- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

By David Roberts
William Morrow, $25.99, 334 pages, illus.

It may well be true, as Jon Krakauer’s blurb has it, that “Nobody alive writes better about mountaineering than David Roberts,” but his subject this time, his longtime friend and mentor Bradford Washburn, is one about which he has conflicting emotions. When he died at age 96, Washburn was acclaimed as the greatest mountaineer in Alaskan history, one who had revolutionized the arts of mountaineering and exploration in the great ranges (he was a great proponent of fast and light approaches, having a floatplane fly in the team and airdrop food and gear to his starting point, avoiding the dreary march to base camp).

He was also hailed as one of the finest mountain photographers ever (second perhaps only to Ansel Adams) and as a cartographer whose maps of Mount McKinley, Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon and other regions “surpassed anything that had come before them.” And, by the way, at age 28, he became director of the New England Museum of Natural History, relocated it, and turned it into Boston’s Museum of Science.

Although Washburn said that he hoped to be remembered primarily for his work at the science museum, that subject is barely touched on in this book, which is all about swashbuckling mountaineering. Mr. Roberts takes us from one adventure to another, beginning in 1937 with 27-year-old Brad Washburn and a fellow mountaineer marooned in the subarctic Saint Elias Range in Canada’s Yukon Territory facing a near-death experience fording the Donjek River.

The book more or less ends with the author’s own tale of climbing Alaska’s Mount Huntington in 1965, which “would have been a perfect expedition, except that it ended in tragedy. In the middle of the night of July 31 as the youngest member of our team, Ed Bernd, and I descended in semidarkness, we paused to set up a rappel. Suddenly, as soon as he leaned back on the rope, Ed was flying through the air away from me. He never uttered a word. Somehow the anchor had failedand to this day, I do not know why. It was obvious, however, that Ed had fallen 4,500 feet to his death. The ‘perfect expedition’ turned into a survival ordeal, as I had to climb without a rope down to the next camp, then wait two days for my other two partners to join me.”

Washburn began climbing on a summer holiday in the Alps when he was 16. Having conquered Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, he joined Harvard’s mountaineering club and looked west, to Alaska and the Yukon. On his first three Alaskan expeditions he failed to reach the summit, but in 1934 he began a string of successful attempts on previously unclimbed mountains that has never been matched. Mr. Roberts details each conquest — and the book, article, lecture of all three that followed. (Washburn had begun writing as a child, and no conquest — or attempt — went unpublished. He and the “National Geographic” were made for each other.)

What Washburn did not do, however, was always tell the whole story. For example, he failed to give credit, in a magazine article, to his wife, Barbara, for agreeing to take the lead on a knife-edged ridge on Mount Hayes. Many decades later, writes Mr. Roberts, “Brad would say that that knife-edge traverse was probably the hardest bit of technical climbing he ever did in Alaska. Perhaps it was simply too unflattering to his ego to acknowledge that he had turned the crux lead over to his wife, the mother of his now five-month-old daughter, and a mountaineer with only a little more than a year’s experience under her belt.”

Barbara herself writes in a memoir that “I tried to appear calm and confident, but I was really trembling with fear as I climbed ahead.” And the author comments, “The crux pitches on a mountain such as Hayes should have been led by the best climber, which in this case was Brad. He weighed only about thirty pounds more than his wife. Could it be that the men were afraid of that delicate tightrope walk in the sky and made Barbara the guinea pig? Did they believe their own rationalization about holding her if she fell?”

At the end of his book, having recounted Washburn’s astonishing successes in the mountains, Mr. Roberts muses that “it is tempting to see only an exemplary life — that rare case of a man who achieved virtually everything he set out to do.”

And then he returns to the darkest episode in Washburn’s life in May 1938, when, as the pilot of a rented floatplane carrying three companions sightseeing in the Olympic Mountains before another Alaskan adventure, Washburn landed too fast and too flat, causing the plane to overturn; two backseat passengers drowned in Lake Union. The inquest gave the cause of the crash unequivocally as pilot error, but Washburn never acknowledged responsibility, and, indeed, never wrote about the crash. Instead, he was consoled by friends who sent comments like “Don’t let it get you down for such things are all in the game.”

And indeed, Washburn went on with his planned Alaskan expedition. The author confesses he never summoned the nerve to mention the crash to his biographic subject. “At the age of forty,” Mr. Roberts says, “most mountaineers — even the greatest ones — have either quit climbing altogether or drastically lowered their sights. … To put it simply, most climbers get tired of risking their lives. And every serious mountaineer keeps a roster in his or her head of friends and acquaintances who were killed climbing.”

Neither marriage nor parenthood slowed Washburn, but by the mid-1950s his responsibilities at the museum led him to abandon the more risky climbs and to concentrate on aerial photography and mapping of Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon via helicopter. His photographs are breathtaking and the mapping remains state of the art. He continued to counsel students to make first ascents, and to write and rewrite his own stories, until his death, in bed, in 2007.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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