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Brad and Barbara Washburn: Mountain Climbers


An amazing husband-wife team of mountain climbers, and the photography and map makers.

Barb Washburn on Top of Grand Canyon

Barb Washburn on Top of Grand Canyon

Brad and Barb Washburn, Mountain Climbers

Brad and Barb Washburn, Mountain Climbers

The Amazing Washburns

H. Bradford Washburn was born in 1910 in Massachusetts. By the age of 16, he had already written a guidebook to Presidents Range about the White Mountains he so loved and had climbed. When he was 19, he climbed the summit of Mt. Blanc in ___and had given speeches in front of the National Geographic Society. During the 1920s to the 1950s, Brad was one of the leading American mountaineers. He graduated from Harvard University in 1933, returning later to obtain his Masters in both geology and geography.

In 1939 while he was the director of the New England Museum of Natural History (later name changed to Boston Museum of Science, he was told he needed a secretary. He started interviewing when Barbara Polk, at the suggestion of her mailman, went for an interview. Although Barbara was sure she did not want to work in a stuffy museum or for a mountain climber, nevertheless, she did the interview and was told by Brad he would call her in two weeks. Well, lo and behold, he called her every day for two weeks until she finally accepted the job.

It must have been 'love at first sight' because a year later they married in April 1940. Their marriage would last some 67 years with three children until the death of Brad in 2007.

Together they would climb mountains worldwide, with Brad, a specialist in aerial photography, and Barbara as a cartographer completing numerous maps of their climbs. Barbara never considered herself as a pioneer of mountain climbing but wanted to work side by side with Brad.

In 1947 Barbara became the first woman to climb Mt. Denali, formerly Mt. Mckinley, a summit of 20,310 feet. She will always be known as the "First Lady of Mt. McKinley."

Mt. McKinley (now Mt. Denali)

Mt. McKinley (now Mt. Denali)

Mapping the Grand Canyon

One of the largest projects of their careers was the undertaking of producing a complete map of the Grand Canyon. Brad was a perfectionist in everything he did and the mapping would take seven years with countless hours mapping every cliff, every trail, every color of the canyon at different times of the day to capture the true magnificence of the mountains. using a 40-pound surveying instrument to validate ever angle, thousands of aerial photos, and 70 helicopter trips validating their measurements.

When completed the map would be known as the "gold standard map of the Grand Canyon." Brad hired Tibon Toth, a Swiss-trained cartographer to paint and draw the map. Toth said it took him 1074.5 hours to paint it.

Heart of the Grand Canyon Map

Heart of the Grand Canyon Map

Toth and Washburn Working on Map

Toth and Washburn Working on Map

The Extraordinary Washburns

Over the years, Brad received at least none honorary degrees along with several awards. Among them were the Alexander Graham Bell Award, the Centennial Award from the National Geography Society, the King Albert Medal, and the Cherry Kearton Award in 1988.

A statue was dedicated in June 2018 at the Boston Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusettes. There is an award, the Washburn Award, given annually to the individual who has made an outstanding contribution toward public understanding and appreciation of science.

The Bradford American Mountaining Museum (BWAMM) is located in Golden, Colorado, and is devoted to mountaineering and science in conjunction with the American Alpine Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, and the National Geographic Society.

Brad's biography An Extraordinary Life by Brad and Lew Freedman, 2005, is full of photos of Brad's collection. Barbara's daughter published a memoir of her Accidental Adventurer: Memories of the First Woman to Climb Mt. Mckinley, 2001.

The president of the Boston Museum said of Brad, "this is the House Brad built." And Ansel Adams, the famous photographer, said of Brad "a roving genius of mind and mountains."

Together the Washburns contributed to mountain climbing, photography, map making, and science.

Alexander Graham Bell Medal

Alexander Graham Bell Medal

Cherry Kearton Award

Cherry Kearton Award


Rosina S Khan on October 27, 2020:

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Please read it and leave your valuable feedback in the comments section.

Rosina S Khan on October 08, 2020:

Fran, I have published a new Fan Fiction article titled, "The Spooky Outcome of Shoeb's Creative Writing." Here is the link:


Please read it and leave you valuable feedback in the comments section.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 06, 2020:

Thank you for your generous comments. I appreciate your visit.

Rosina S Khan on October 05, 2020:

It is good Brad and his wife were partner mountain climbers. Above that, they contributed to photography, map making, and science. Thank you for their interesting account. A marvelous article, Fran.