With the passing of Bradford Washburn this past Wednesday, a long and venerable life spent climbing, photographing, mapping and writing about the mountains comes to a close. He was 96.
I count myself among the generations of alpinists whom Washburn inspired. One of the pioneers of American mountaineering, his achievements were legion, and included first ascents in Alaska, revolutionary surveys of Everest and the Grand Canyon, articles in National Geographic and the reshaping of Boston’s Museum of Science. But it was the spirit of his expeditions, part athletic pursuit, part science experiment, part love affair with the mountains, which drew me to his life’s story.
I never met Washburn; my senior year in college I composed a letter to him that, to my lasting regret, I never sent. But though the unaddressed envelope is now long lost, I can still remember what I wrote. Full of youthful enthusiasm for adventure, I asked him what frontiers remained to be explored in this age of satellite imagery and GPS mapping. I wanted to know where he might have gone on a fresh pair of legs, in what direction he thought a young man ought to start out. I wanted to know how I might lead a life as full of use and beauty as he had.
I wish I’d sent that letter. I would have liked to know where that mind, full of maps and photographs and mountains, might have sent me. In the end, I’m making my own way, as I suppose we all must. But in a life that so often seems shaped by chance events, I wonder what might have been different had the great man’s hand reached down and given me a push. Or, perhaps without my realizing it, did his life give me, and many others, all the push we needed?
Thoughtful, inspiring, and complete obituaries are available online at alpinist.com and The New York Times.