Jan 17 2011
I just finished reading The Last of His Kind, David Robert’s biography of Bradford Washburn: the esteemed American mountaineer, founder of the Boston Museum of Science, and accomplished alpine photographer and cartographer. While I’m a fan of maritime adventure writing, I do have a passing interest in mountaineering, driven I suppose by Jon Krakauer‘s Into Thin Air, and a couple of other books, but a fear of heights that emerged in 1968 on a Cub Scouts field trip to a firespotter’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts has condemned me to a life of sea-level adventures.
Washburn was the last of a certain breed of Bostonian — Harvard-educated, Brahmin to some extent — part of the “greatest” generation of Boston WASPs that included Tom Winship, the esteemed late editor of the Boston Globe; David Ives, the driving force behind WGBH public television, and many other Yankee names who marked the passing of a certain era in Boston. This was a generation that served in World War II, were progressive in their politics, loyal to their institutions, and quietly accomplished without celebrity.
Washburn’s story is fascinating in that he progressed from a childhood spent roaming New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to learning the ropes of classic Alpine climbing in Chamonix as a teenager, then on to media celebrity as a lecturer and author published by GP Putnam, the National Geographic, and Lif e Magazine — all while attending Harvard as an undergraduate in the 1920s. He never climbed an Asian peak like K2 or Everest — preferring to blaze his trails in the wild mountains of southern Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, notching many “firsts” and making the glaciers of North America his specialty. His photography is his legacy, detailed aerial studies that are art in their own right. His maps of Mount Washington, Everest, and McKinley are works of art in their own right, projects undertaken long after he hung up his crampons and focused his career on transforming the New England Museum of Natural History from a dusty anachronism into the state of the art Boston Museum of Science.
Roberts was Washburn’s protege, and follows in the tradition of Harvard Mountain Club climbers. He wrote a fine biography that interestingly — in the paperback version I read — omits the tragic events involving Washburn’s son and daughter later in his life, events I only became aware of while Googling the subject and uncovering an earlier, different version of the book archived by Google. I won’t go into the details, but I do respect Roberts’ decision to omit the incidents in later editions, but that decision does force the question of how comprehensive a biography needs to be. My sense is that, in the context of Washburn’s long and esteemed life, that omitting details of his personal life and family is the sort of benign protectionism that the press displayed towards say John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades, or FDR’s polio, as not being germane to the business at hand. Emphasizing the salacious and sensational is a regrettable by product of our current celebrity-scandal driven media, but still I am curious about how Roberts, as biographer, first made the decision to include the details and then redacted them.
All that aside, The Last of His Kind, piqued my interest in mountain hiking (note I don’t say climbing) that I was introduced to in Switzerland ten years ago when I spent my bachelor weekends traversing some Swiss weg, or walk, up the likes of Mount Tendre in the Jura (5509 feet) and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller (5,886 feet). Something in my rower’s legs makes climbing up steep inclines a semi-enjoyable activity, just as long as I stay away from sheer precipices, ropes, and pitons. With some shame I will admit I have never climbed Mount Washington, the third tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River — tallest in the northeast — and thanks to the book have ordered a copy of Washburn’s famous map of the 6,288 foot peak as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiking guides. My good friend and former biking buddy, Marta, has done several Presidential Traverses — a marathon effort to hit the peaks of all the mountains named for presidents in the White Mountains in a single day. This 20 mile effort is usually undertaken on the Summer solstice to get as much daylight as possible on one’s side in completing the effort. I definitely will need to train a lot more than my typical ergometer work to get in shape at my age for the effort, but the story of Washburn’s herculean exploits traversing the glaciers of the Yukon is providing some inspiration.