Mountaineer, Museum Director Bradford Washburn

Bradford Washburn displays a National Geographic Society flag near Mount Kennedy, in the Kluane National Park and Reserve.
Bradford Washburn displays a National Geographic Society flag near Mount Kennedy, in the Kluane National Park and Reserve. (1935 National Geographic Photo By Karen Kuehn)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

In a long and adventurous life, Bradford Washburn ascended mountain peaks, drew complex and complete maps, shot stunning aerial photographs and rebuilt a science museum. He tried to persuade aviator Amelia Earhart to take better radios on her final, fatal flight in 1937. He directed a 1999 effort that revised the official elevation of Mount Everest.

Mr. Washburn died of heart disease Jan. 10 at his home in Lexington, Mass. He was 96.

From the time he ascended his first peak, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, as an 11-year-old -- "I had terrible hay fever as a kid in Boston, and the only place I didn't have it was in the mountains," he said -- the lithe and lean outdoorsman with hawk-like eyes sought uncommon territory.

He was the first person to climb seven North American peaks, and he discovered the West Buttress ascent on Alaska's Mount McKinley that has become the most popular route. Several of his maps, some drawn decades ago, remain the best available. His breathtaking, large-format aerial photographs are so detailed that at least one climber said he thinks they saved his life.

Mr. Washburn's explorations took him all over the globe, flying in rattletrap planes above the mountains to the depths of the Grand Canyon, which he mapped from the backs of donkeys. His maps filled in some of the last blank spaces on the map of the world, helping botanists, geologists, archaeologists and nature lovers understand the environment.

The late photographer Ansel Adams called him "a roving genius of mind and mountains." Another friend, author David Roberts, called him "one of the last great explorers."

Mr. Washburn wanted to be remembered for rescuing the Boston Museum of Science as its director, a job he took at 28 and held for 41 years, turning it into the most popular cultural destination in New England. As challenging and as engrossing as that job was, he said, it kept him from his life's ambition of climbing Mount Everest. By the time he retired in 1980, his body was too old for the physical rigor of the ascent.

But he could photograph the mountain, and in 1981 with a team of scientists from all over the world, he did. Those photographs led him to create a state-of-the-art topographical map and the world's largest model of the world's tallest mountain, 12-by-15 feet, which resides at the museum he directed.

Just seven years ago, he was part of another team of sherpas and scientists who determined, using global positioning system measurements, that Everest's height is 29,035 feet, seven feet taller than previously thought.

At 5 feet 7 inches tall, carrying about 140 pounds of muscle and sinew on his frame, with an aristocratic jaw and Roman nose, Mr. Washburn was matter-of-fact in manner and not in the least bit nostalgic about his exploits, said Roberts, also a mountaineer. He bragged only of always coming in under budget, even if by just $35 less than promised on a four-month trip.

And yet, Roberts said, "he had a sense of wonder that even in his 90s was undiminished. He'd peer out a plane and say, 'Golly, look at how that moraine comes in.' "

He first led an 84-day National Geographic Society expedition to the Yukon in the winter of 1935, although his later adventures sometimes tipped into misadventure. In 1937, he and a friend, world-class climber Bob Bates, summited Mount Lucania in Alaska. Bad weather forced the dangerously underprepared pair to hike 100 miles out, crossing ranges and rivers. Mr. Washburn and Roberts later wrote a book, "Escape from Lucania" (2002), about the ordeal, which they were lucky to survive.

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