Can you remember the thrill of flying in an open cockpit 2-seater, goggles and leather helmet strapped on, and hair tousled by the wind? Or that feeling of awe when your last punishing steps revealed what was over the horizon, and you stood breathless on top of the highest peak in Alaska?
Well…it’s really ok if you don’t. It simply means you’re not Barbara or Bradford Washburn, an amazing couple who’ve racked up adventures that could fill a book. Or several books, as they have.
It was the Washburns that I decided to focus on for my first Remarkable People interview, and their story is fascinating. But before I go on, please indulge me a commercial break. You see, the purpose of this blog is to inspire, and one of the most effective ways to do so is to tell our stories, and hear those of others who are traveling with us. So I intend to bring you, in the words of people like you, the moments that came to define their connection with the world around us, the core of their eConsciousness. I hope what you’ll see is that it happens many different ways. It is sparked by events that simply wash over and through you, or that make barely a ripple. It happens to people we all come to know, and to people we will never know. Each, in their own way, can help ignite the sustainability mindedness, the unlikely activist, in you. So enjoy.
Bradford and Barbara Washburn are remarkable people in many ways, known for their mountaineering exploits and lifelong pursuit of scientific understanding and communication. Bradford was Director of Boston’s Museum of Science for many years and during his tenure made numerous trips to Alaska, the Alps, and Nepal. You may recall seeing his striking large format black and white photographs, documenting expeditions to both explore and map places that few if any humans had ever traversed. Fortunately many of the Washburns’ exploits were recorded for all to see, in books such as Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life; Exploring the Unknown: Historic Diaries of Bradford Washburn’s Alaska/Yukon Expeditions; and Barbara's own The Accidental Adventurer: Memoir of the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley. But even more fortuitously, I recently had the chance to speak with Barbara herself and get a peek behind the scenes.
A petite and sprightly 92 years old now, Barbara captivated and charmed me from the first moments of our interview. Especially so when she recounted the days before she and Bradford were married. “Before Brad and I dated, I was a secretary at the Biology Department (at Harvard) and he was directing the Science Museum at the time. Well...I thought Brad was just a crazy mountain climber. I wasn’t impressed.”
Of course, this hit home with me, because I was once sort of a crazy mountain climber myself and took my wife-to-be up the Shawangunks on our very first date, and I realize now she may have shared the same sentiment with Barbara. But I didn’t take Ellen flying, which Bradford did. “He took me up in an open plane, with the flying suit and goggles and leather helmet. We would go into a dive, and I had a good time. I felt like I was Anne Lindbergh”, Barbara recalls. But that was not a true date, though, “because things were much more formal in those days.”
Well, eventually, after agreeing to work with Bradford at the Museum—“he kept pursuing me…he was very aggressive’’—they did unite and began a life of adventure together. The outdoors, especially places remote and unexplored became the basis for Bradford’s work away from Boston (when he wasn’t touring the country giving lectures). Barbara accompanied him on many of these trips. Together they climbed, and mapped, 13,832’ Mt. Hayes in southern Alaska—apparently a much more difficult climb than 20,320’ McKinley itself would prove to be. And there began, in Barbara’s words, “the feeling that getting up high was such a unique experience. Up there you get a feeling of the insignificance of yourself. It wasn’t about any sense of achievement, really.”
Bear in mind that this was back in the late 1940’s, before environmentalism and sustainability were the mantras they are today. Bradford Washburn was ‘in it’ to discover unmapped territory and share it with the world. And he leaves us with a startling body of photographs, maps, and writings that help us less adventurous types see for ourselves the tenuous nature that surrounds us. Seeing the world through his eyes is something you can hardly afford not to do.
Later in their work together, in June of 1947, Barbara and Bradford climbed the iconic Mt. McKinley. They had a family by that time. It was on the top of that remote peak that Barbara remembers a particular moment. “I think I had a funny kind of religious experience on top of Mt. McKinley. The beauty there is overwhelming…like looking out over a vast 3-dimensional map. I walked over to the edge. And I had a vision from my old Sunday school book. I know it was clouds, but I saw God up there, with a white beard. And all I could think to say was: help me get home to see my kids again.”
Of course, she did. And I’d like to believe Barbara found a bit of eConsciousness that day. Grounded in her own life experience. As she and I parted, I asked if she’d like to share one observation she had come to know about nature. And she said…
“I’m just a leaf on the ground.”
Thank you, Barbara.