”
Born in 1910 and reared in Cambridge, Mass., Washburn’s love for the outdoors was nurtured by his family’s deep roots in New Hampshire, where his family were long-time seasonal residents on Squam Lake (the spot popularized by the film “On Golden Pond”).
Washburn first scaled Mount Washington at the age of 11, and by 17 he had published a teenage adventure book that vividly described his daring ascent of an unclimbed peak of the French Alps. Three more books would quickly follow two that chronicled winter climbs of Mount Washington and Alaska’s Mount Fairweather, and then a guide of the Presidential Range, which became the first description of the trails and the peaks.
To pay for college, Washburn provided slideshows of his adventures along with photographs. Soon enough, he upgraded to a still new technology — a large-format Fairchild aerial camera. Its purpose was to measure topography, but it produced what few had seen before — vivid views of places out of reach of most people. But it was Washburn’s daring style of hanging from open airplanes, his pilot’s risky landings on isolated spots and his subsequent relationship as a journalist for Natural Geographic that brought him to the nation’s attention.
Taylor, whose father was a Harvard classmate and long-time Squam Lake friend of Washburn, landed a job assisting him. He recalls the thrill of these photographing adventures. Washburn’s tall, but thin frame would be dangled out the open doorway and held back only by Taylor’s hands firmly wrapped around Washburn’s belt. If that weren’t enough, in Washburn’s hands was a 53-pound box camera with a large hand-crank that would feed 8" x 10" negatives. Washburn would instruct the pilot to turn left or right by the upward- or downward-turned elbow.
But mapping was more tedious than adventurous; it required exacting, time-consuming precision across terrain that sometimes seemed impassable, if not impossible. The detailed photos were matched against measuring tape on the ground. These projects took years to complete.
He was often accompanied by his wife, Barbara, herself an accomplished explorer (she was the first woman to climb Mount McKinley in 1948).
The photography work hardly paid the bills for Washburn’s growing family of three; his continuing and increasingly popular lectures brought in half of his total income.
For six decades, the Washburns would take typically a month each year to, as Mayer says, “go off for major adventures — climbing, mapping, taking photos, exploring.”
These exploits, literally and figuratively, discovered trails that led people to better understand and access the virgin wilderness, and captured images and writings that influenced mountain scientists and artists, including Ansel Adams, one of the best-known outdoor landscape photographers.
To grasp his influence, consider the impact of Washburn’s 1951 discovery and mapping of the West Buttress trail, the safest, easiest route up Mount McKinley, which is North America’s highest peak and one of Alaska’s most frequently hiked mountains.
Shortly after the death of President Kennedy, Canada named an unexplored mountain in the Yukon Territory for the slain President. Having some familiarity with the region, Washburn jumped at the chance to reach the top and map the mountain. US Sen. Robert Kennedy, the late President’s brother, joined the group of around 50 that ascended the summit. Taylor was also part of the group.
Although he traveled the world, Washburn’s heart was never far from New Hampshire’s White Mountains and his seasonal home on Squam Lake. “I worked with Brad on what we referred to as ‘his map,’ the map of the Presidential Range,” Mayer says. “Even then, in the early ’80s, it was clear that he was the last of a generation of true explorers, and that the world was changing.”
Washburn’s mapping of Squam Lake is easy to miss, but he spent nearly 40 years chipping away at five editions of his Squam Lake Chart, which includes contour lines on the land surrounding the lake and a 300-foot grid of depth soundings, which required some 3,000 holes to be drilled during the winter through thick ice.
In time, satellite imaging and GPS replaced the compass, transit and the tripod. The process became more precise, but less human; the art was lost to science. As the artist Pablo Picasso observed, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
But ever the scientist and pragmatist, Washburn as an old man was part of a team that used GPS data to correct the height of Mount Everest, the Earth’s highest peak. It was a mountain that he never climbed, but he finally measured.
The Mountain World in Black and White: The Photographs of Bradford Washburn
See his stunning photos in person at the AMC's Highland Center
Story by Rob Burbank
Bradford Washburn was 19 when he took first place in an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) photo contest. That was in 1929, and his winning image of a sunrise was captured in the French Alps.
The accomplishment foretold what would become a long life of mountain exploration and photographic creativity for the man who traveled the world with his wife, Barbara, climbing, exploring, making maps and creating striking pictures of some of the planet’s more notable peaks.
Twenty-nine of Washburn’s mountain photos adorn the walls of Thayer Hall at AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch, on Rte. 302 in the town of Carroll.
All are black-and-white images, and many are large, some measuring 40in x 50in, taken with a large-format camera holding 8" sheet film.
Their size, composition and use of shadow and light invite comparisons in style to the large-format photographs of famed landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. Indeed, Adams contributed to the preface of the book, “Mount McKinley, the Conquest of Denali,” by Washburn and David Roberts, writing, “… the photographs look almost inevitable, perfectly composed. These are not simply documents of McKinley’s wilderness; we sense in each one the presence of an individual, highly intelligent eye. The photographs are the result of the explorer’s consistent energy of mind and spirit — and so they truly mean something.”
Mount McKinley figures into the Highland Center exhibit, as do other Alaskan images, the French and Swiss Alps, and other peaks. Aerial views abound.
AMC opened the Highland Center in 2003 as a center for adventure, learning and lodging. It’s fitting that this collection of Washburn’s photos has found a home here, given his many decades of involvement with AMC and his lifelong love for learning and adventure.
The celebrated photographer, cartographer and former director of the Museum of Science in Boston joined AMC as a teenager. He returned to New Hampshire’s White Mountains again and again to explore, take photographs and do cartographic field research. He and Barbara performed field measurements for the Washburn map, “Mount Washington and the Heart of the Presidential Range,” published by AMC in 1988.
The exhibit, in Thayer Hall’s Brad and Barbara Washburn Room, was developed by Tony Decaneas of the Panopticon Gallery of Waltham, Mass. The company is now doing business as the Decaneas Archive.
One of the more oft-lingered-at photos in the hall is a bird’s-eye view of Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine, taken in 1938 (pictured above). Sharp-eyed viewers will eventually note that the image’s many tiny specks are skiers ascending the ravine’s precipitous headwall.
Not only can exhibit-goers enjoy viewing these photos, they can gain insight into the photographer’s thoughts and motivations as he set up these shots and pressed the shutter: Each image carries a number, and when a visitor punches that number into a handheld acoustic device, he or she will hear recordings of Brad and Barbara sharing thoughts on the image.
Both are gone now (Barbara died last year at age 99), but they have left us with images and maps of the world as it was, and how it may still be, through the lens, and in the mind’s eye.
Rob Burbank is director of media for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Bradford Washburn exhibit is free of charge and open to the public. Because the hall is used for meetings and events, visitors are advised to call the Highland Center at (603) 278-HIKE to confirm exhibit availability.