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The Accidental Adventurer

Barbara Polk Washburn was born on November 10, 1914. She grew up in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She attended Boston Girls Latin School and graduated from Smith College, class of 1935. After graduating from Smith, she took courses at Harvard.

An acquaintance urged her to apply for a job at the fledgeling Museum of Natural History (now the Boston Museum of Science) as the private secretary to the director, Bradford Washington. He was also a mountaineer and photographer. She was not really interested. She commented, “I don’t want to work in that stuffy old museum, and I certainly wouldn’t want to work for a crazy mountain climber.” Eventually she did apply for the position and was hired. Their relationship quickly became romantic and the couple was married on April 17, 1940. That summer, Barbara who had never even been camping, went on an Alaska expedition.

She recalls in her book that the expedition was really more about building a relationship with her ver new husband that breaking barriers. “I had no real feeling about being a pioneering woman on a serious Alaskan expedition, I only knew that as the only woman, I had to measure up.’’ Measure up she did. She learned quickly and mastered everything from mushing a dog sled across a glacier to the womanly art of making coffee from melted snow.

The expedition was not without perils though. She recalls that once she was dangling from Mount Bertha in midair, over a crevasse, tied to a rope, and struggling mightily to gain traction on an icy slope. The decent took almost 19 straight hours on that trail. “I was scared to death but was ashamed to admit it, but I covered up my fright by laughing almost hysterically.’’

She wore men’t cold weather gear because none was made for women at that time. According to Washburn, she learned to rappel on the fly with only brief instructions: "Now tie the rope around your just swing across this ice slope, and this is called rappelling.” She took the lead at one point because the team felt she would be light enough to haul up if the ground crumbled beneath her. Fortunately, it didn’t.

When they left Alaska, she was not feeling well. She thought it was just recovery from the arduous trip but when she didn’t feel she was recovering she sought treatment from a physician. After he examined her, his reply to Barbara and her husband was: “Hell, there’s nothing wrong with this girl, she’s just pregnant.’’

Over the next few decades they while they raised their three children, Dorothy, Edward and Elizabeth. She spent the summer months making definitive topographical maps of the Grand Canyon as well as Mount McKinley and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The work was extensive and quite exhausting at times. It included 697 helicopter landings (yes, she counted) some very precarious in the Grand Canyon where the temperatures ranged from 137 degrees to 15 below zero. They also hiked hundreds of miles on trails.

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.

During the winters, Mrs. Washburn was a reading specialist at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, where she was an early and ardent proponent of special programs to help students with learning disabilities. She treasured letters of thanks, sent by former students years later, as among her greatest honors, which included the Centennial Award from the National Geographic Society in 1988. At that ceremony, she was seated among such other honorees as Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau, and John Glenn and discussed her treks to the Earth’s ceilings.

She wrote in the Alpinist, "Like most women of my generation, I'd been raised to believe that my place was in the home. Yet in the end, the places where I would make that home wouldn't always be in warm Massachusetts suburban houses, surrounded by the bright voices of our children. Sometimes that home would be in an igloo, at 12,000 feet, sharing Tang-flavored fig pudding with my husband; or as the lightest climber going first to test the cornices on a narrow exposed ridge; or staring out at summit views that no one else had seen.” She did not realize that she had been the first woman to climb Denali until after their ascent.

Her book The Accidental Adventurer is available still.

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