Repairs On The Ascent
Not all of Brad's photography was aerial. He documented numerous Alaskan
expeditions, lugging camera equipment up some of the steepest climbs in North
America. He tells how on an early expedition, his camera went dead on the first
day of the trip. "I was planning to pay most of the expenses of the trip
selling pictures," he recalls. "I had an equipment kit with a screwdriver,
pliers, some copper wire, a hammer, and a triangular file. There was no choice
but to take the camera apart. I discovered a tiny camshaft about a quarter of
an inch in size. It was a pin that went through and determined the whole operation
of the camera. What in hell do we do 100 miles out in the bushes? I had to fix
Washburn standing in his home before the photograph "After
the Storm" in 2003.
© 2003, Robert Smith, All Rights Reserved
Brad's solution was to remove a pin from an emergency arm
sling, and slowly file it down to make it fit. "The hitch," he says,
"was that the minute I pushed the thing the camera just made a sick noise.
I kept trying to increase the pressure on the spring to make the shutter move
faster and finally got a familiar sound out of the camera. All of my pictures
came out flawlessly and I sent the camera back to the Kodak research lab in
Rochester, New York. Instead of the 225th of a second I had it at a 212th--just
from judging by the noise it made."
Many of Brad's pictures are what he calls "pretty." He recorded
his fascination with the surface of a glacier or a mountain of pristine snow
with its abstract patterns sculpted by the passing of time. "These are
annual bands on a glacier," he explains. "Each shows a year of movement
as the snow melts and freezes. Most of the world's glaciers are slowly
disappearing due to global warming. Some have already disappeared."
Camp and dog team below Bastion Peak, National Geographic Yukon
Expedition, winter 1935.
© 1935, Brad Washburn, All Rights Reserved
Daybreak from the Aiguille du Midi, French Alps.
A Sense Of Scale
Other images are documentary. "If you photograph a big cliff and see this
itty bitty airplane at the bottom you get a sense of scale as to the size of
the mountain," he explains. In one photograph taken from a slope on the
Great Gorge of Ruth Glacier in Alaska, two tiny planes can be seen in the distance.
In another image, shot from a helicopter, the Washburns sit atop a 5000 ft cliff
in the Grand Canyon mapping it for the National Geographic Society, Barbara's
legs dangling over the edge of the cliff.
Brad made his first aerial flights over Mount McKinley in 1936 in a Lockheed
Electra and George Putnam, publisher of an early book of Brad's, and who
was married to Amelia Earhart, invited Brad to their home in Rye, New York.
Earhart would be flying the Lockheed Electra for her historic world flight and
Brad's familiarity with the aircraft inspired the invitation. "I
believe they were considering me to be her navigator," he says, "but
I had some concerns about her finding Howland, a small, isolated island halfway
between New Guinea and Hawaii, where she would need to refuel. This is where
she went down, the deepest part of the Pacific."
Storm. East Ridge of the Doldenhorn (11,952 ft). This peak is
located in the Bernese Oberland of the Swiss Alps, about 12 miles
west of the Jungfrau. Brad Washburn captured these six alpinists
wallowing in deep new snow, after a mid-summer blizzard, by looking
out the right doorway of a tiny airplane.
© 2003, Brad Washburn, All Rights Reserved
Brad received a master's degree in geology at Harvard and was excitedly
telling us how mountains are made, how the Himalaya rose as the continent of
India was shoved beneath. As he speaks, everything begins to tie together--the
geology, the cartography, the photography, and the sheer joy of unspoiled wilderness.
It is hard to look at one aspect of his life without being aware of the rest.
It is what makes up the explorer that Ansel Adams refers to.
There are many more stories. Brad never runs out. Barbara has just come in from
her morning workout at the gym. She is 89 years old going on 50. They have climbed,
explored, and mapped together for over 60 years. Peeking through the bathroom
door there is a framed poster on the wall of a smiling purple rhinoceros. It
reads, "I Wuv You. Happy Valentines Day. Brad." "She's
the best wife I ever had," he chuckles.