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Barbara Washburn: Accidentally Adventurous, Deliberately Brave

Barbara Washburn during the third ascent of Denali’s Muldrow Glacier route in 1947, which also marked the first female ascent of the peak. Washburn passed away on September 25. [Photo] Bradford Washburn

A mother, wife, climber, cartographer and self-described “accidental adventurer,” Barbara Washburn was intimidated by little. Washburn was the first woman to climb 20,320-foot Denali in June of 1947 and wrote in her memoir, The Accidental Adventurer, that in order to train she had pushed her children’s baby stroller. On September 25, at the age of 99, Washburn passed away.

Eight years before her Denali ascent, a young and studious Barbara Polk was taking classes at Harvard University when a friend implored her to interview to work in the office of Bradford Washburn, the director of the New England Museum of Natural History. “In the course of one’s life, fate has a way of intervening,” she wrote of the interview in her memoir. After some convincing from Washburn, she took a job as his secretary, and over the next few months, Barbara and Brad developed a kinship. They were married in 1940. Thinking back on her husband’s proposal, Washburn wrote, “He must have already gotten a glimpse of my sense of adventure.”

The two went on to become a couple known for their venturesome spirits. The duo created authoritative maps of the Grand Canyon, Denali and Hew Hampshire’s White Mountains and aided in the mapping of Mt. Everest, establishing themselves as renowned cartographers. Along the way, Washburn quietly helped erode the traditional role of a woman of her time. “Like most women of my generation, I’d been raised to believe that my place was in the home,” she wrote in Alpinist 24. “Yet in the end, the places where I would make that home wouldn’t always be in warm Massachusetts suburban houses, surrounded by the bright voices of our children. Sometimes that home would be in an igloo, at 12,000 feet, sharing Tang-flavored fig pudding with my husband; or as the lightest climber going first to test the cornices on a narrow exposed ridge; or staring out at summit views that no one else had seen.”

Washburn’s children, Dorothy, Edward and Elizabeth, and her husband were always the center of her world even through her many travels. During the first female ascent of Denali, she wrote, “Even on the top, I still remembered that I had to make it back for the children,” and went on to say, “All the summits I would ever climb and all the places in which I would ever dwell, to me, will always be Brad.”

Washburn passed away in Lexington, Mass. Her 100th birthday would have been on November 10.

Sources: The Accidental Adventurer, Alpinist 24,