Alaskans remember climber, photographer as a pioneer

Washburn began exploring, mapping state during 1930s

Posted: Monday, January 15, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Bradford Washburn never called Alaska home but was considered a pioneer mountaineer, photographer and cartographer in America's largest state.

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Washburn, the founding director of the Boston Museum of Science, died Tuesday in Massachusetts at age 96.

He began exploring, photographing and mapping Alaska in the 1930s.

State Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he met Washburn in 1994 when his company sponsored a University of Alaska Fairbanks climb of Mount McKinley. In 1999, Wilken sponsored a resolution honoring the work of Washburn and his wife, Barbara, in Alaska.

"He was way ahead of his time and became kind of a second son of Alaska," Wilken said.

Washburn in 1990 donated his personal diaries, expedition logbooks, Alaska correspondence and more than 9,000 negatives to the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Carl Benson, a retired professor of geophysics, knew the Washburns for three decades.

"The detailed photogrammetric topographic map of Denali made by Brad is a classic," Benson said. "It is a work of art as well as a valuable scientific contribution."

The Washburns maintained professional and social contact with scientists at the UAF Geophysical Institute.

"During one of his visits, he commented on how technology affects our perception of time," Benson said. "He pointed out that the time between the Harriman expedition and his own work in the 1930s was only 30 years, but it seemed a longer period than the 60 years between the 1930s and what he was doing in the 1990s.

The difference in perception was due to changes in communication and transportation. Radio, railroad, aircraft and automobiles all were added between 1899 and 1930."

Retired glaciologist Keith Echelmeyer, also a mountain climber, compared Washburn's photographs to the those of Ansel Adams and said they were useful for looking at climbing routes.

"He captures the beauty of the mountains," Echelmeyer said.

Washburn financed Echelmeyer to measure the depths and speed of the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park.

"He thought it was deep and it was very deep, and if you measure, it was 4,000 feet deep (the glacier part) and the mountains are 6,000 or so feet above and it makes for a huge gorge, at least twice as deep as the Grand Canyon," Echelmeyer said.

Washburn was a childhood hero to his biographer, Mike Sfraga, and the reason Sfraga came to Alaska in 1978 to enroll at the university. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sfraga checked out "Pioneer Climbs of Mount McKinley," by Terris Moore, the second UA president, from the Brooklyn Public Library and "read it a thousand times."

In 1984, Sfraga telephoned Moore and the two became good friends. Sfraga spent time with Moore and his wife Katrina, taping Moore's life story, and eventually through Moore met Washburn.

Washburn and Sfraga also clicked, sharing many interests, and Washburn consented to Sfraga focusing his doctoral dissertation on Washburn's lifetime exploits.

"He said a lot of people were interested in writing his biography, but they wanted to write only about his mountaineering, sort of the same old stories," Sfraga said.

"I said I wanted to do a Ph.D. on his commitment to science, his discovery, what he brought to the world about glacier studies and cartography, geographic exploration, the use of technology in mapmaking and his background and interest in education," Sfraga said.

When he made a map, Washburn would survey the area, take geologic samples, make glacier soundings and keep weather records, Sfraga said.

Sfraga earned his doctorate and his dissertation, "Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration," was published in 2004.

"He was very much the entrepreneur, gaining multiple fundings from many agencies and he was the consummate showman," Sfraga said. "He could hold an audience for hours giving a lecture on Everest or Denali. And he was a wonderful public relations machine with beautiful photos, and making well-placed partnerships with National Geographic. He was one of the first mountaineers to make a living at it by lecturing."

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