This is part of a weekly series for Women's History Month that tells the behind-the-scenes stories of trailblazing women at National Geographic. Read more profiles in the March 2020 issue.
Barbara Washburn’s life atop the world’s highest peaks began with a job tip from her mail carrier in 1939. The position he recommended—as a secretary for Bradford Washburn, the director of the New England Museum of Natural History—did not appeal to her. “I don’t want to work in that stuffy old museum,” she recalled thinking, “and I certainly wouldn’t want to work for a crazy mountain climber.”
A year later, the young woman who’d never been camping was standing atop 10,151-foot Mount Bertha in Alaska. She had married that mountain climber. After a month of travel, with teams of dogs and backpack gear, the party was slowed by storms and a steep route taken in order to avoid avalanches. In a notice for the Associated Press, Bradford wrote he was “more tickled” over Barbara being “the first woman in thirty years to climb a virgin Alaskan peak” than about their success.
One year after that, the couple, along with their team, became the first to successfully summit 13,628-foot Mount Hayes. She wore men’s cold-weather gear because none was made for women then. Along a particularly treacherous ridge, Barbara took the lead because the team felt she’d be light enough to haul up if the ground crumbled beneath her. She had left her newborn daughter at home to make the journey. “I tried to appear calm and confident, but I was really trembling with fear as I climbed ahead,” she later said. “But I did not slip and none of the cornices gave way, and everyone followed safely behind me.”
In 1947, Barbara and Bradford left their three children at home to climb Mount McKinley (now called Denali). It was the hardest decision of her life, she later wrote, and she trained by pushing a baby carriage. After nearly two months of trekking, as they neared the top, a member of the team turned around and encouraged Barbara to be the first to reach the top. “I said, ‘Who cares a rip? I don’t care—I’m perfectly happy being number two here,’” she later recalled. She eventually agreed to take the lead, and she soon stood on the summit as the first woman to look out from North America’s highest point. No woman followed in her footsteps for another 20 years.
“Climbing Mount McKinley was not the last great adventure of my life,” she wrote in her memoir. “In fact, my life has been filled with great adventures all over the world.”
Bradford was a trained cartographer, and the pair took on ambitious mapping projects. Starting in 1970, they used aerial photography, laser measurement tools, and a wheel-mounted odometer to fully map the Grand Canyon for National Geographic. The project took seven years and nearly 700 helicopter trips. They also mapped the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Mount Denali. In 1984, as they arrived in Nepal to begin mapping Mount Everest, Barbara developed a high fever and had to be evacuated back to Boston where she was treated for a rare blood disease. Four years later, a 380-square-mile map of the region was finally completed and published in National Geographic.
In 1988, the couple were among 15 explorers—including Edmund Hillary, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Mary and Richard Leakey—to receive the National Geographic Centennial Award. Into their later years, the Washburns still applied for grants from National Geographic for projects such as a snow-depth survey on Mount Everest. When she wasn’t in the field, Barbara taught as a reading specialist for students with learning disabilities in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“I had no real feeling about being a pioneering woman on a serious Alaskan expedition,” she later said. “I only knew that as the only woman, I had to measure up.” Barbara died in 2014, seven years after her husband and just two months shy of her 100th birthday. She never understood the fuss about her gender, describing herself instead as “an accidental mountaineer.”