Trailblazers: Barbara Washburn

Shortly after Barbara Polk married Bradford Washburn she found herself at the summit of Mt Bertha in southeast Alaska. She knew that Bradford was an mountaineer but she did not realize that she would soon be joining in the adventures and making several first ascents in Alaska. It was the 1940’s and men did not often take their wives on such adventures, but this couple did everything together. In her memoir, Barbara calls herself an “accidental adventurer” because she says she simply followed her husband on his journeys. But she was much more than just a follower.

Photo: Museum of Science

The first journey from their home in Massachusetts to Alaska involved trains, planes and dog sleds. Barbara had to learn how to mush on the glaciers of Juneau to reach her first summit, Mt Bertha. She learned how to mush and how to climb, joining a group of men on the first ascent of that peak. She kept up and carried her weight only feeling a little sick at the end of the climb. Back in Juneau she found out she was pregnant.

Brad and Barbara Washburn Photo: Boston Globe

Her second climb in Alaska was also a first ascent. This time she left her baby at home in Boston to travel with Bradford to Fairbanks to climb Mt Hayes. She led the team up the last 1000 feet along a narrow exposed ledge because she was the lightest and the team wanted her to test the cornices. She trained for her next ambitious climb pushing a baby carriage. On June 6, 1947 after spending nine days in camp riding out a blizzard, she became the first woman to climb Mt McKinley. The following day was Bradford’s birthday and instead of resting they spent the day climbing the North Peak of Mt McKinley.

“My children sometimes tell me that I led “Dad’s life.” That is true- but what a fool I would have been to go my own way and miss all of those adventures. I was very lucky to have a husband who wanted me to share his life and who constantly gave me credit for what I did. He opened up a whole new life for me.” – Barbara Washburn

Barbara and Bradford continued their adventures after the Mt McKinley climb. When Barbara wasn’t teaching children with special needs, she was traveling with her family around the US and helping Bradford with his mapping jobs. They spent years in the Grand Canyon flying in helicopters and hiking the trails to create maps. They also traveled to Mt Everest in an effort to map the mountain from a plane to determine it’s official height. They didn’t get to complete the mapping on that trip, but colleagues later completed it using their plan.

Barbara may have become an adventurer because of her husband, but she became a trailblazer on her own. She proved herself to be an accomplished climber and adventurer at a time when few women were climbing mountains. She could have easily stayed home to raise the children but instead she followed her adventurous spirit and led a wonderful and full life. She died in September 2014 just a few weeks short of her 100th birthday.

More info about Barbara Washburn:

National Geographic Bio of Barbara and Bradford

Bio on Adventure Journal

Obituary in the Boston Globe

Bonus Camp Read!


The Accidental Adventurer by Barbara Washburn
Barbara humbly recounts her climbs and life with her husband Bradford in this memoir from her college life in Massachusetts to how she met Bradford and her later years.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
This slim memoir is perfect to slip in the pack for an adventure.

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