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The Compleat Mountaineer

Posted by Alex | January 16th, 2007 | Filed under Outdoor Sport, Personal Reflection, Positive Change, Who We Are

brad_washburn_cred.jpgWith 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.

2 Responses to “The Compleat Mountaineer”

  • January 16, 2007 at 10:23 pm | eric says


    It sounds like what you expressed in your ending comment did indeed take place. Brad did have an influence on your path. Of course we don’t need to actually meet our heroes to have them powerfully effect the course of our lives. Particularly in our youth it may simply be just too intimidating to reach out and make the entreaty or send the missive.

    Recently, acting on a desire to establish a mentor relationship to help me accomplish the goal of my next endeavour I sought to make contact with a person I have greatly admired for a number of years. In 2004 and 2005 I even wrote personal letters to the Nobel Committee nominating him for the Peace Prize. Within 10 days of my approaching him I was sitting with him alone for an hour and a half lunch. We have now exchanged a number of letters (most hand written), emails, and given each other several books. I am looking forward to our next meeting in the near future.

    He responded with more enthusiasm than I could have ever dreamed for in fully embracing my project. The experience proves to me the power and truth of one of my favorite quotes from Gandhi – “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”


  • January 23, 2007 at 11:56 am | nathan says


    Thanks for the posting – I hadn’t heard about Brad’s passing yet. He was a great influence for me as well. I have a cool story about him – When I was guiding in Alaska my dad bought me a book of his photos, which blew me away. I lost the book in a move, but never lost the feeling of his photos.

    A couple of years ago I went out east with my wife to visit her father and his girlfriend, Diane, for the first time. And coming in the side door with suitcases and jet-lag, I saw hanging in the garage was what could only be a Bradford Washburn photo – in a yellowed, waterstained, pre-archival matting, thumbtacked to the drywall – original gorgous print of climbers traversing a ridge in the Alps, shot from above. I was dumbstruck, and a little indignant that this amazing photo was dwelling in a stuffed New Hampshire garage. The next morning I found two more large Washburn prints, though these were at least behind plexiglass and in frames. I also learned about Uncle Brad, Diane’s ornry relative down in Boston who made the photos. The prints in the house were rescued from the family’s leaky old shack on Martha’s Vineyard, that had been molding for decades until Diane finally rescued the prints and euthanized the cottage. Brad hadn’t been out there for years, and by all accounts didn’t care much about the old prints. They were all unsigned. I begged to get to meet him when we went down to Boston that weekend, but it didn’t work out – Brad wasn’t into it.

    Instead I made it to a gallery in Boston (Panopticon) that represented him and was showing some massive enlargements of his most famous shots. An acceptible second best, in my mind, plus there were original prints back at the house to admire. Best to leave Uncle Brad be, and bless him for the inspiration.

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