A Yearning For The Wilderness
The Photography Of Brad Washburn Page 2

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 it!"

Brad 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."

After the 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.