Bradford and Barbara Washburn
Photograph by Tom Winship
The husband-and-wife team of Bradford and Barbara Washburn exemplified the spirit of National Geographic's exploratory and map-making traditions for nearly half a century.
Their June 6, 1947, climb of Alaska's ice-ribbed Mount McKinley made Barbara the first woman to summit North America's highest peak and set an early benchmark in the close bonds of an illustrious career of mountaineering, exploring, mapping, and museum administration.
Theirs is a record of accomplishment strongly nurtured by long association with the National Geographic Society, which provided major support for many of this engaging couple's boldest projects.
In the field of mountain mapping throughout the world, Bradford Washburn, who died of heart failure in January 2007 at the age of 96, had few peers. He began his mountaineering career in his teens, climbing the loftiest Alps. By 1935 the 25-year-old Washburn was leading a National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition that recorded, by ground and aerial survey, 5,000 square miles of Canada's Yukon Territory, an area previously blank on world maps.
Working with National Geographic support, Brad Washburn devoted seven years of Herculean labor—Barbara at his side—to making a precise, large-scale map of the Grand Canyon, published as a National Geographic magazine supplement in July 1978. For that achievement and others, the Washburns received the Alexander Graham Bell Medal, awarded jointly for "unique and notable contributions to geography and cartography."
Since the mid-1930s Bradford Washburn had dreamed of mapping Mount Everest. At last, in 1981, in cooperation with National Geographic, the Washburns began work on a project that would produce the most detailed and accurate map ever made of Mount Everest.
What motivated the Washburns' extraordinary accomplishments? "A fascination for discovery," they said. "A love of high and distant places. The wish to turn on young people to pursue the thrill of the unknown. The joy of sharing with others natural beauty and scientific information in the most vivid possible way."
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