Explorer Bradford Washburn: 1910-2007The legendary explorer, mountaineer, and photographer who correctly measured Everest and helped us see mountains clearly for the first time dies at 96.
Bradford Washburn conquered mountains. He climbed, photographed, and mapped some of the world's fiercest peaks, and his technical mastery of each continues to inspire generations.
He led several first ascents in Alaska, including one in 1951 up the West Buttress of McKinley, which proved to be the safest route to the 20,320-foot (6,194-meter) summit. In the 1970s, Washburn led the first extensive mapping of the Grand Canyon. In 1939, he was named director of the New England Museum of Natural History. During his four decades of leadership, he relocated and revamped the institution, turning it into the renowned Museum of Science.
On Wednesday, January 10, revered mountaineer Bradford Washburn died of heart failure. He was 96.
Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr., was born on June 7, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. His mother was the first to put a camera in his hands.
"It is probably fair to say that my mother contributed to my sense of adventure and that my father contributed to my appreciation for detail and accuracy," he said in an interview. At 11, Washburn bagged his first peak—New Hampshire's 6,288-foot (1,917-meter) Mount Washington. At 16, he climbed the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. A year later, he published his first hardcover book, Among the Alps with Bradford.
His breathtaking photography shows mountains within their dynamic, violent surroundings: wind swirling off peaks, faraway glaciers glinting in the sun. He took many of these photos squeezed into the doorway of a small airplane, his 53-pound (24-kilogram) Fairchild K-6 camera in tow. Other times, he would pack it with him, his wiry frame trundling up towards the summit.
Though Washburn never climbed Everest, and wanted to all his life, he went one better: In 1999, he organized a Mount Everest expedition to determine its precise height. They found the definitive height to be 29,035 feet (8,850 meters), seven feet (2 meters) higher than previously thought. He was 89 at the time.
Washburn is survived by three children, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and his wife, Barbara Washburn, who is the first woman to have climbed Denali.
The following story recounts Washburn's epic escape from the Yukon wilderness. Written by Washburn's longtime friend and collaborator, Contributing Editor David Roberts, such a survival would surely be the high point of most lives well lived, but for Washburn, it is only a footnote.—Ryan Bradley
Read more from Contributing Editor David Roberts on the remarkable life of Bradford Washburn in the April 2007 issue of Adventure magazine, on newsstands March 20.
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Washburn's Great Escape
Before Bradford Washburn and Robert Bates became two of America's most famous mountaineers, they were young friends who flew into the Yukon wilderness to attempt a first ascent—and faced a life-or-death march to get back out.
Text by Contributing Editor David Roberts
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Originally published in Adventure, October 2002Just before noon on June 18, 1937, the skies cleared over Valdez, a small Alaskan town tucked into a crook along Prince William Sound. For a week, Bradford Washburn, Robert Bates, Russell Dow, and Norman Bright had waited glumly as one day of rain succeeded another. A few days earlier, a raging southeaster had swept in off the Gulf of Alaska. With the storm came an unseasonable warmth. But now the clouds had peeled away, baring a startling expanse of blue stretching from the hills behind the town to the steely waters of the fjord before it.
Bob Reeve hurried down to the wharf where the four young men were getting ready to eat lunch. The bush pilot—tall, profane, with a prospector's squint and a cigarette habitually dangling from his lips—told them to forget food and load up the plane.
Washburn, 27, and Bates, 26, both veterans of northern climbing expeditions, had sought out Reeve after hearing about his ski-equipped landings at high altitudes—an aeronautical feat that few other Alaska pilots could claim. In January 1937, Washburn had written to the pilot and outlined his plan for ascending Mount Lucania, a pyramidal summit deep in the glaciated wilderness of Canada's Yukon Territory. At 17,146 feet (5,226 meters), Lucania was the highest unclimbed mountain in North America. It had been attempted only once, in 1935, by a party that had declared it "virtually impregnable." To avoid a grueling approach march, Washburn wanted Reeve to land his team on the Walsh Glacier, just south of the sprawling massif.
Reeve had wired back: "Anywhere you'll ride, I'll fly."
In the years ahead, Dow and Bright would drift away from mountaineering, but Washburn and Bates would go on to become two of America's greatest climbers. From 1930 to 1951, Washburn racked up a dazzling record of first ascents in Alaska and the Yukon. In the process, he turned his hobby—making large-format black-and-white aerial photographs to help him plot future routes—into magisterial works of art that now hang in galleries and museums. As for Bates, he continued serious climbing well into his fifties, co-led two American expeditions to K2, and co-authored, with Charles Houston, the mountaineering classic about the world's second highest summit, K2, The Savage Mountain.
Yet Washburn and Bates's 1937 Lucania assault and the subsequent life-and-death march out were perhaps the greatest exploits of their careers. The expedition also remains one of the least known adventures in the annals of the northern ranges.
At about one o'clock, the Fairchild 51 slithered off the mudflats below Reeve's house, with Bates and Washburn and their personal gear aboard. Dow and Bright planned to go in on a second flight. After almost two hours, the men passed over McCarthy, a gold-rush town in the Wrangell Mountains and the last outpost of civilization. Now Reeve headed up the rugged gorge of the Chitina River to cover the last 80 miles (129 kilometers) to the Walsh Glacier. The massive ice stream looked forbidding, "a chaos of filthy, rotten ice and twisted moraines, gutted and crisscrossed with crevasses," as Washburn described it in his diary.
"Hell's asshole, ain't it?" Reeve shouted over the engine. Then: "There she is!" Washburn and Bates peered at the white sweep of the glacier until they, too, spotted the cache: 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) of gear that Reeve and Dow had ferried up back in May to establish base camp.
Landing in flat light on a featureless glacier is one of the toughest tricks in bush flying. With the rigging humming, Reeve sent the plane plummeting toward the snow, then pulled back on the stick. The Fairchild touched down with a feathery swish. Reeve gunned the engine to hop over a crevasse that had suddenly appeared. In a surprisingly short distance, the plane slowed to a stop. Reeve let the motor die. Washburn jumped out and sank thigh-deep into slush.
In four years of glacier landings, Reeve had never seen the like. The freakish warmth brought by the previous days' storms had turned the surface of the Walsh to soup. It was going to be difficult to get up enough speed to take off.
Washburn strapped on snowshoes and started off toward the gear cache to retrieve two more pairs and some long bamboo poles with which to probe for crevasses. The solo dash was dangerous: He had no idea whether the hidden fissures lay in his path.
"Very gingerly and scared stiff," Washburn wrote, "I approached by a series of wide zigzags." As luck would have it, the snowshoes were near the bottom of the cache; he had to pull aside 400 or 500 pounds (181 or 227 kilograms) of boxes to retrieve them.
Reeve and Bates, meanwhile, poured the contents of the five-gallon (19-liter) gas cans they had stowed in the hold into the plane's tank. Then Bates used a shovel to clear a ramp in front of the skis while Reeve fired up the engine. "He rocked the plane to get the skis loose," recalls Bates, who, like Washburn, is an active nonagenarian. "Then he started uphill, with me running along behind him in the deep snow." The scene was disheartening. "I watched the plane coming toward me up the gentle grade," Washburn wrote in his diary, "wallowing and roaring in the slush. Then, all of a sudden, the left wing slumped toward the snow, stopping only a yard from the ground."
Now they had to hope the temperature dropped low enough overnight to firm up the glacier. At the moment, the thermometer read 40ºF (4ºC) at an altitude where, in July, 20ºF to 25ºF (-7ºC to -5ºC) would have been normal. And more rain squalls were beginning to sweep the Walsh. The exhausted men trudged to the cache; Bates and Washburn dug out the four-man Logan tent and pitched it.
In the morning, the ground was still slush. Reeve stayed in the tent all day in a funk, knowing his wife would be distressed. With no sign of him 24 hours after he'd taken off, she—and Dow and Bright—could have only feared the worst: a crash landing, possibly a fatal one. No other pilot in or around Valdez knew the terrain well enough to conduct a search, and the Fairchild carried no radio.
During the fourth night, the temperature fell to 27ºF (-3ºC). Reeve decided to make a last-ditch effort. Around 6 a.m., with fog shrouding the mountain, he warmed up the Fairchild and threw out every scrap of gear to lighten it. Washburn and Bates were amazed to see him pounding on the propeller with a ball-peen hammer: Reeve knew that a sharper-pitched prop would bite better in the thin air.
Without even a wave good-bye, Reeve started down the glacier. "He hit a great block of snow," recalls Bates, "and it bounced him off [to] the left, where the slope fell off quite steeply toward a melt-water lake. He gave it everything he could. He had enough speed to get off, just missing the water. He kept going right toward a cliff on the side of the glacier."
Suddenly, the plane vanished beneath a dip in the glacier. Bates and Washburn held their breath, anticipating a crash. As Washburn wrote, "a few seconds later, the plane came into sight
going like fury." The Fairchild climbed, then gathered speed down-valley.
As it dwindled in the distance, Washburn and Bates screamed with relief and joy. Then, as silence reclaimed the mountain, the gravity of the situation hit: There would be no other flight in. "It is a terrible shame for Russ and Norm," Washburn wrote, "but it would be ridiculous to risk their lives." Moreover, at the end of the expedition, instead of a rendezvous on the Walsh with Reeve and a flight back to Valdez, Washburn and Bates would have to hike out. They were marooned in the heart of the St. Elias Mountains, at least 120 miles (193 kilometers) overland from McCarthy. They were on their own.
Washburn and Bates had met in 1930, during their sophomore year at Harvard. At 20, the Boston-born Washburn already had a remarkable record as a climber in the Alps, with a major first ascent on the Aiguille Verte, above Chamonix. Bates, on the other hand, who hailed from Philadelphia, had done little more than hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
At the time, the Harvard Mountaineering Club comprised the most ambitious undergraduate mountaineers in the country. Their specialty was remote, unclimbed peaks in Alaska and Canada. HMC members had noteworthy achievements in the late 1920s, but it would be Bates and Washburn's generation—a cadre of friends who pulled off first ascents in the great ranges all through the thirties and forties and even into the fifties—that changed American mountaineering.
Now, up on the Walsh, the two climbers were faced with a daunting prospect, assuming they successfully ascended and descended Lucania. The "nauseating desolation of dying masses of ice" that Washburn had noted on the flight in, and "the bleak, vertical valley walls," convinced him that a hike west down the Walsh Glacier and out the Chitina River valley to McCarthy would be a nightmare. The pair looked instead 60 miles (193 kilometers) east, beyond the high ridges enfolding Lucania, to Burwash Landing, a trading post on Kluane Lake.
Little more than an hour after Reeve's wobbly takeoff, they set out to reconnoiter the route up the Walsh toward Lucania. Roped together, hiking in snowshoes, they slogged across the still-mushy surface. After two hours, the men stood a mere four miles (six kilometers) closer to the mountain that towered over them to the north.
Lucania's gigantic south face—6,000 feet (1,829 meters) from base to summit, a 45-degree precipice loaded with dangerous ice cliffs and teetering ice blocks called seracs—was out of the question. (Several days later, in fact, the two men watched as the face was swept by the biggest avalanche either had ever seen.) The Walsh Glacier, though, flowed from a high ridge that connected Lucania and Mount Steele, eight miles (13 kilometers) to the northeast. It looked as if the going should be relatively easy—a trudge up a broad boulevard of ice to the foot of a steep headwall that rose 3,300 feet (1,006 meters) to the catwalk between the two great mountains. Washburn thought a shallow protruding rib on the headwall would provide a safe line between the slopes.
Back at their cache, the pair sorted through the gear, deciding which items to abandon. Washburn hated leaving behind his large-format aerial camera but was determined to carry a lighter camera to document the expedition. They also kept Russ Dow's police revolver. The gun was heavy, but Bates, who had killed a grizzly with a single shot on a 1935 expedition, thought it might come in handy if food ran low.
Over the next week and a half, sometimes from three in the morning until nine at night, they hauled supplies toward the base of the headwall that led to the Steele-Lucania ridge. There, at 10,700 feet (3,261 meters), they found a protected shelf and pitched Basin Camp.
After dinner on July 1, the two men set off to inspect the headwall, where they hoped to establish a camp at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters), along the catwalk. They had already given it the nickname Shangri-la, with its promise of a paradise of high summits and an escape to the east. Wearing crampons for the first time on the expedition, they kicked steps in the snow. Eighty miles (129 kilometers) to the southeast, they saw Mounts Hubbard and Vancouver tinged with alpenglow. The men climbed in ghostly shadow, but far above them the summit ridge of Lucania caught the last rays of the sun. In only two hours, they solved half the headwall. The last stretch was the trickiest, a gauntlet through ominous seracs. But the traverse ended happily in a small shelf—a perfect campsite at 12,200 feet (3,719 meters), in the middle of a slope so steep the men had feared there would be no place to pitch their tent. In the twilight, they returned to Basin Camp.
On July 3, they set off in a bizarre subarctic heat. To their delight, though, the kicked steps from their reconnaissance had stayed firm. Climbing this "golden staircase," as Washburn called it, the pair arrived on the shelf of snow and ensconced themselves at what they called Ridge Camp. The scene from the tent door was spectacular: 1,500 feet (457 meters) of empty space beneath them, with a sideways view of the gigantic south face of Lucania, swept daily by avalanches.
That night, the men had to sleep double, head to foot, in the single bag they had brought up with them, from which Washburn had removed the bottom zipper. "Occasionally I would hear Brad mutter something," Bates wrote later. "Finally it would dawn on me that he was saying, 'Quit kicking me in the ear!' " Overnight, clouds rolled in, and by noon the next day, 20 inches (51 centimeters) of new snow had fallen.
Still, the slope seemed safe from avalanches. On July 6, after establishing an intermediate camp at 13,800 feet (4,206 meters), the two climbers finally stood on the crest of the long ridge between Lucania and Steele. At nearly 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) on a windswept col, with a single sleeping bag and a tent that had half its floor cut away to save weight, they were in an exceedingly vulnerable position. Nevertheless, Washburn crowed in his diary with typical enthusiasm, "We have made Shangri-la!"
It took another day, and three more load carries, to establish themselves at the new camp. Late on July 7, a storm began to smother the ridge, and well into the next day they hunkered down in the tent. Other climbers in similar situations have felt frayed to the breaking point; sleeping head-to-toe in a single bag can breed antagonism. But both Washburn and Bates swear they never felt a moment's antipathy toward each other. If that's true, put it down to the happy meshing of their temperaments. Washburn was notorious for his obstinacy. He could lead brilliantly but not follow. Bates was a peace-at-all-costs mediator. The first to volunteer for dirty or dangerous jobs, he possessed not only a will as strong in its own way as Washburn's but also a quality that his companion lacked: a Zen-like equanimity in predicaments.
Waiting out the storm, they sang cowboy songs and railroad ballads: "The Wreck of the Old '97," "Casey Jones," "Red River Valley." Just before 4 p.m. on July 8, the snow finally stopped, and the clouds scuttered away. Despite the intense cold, Washburn and Bates packed up their tent after a quick dinner and set off. By 10 p.m., they were camped at the base of Lucania's summit pyramid. Inside the tent it was 0ºF (-18ºC), and an icy northeast wind drilled the cotton walls, but the sky remained gloriously clear.
From the moment they left the tent on the morning of July 9, they were forced to plow along on snowshoes through waist-deep powder without a trace of crust. The men inched ahead: "We fought on as I have never fought in my life," Washburn recorded.
The northeast ridge of Lucania unfolds in a string of subsidiary summits. Rather than negotiate each of them, along with the gaps in between, Bates and Washburn skirted several subsummits by traversing a plateau on the north side of the mountain. After four hours, they bent their course south and upward to aim at a saddle between two of the highest of these summits. The slope grew steeper, until they were forced to scale "a 40-degree sideslope of fathomless powder, veneered with an inch of rock-hard wind-crust."
At last, on the final ridge, a true crust gave the men the break they needed. They put on their crampons, the steel points biting cleanly into the hard snow. At 4:40 p.m. on July 9, 1937, they laid the first human footprints on the summit of Mount Lucania. "[O]ur yell of triumph could have been heard in Timbuctoo!" Washburn later bragged in his journal.
The hour they spent on top would be one of the most magical of their lives. In the cloudless air, a stunning panorama of glaciated peaks ranged about them. To the southeast, they could see Mount Fairweather, the first Alaskan mountain Washburn had attempted, in 1930. To the south sprawled the summit plateau of Mount Logan, the biggest mountain in the world in terms of sheer bulk. Over Logan's right shoulder rose the graceful pyramid of Mount St. Elias. The Duke of the Abruzzi's 1897 first ascent of that peak had launched mountaineering in the northernmost reaches of North America. To the left of Logan were the Yukon peaks first approached—by Washburn and Bates and their teammates—in 1935: Alverstone, Hubbard, Seattle, and others still unnamed.
Before they left the summit, Washburn insisted on taking a team portrait. It wasn't easy—his camera had frozen. He tied the camera to the top of his ice ax with a shoe-lace, got himself and Bates into position, and activated the self-timer. In that perfectly exposed, razor-sharp black-and-white photograph, the strain of 22 days of struggle and uncertainty shows in the men's weather-beaten faces, but both climbers also grin with utter joy. And as much as it's an image of victory, the photo is also an icon of friendship.
On the descent, Washburn and Bates stopped on the summit ridge and pried loose two chunks of black schist as souvenirs for Bright and Dow. Most of the way down, they were forced to wear snowshoes, making for delicate going. It was not until 8:20 p.m., nearly 12 arduous hours after starting out, that they regained camp. Washburn recorded their celebration: "quantities of beans, tea, and cocoa brewed from the chocolate in an empty butter tin—and singing old Western Range songs—and a glorious sunset—and, finally, to bed at 10:30."
The next morning, the men further pared their supplies, discarding most of the white gas, plus a large portion of their food. Bone-tired from the previous day, they nonetheless got off by 10:15 a.m. and, lugging 50-pound (23-kilogram) loads, arrived at Shangri-la in only two hours.
As fatigued as they were, the men were still in a vulnerable position. As long as the weather held, they felt they could not afford to "loaf"—Washburn's term for anything less than all-out activity. So, late in the afternoon of July 10, they pushed on with their first load of gear to the base of Mount Steele, where, for the first time, they caught a glimpse of Kluane Lake, their goal, nestled among low green hills to the east. Having taken in that tantalizing view, the pair headed back to Shangri-la for the last time.
Their initial plan had been simply to detour around Steele's summit pyramid to the north, but as they departed Shangri-la on July 11, with the weather holding clear, the chance to bag the second ascent of the 16,644-foot (5,073-meter) Steele proved irresistible. Bates and Washburn worked laboriously upward to the crest of the Steele ridge, dumped their packs, and in 20 minutes virtually waltzed to the top. There they discovered a bundle of willow wands left by Walter Wood's party, which had made the first ascent of Steele two years before. (It had been Wood who declared Lucania seemingly impossible to climb.) The wands were the first sign of human presence the men had seen in 24 days.
Back at their packs, they junked enough food and gear to reduce their load to
60 pounds (27 kilograms) each. Beyond a tent—its floor now cut out completely, its guy strings trimmed off—that would be next to impossible to pitch properly, they were left with a half gallon (two liters) of white gas and 19 pounds (9 kilograms) of food, enough for only four or five days. But they knew that Wood's party had left behind a substantial cache of food on a grassy bench above Wolf Creek Glacier, just 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the base of Steele's northeast ridge.
They began descending at 3:30 p.m., regularly consulting aerial photographs taken by Washburn during a 1935 National Geographic Societysponsored expedition in the St. Elias Mountains, trying to correlate their position with the mountainscapes in the photos. The last thousand feet (305 meters) down a steep slope of frozen, windswept scree were especially perilous. At 8:35 p.m., they staggered off Mount Steele, completing an extraordinary blind descent of 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) in only five hours.
Venturing just far enough to be safe from rocks escaping Steele's slopes, Washburn and Bates pitched their tent as a light rain started to fall. But Washburn still had the energy for an ebullient diary entry: "[W]e are down in God's country again, and for some time there will be nothing but fun!"
By early the next evening, they approached the grassy bench where Walter Wood had left his bounty. They had daydreamed about it; already they could taste the goodies. Cresting a rise, they saw metal cans gleaming in the sun. But something was wrong: Instead of a neatly stacked depot, they found smashed cans strewn in the grass, each gouged with holes. A bear or bears had obviously discovered the cache, biting into every can to get at the exotic stuff inside. The only intact container was a small jar of peanut butter.
They now had less than 15 pounds (7 kilograms) of food. As the men stared at the wreckage, dread seized them. And all the doubts and worries they had repressed for 25 days came rushing up.
With their arrival at the cache, Washburn and Bates were nearing the eastern edge of the zone pictured in the aerial photos. The only map they possessed rendered the terrain ahead as a blank expanse. Their knowledge of the lowlands stretching between them and Burwash Landing was based almost entirely on the account of Wood's 1935 expedition.
The main obstacle for that team on its approach to Mount Steele had been the Donjek River, which flows south to north, directly across the expedition's path. They'd crossed it on horseback. On the way out, in August, some of the horses had nearly drowned. As Washburn and Bates knew well, even the clumsiest horse was a better match for a flooded river than the nimblest man.
The men drove anxiously onward the next day, covering 16 miles (26 kilometers) in as many hours. As the valley broadened, they could walk along the moraine paralleling Wolf Creek Glacier and even, at times, on a tundra bench that formed the right bank of its drainage. Here, the trail beaten into the vegetation by Wood's horses was simple to follow.
After nine hours, they finally passed the snout of Wolf Creek Glacier, at an elevation of only 4,000 feet (1,219 meters), and for the first time found trees—stands of dwarf spruce and willow. Just four miles (six kilometers) east stood what they hoped would be their deliverance: a "well-stocked cabin," presumably belonging to Gene Jacquot, a French émigré who ran the Burwash Landing trading post. Bates had heard about the cabin from one of the Wood party.
At 7 p.m., they walked off the edge of the easternmost aerial photo in Washburn's album. The sun set behind the St. Elias Mountains; the shadows deepened. At 9:55 p.m., Washburn let out a shout: He had spotted the cabin. But inside it they found nothing "except for some old tin cans and a bit of wood—not even a stove," as Washburn wrote.
In the twilight, they continued eastward down the valley, closing in on Wolf Creek. Their first sight of it made the men even more anxious. As Washburn wrote, "It is the fastest, roughest, and most hazardous glacial torrent I ever hope to see." Wolf Creek, only a minor affluent of the Donjek, couldn't be crossed. Now they had to hope that the Donjek would meander as it entered gentler terrain downstream. But since they couldn't ford Wolf Creek, scouting of the Donjek would have to proceed upstream.
Sometime after 11 p.m., they arrived at the river. If Wolf Creek made them anxious, the Donjek left them appalled. "The Donjek is a terror," wrote Washburn, "rushing like fury." Even worse was the fact that the current was confined to a single channel backed by a steep hillside to the east. They decided to camp on the spot, not bothering to pitch their tent. Wrote Washburn, "We are too tired and footsore to do anything but brew some tea, heat some beans, munch half a pilot cracker each, and 'hit the hay,' sleeping right in the sand and the rocks, with no mattress or anything."
Bates and Washburn were now trapped in the quadrant of lowlands south and west of the junction of two uncrossable rivers. They were still a good 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Burwash Landing and had at most four days' food. Despite an abundance of animal tracks, they hadn't seen any game up close.
There was really only one course left: hike upriver to the point where the Donjek Glacier flowed out of the St. Elias Mountains, scale the glacier, climb onto its snout, cross the river on the solid ice that gave birth to the stream, and then hike back down the Donjek River on the opposite bank. "Twenty-five miles [40 kilometers] to do three hundred yards [274 meters]!" Washburn lamented in his journal.
Now finding their 60-pound (27-kilogram) loads nearly intolerable, the men decided to cache some of their gear in the forlorn hope of retrieving it later. The stove fuel was pared to a pint of white gas. Their "kitchen" comprised one pot, two cups, one knife, one fork, and two spoons. They hung one packboard in a tree near the Donjek, along with every last piece of clothing they thought they could do without, as well as Washburn's camera and his exposed film. With that abandonment came a first hint of dark thoughts about what was ahead: As they left the cache, Washburn said, "Now at least they'll know what happened to us."
They set off south along the west bank of the Donjek. At one point, Washburn heard a chattering noise in a tree. Veering off course, he spotted a red squirrel scurrying among the branches. Bates drew out the police revolver, and, he recalls, "I shot—missed. Brad groaned. I went around the tree, shot from the other side, missed. Brad groaned. The third time, I shot the branch right out from under the squirrel, and he fell down and hit his head. I ran up and grabbed him and finished him off, and Brad said, 'Gee, that was a good shot.' I didn't dare tell him until much later what actually happened."
The men added the squirrel to their larder and marched on, stopping in a mossy glade to gather small mushrooms. They cooked lunch beside a small side stream. Into their pot they dumped celery soup, a handful of raisins, the mushrooms, and the skinned squirrel. The stew seemed particularly delicious, though the squirrel was as stringy as piano wire.
By early evening, the men approached the dirty ice that formed the snout of the Donjek Glacier. Across the river they could see small birds flitting among the willows. They could almost taste salvation.
But they were dealt yet another setback. The Donjek Glacier, massive though it was, supplied less than half of the water that thundered north in the Donjek River; the main current flowed in a single crashing torrent through a canyon pinched between the cliffs of the far shore and the near-vertical ice of the glacier's snout. The Donjek's true source must be some other glacier farther upstream—how far, they could not even guess.
In despair, they dug out the stove and brewed up a dreary supper of dried beef, soup, and tea. Having tossed their tent pole, they used their one packboard and their remaining ice ax in an attempt to prop up the roof of the tent a few inches (eight centimeters) above their noses. They struggled into their head-to-toe bivouac in the single, damp sleeping bag, with nothing between it and the ice, and ate a few raisins apiece. A steady drizzle began to fall.
Shivering through the night, Bates and Washburn rose early on July 15, strung out from lack of sleep. For breakfast they shared two strips of bacon and half a cup of cornmeal mush—the last of their cereal, nearly the last of their meat. They had only six dehydrated baked beans left, which they decided to save for supper. The rain had stopped, but what Washburn called "a wild old southeast wind" rushing down the Donjek valley chilled them.
There was nothing to do but push ahead, finish crossing the snout of the Donjek Glacier, and see what lay beyond. For an hour, they wove among piles of talus the glacier had carried down from the highlands over the centuries. They could now gaze up-valley and gauge where the true source of the Donjek lay. The distant, blurry prow of the Kluane Glacier was much farther than they had hoped, and they found themselves newly dismayed. But in the next moment, they surged with wild hope: A hundred feet (30 meters) below them, the river lay braided into more than 50 channels across a mile-wide (two-kilometer-wide) gravel bar. The Donjek might be fordable after all.
They knotted all their packboard cordage to their short span of hemp, creating a makeshift 75-foot (23-meter) rope for belays, and added rocks to their loads for extra stability. One wore the packboard and the other the rucksack, but they carried the canvas duffel bags in which their clothing was packed: If they lost their footing, they thought, the duffels might serve as marginal life preservers.
After half an hour of dogged exertion, they had crossed all but two channels—those with the deepest, fastest currents. They were on the verge of clinical shock from cold and fatigue and had said not a word to each other. In the first channel, Bates went in over his waist, the highest water yet. All that kept him balanced was the fluke of a weaker current. On the far bank, he belayed Washburn across.
One channel to go. Washburn paid out the rope as Bates waded in. When the full 75 feet (23 meters) of line were out, Washburn was forced to start wading himself. Near the middle of the channel, Bates went in to his waist, then a little deeper. He staggered, barely in balance, but the current was too swift. Bates fell, dunking his whole body and his pack.
The belay rope gave him a second chance. Somehow he found his footing and inched forward. With the rope as tight as a clothesline between them, Washburn was now waist-deep himself. Then Bates slipped once more and was pulled downstream. Washburn braced to hold his partner, only to have the rope jerk him off-balance. The two men tumbled down the Donjek, connected by their hemp umbilical cord.
But the duffel bags they clutched kept their heads above water. The current carried them 20 or 30 yards (18 or 27 meters), and then their feet touched bottom. Rather than try to stand, Bates hopped, propelling himself forward. Whether in imitation or by similar instinct, Washburn began to hop off the bottom, too.
Finally, they eddied out on the east bank of the last channel. Gasping, they seized bushes and pulled themselves onto a tundra-covered bench, then collapsed. After they'd caught their breath, they stripped and crawled inside the single sleeping bag, shivering uncontrollably. As their teeth stopped chattering and their chills abated, Bates and Washburn once again started believing that they could make it to Burwash Landing.
Only after retracing eight miles (13 kilometers) of their long Donjek detour did they make camp. In his diary, Washburn recorded: "8:40 p.m. We're laying off early, about four miles north of the end of the Donjek Glacier." He added: "We'll make Burwash now if we have to get through on our hands and knees."
The next day they followed the Donjek to the Burwash trail—a substantial horse-
packing route blazed by Gene Jacquot's wranglers. That night it rained, and they slept poorly, jostling each other in their single bag. On July 17—the 30th day of
the expedition—they did not get off until after 11. Their feet were raw and blistered; their joints ached.
After lunching on a stew made from a rabbit Bates had managed to shoot, the men resumed their weary trek. Then, as Bates remembers, "I heard a sort of clinking sound. We hadn't heard anything like that before. I looked back at Brad. He'd heard it, too. I looked ahead, and the next thing I saw was a man's hat. It appeared, then disappeared; appeared again, and disappeared."
Less than 200 yards (183 meters) away, first one man rode past, then a second, then a third leading a string of horses. As startled as Washburn and Bates were, the horsemen were even more so. "Who are you?" one of them managed to blurt out. "Where did you come from?"
Washburn waved to the west. "Over those mountains."
The riders were employees of Gene Jacquot who were transporting supplies to a cabin in preparation for hunting season. Within minutes, Bates and Washburn were mounted bareback on a pair of horses, while another pair carried what was left of their gear. As blissful as it seemed at first to ride, the climbers had so little fat on their rears that the gentle bouncing became torturous. After about 45 minutes, Washburn dismounted and started walking.
Unlike the cabin on the other side of the Donjek, this one was well stocked. That evening, dinner was cinnamon rolls, bread with butter and jam, and roasted Dall sheep "that would put filet mignon to shame," Washburn wrote. Inside the shelter, he and Bates laid horse blankets on the floor, spread their tent over them, and used the unzipped sleeping bag as their blanket. For the first time in weeks, they could stretch out as they pleased.
In the morning, Bates and one of the Jacquot men retrieved the Donjek cache. Washburn was overjoyed to get back his film and camera. He, meanwhile, had composed a newspaper dispatch about the expedition to radio to the East Coast when the men hit Burwash Landing. He had also used a bucket of hot water and soap to take his first bath in a month.
On July 19, in nine and a half hours, they traveled the 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the trading post. In 32 days, counting every load relay, Bates and Washburn had covered 156 miles (251 kilometers) of glacier, mountain, gravel bar, and tundra.
The radio at Burwash Landing had been established by Pan American Airways to broadcast weather advisories to pilots in this mostly uncharted sector of the Yukon. On July 20, Washburn and Bates used it to send messages to their families.
When the chronically impatient Washburn learned that a Pacific Alaska Airways flight carrying cargo and mail to Fairbanks would stop at Burwash that day, he got on the radio to the airline's headquarters in Whitehorse. Normally, the airline did not allow passengers on cargo flights, but the administrator recognized
a special case. Within five minutes, the climbers had permission.
By ten that evening, Washburn and Bates were lodged in a Fairbanks hotel. The next day, the two men, who had been bound together for the most intense month of their lives, parted ways. Bates flew to Anchorage, took a boat south along the Alaska coast, and eventually rode a train across Canada. As he strolled the streets of Montreal while waiting for a train to Boston, he was shocked to see his own face grinning from the front page of a local newspaper. Washburn's story had been picked up by the Associated Press; the National Geographic Society had released pictures of the climbers from their 1935 Yukon expedition to go along with the article.
On July 21, Washburn hitched a ride with a bush pilot to Valdez. Bob Reeve, who must have been relieved to see his young client safe, feigned nonchalance. Washburn paraphrased his reaction: " 'Of course I expected you guys to pull it off. You got back a little faster than I thought you would, that's all.' "
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