The Accidental Adventurer

by Barbara Washburn with Lew Freedman

Published by Epicenter Press

192 pages, 2001

Exploring the Unknown

by Bradford Washburn and edited by Lew Freedman

Published by Epicenter Press

128 pages, 2001




On Top of the World

Reviewed by Monica Stark


In the photographs, their faces disarm me. He has the open visage of the born adventurer: the weathered look of someone who has spent much of his life outdoors. Rugged and craggy beyond the 30 years he could claim at the time, he stands on the mountain peak with the knowing look of someone who is saying: Sure, another summit. Bring on the next.

In the same photo -- and the same summit -- her look is quite different. The photo is black and white -- it was 1940, after all -- and her blonde curls are pushed back by mountaineers' sunglasses. And there can be no doubt that she is, in fact a mountaineer. She's there, isn't she? She looks slightly sheepish as though she might be doubting the facts. She was then all of 26 years old, had been married less than a year and was at a time in her life and her culture when she might seriously have expected to be playing out the role society had cast for her as a young matron, perhaps with a brood at her hemline.

As Barbara Washburn explains in her fascinating and long overdue book, The Accidental Adventurer: Memoirs of the First Woman to Climb Mount McKinley, at the moment that the photo was taken, the brood was closer than she could have imagined. Right after that first climb -- the first successful ascent of Alaska's Mount Bertha -- Barbara thought she was coming down with "the grippe." Her husband Bradford insisted she see a doctor friend of his who was practicing in Juneau, Alaska, their last stop before heading home to Massachusetts. The doctor "took me in and looked me over briefly, then opened his door and called out to Brad: 'Hell, there's nothing wrong with this girl, she's just pregnant!'"

Barbara asserts that, through that first climb and all of the other historic climbs that came after, her goal was not to be a hero or even a role model for young women:

It would be nice to say that I considered myself to be a pioneer and that I wanted to climb Mount McKinley to prove something for all women. But that would not be true. I did not think that way.

To be perfectly honest, the main reason I wanted to go to Mount McKinley was that my husband was going and I wanted to be with him. That was perfectly logical thinking back then, I did not feel I had anything to prove.

These thoughts explain the title: The Accidental Adventurer. She is the first to admit she was not a "highly trained mountaineer," when she made the Denali ascent that put her in the record books as the first woman to climb McKinley, an honor she accepts almost as though she must: it is fact, after all. She was there.

She recounts that groundbreaking moment:

Just as we approached the last steps to the summit, Shorty [Lange] stepped aside and said, "You go first. You're the first woman to stand on the summit of the highest peak in North America!"

That sounds pretty dramatic, but at the moment the accomplishment did not seem very important to me. Still, this was not the place for an argument.

Barbara's book is charming, candid and warm. Though she didn't fully know what she was signing up for when she married Dr. Bradford Washburn, the then-29-year-old wunderkind director of Boston's Museum of Science, she has approached her challenges gamely: she has been mother, teacher, explorer and cartographer. And, of course, the woman history will remember as the first to scale McKinley.

While The Accidental Adventurer is a memoir, told by a woman with incredible stories to recount, Exploring the Unknown: Historic Diaries of Bradford Washburn's Alaska/Yukon Expeditions, published simultaneously by the same press, is the expedition diaries of a man whose life has been dedicated not merely to adventure but, most importantly, to education. This might explain his tremendous success, at least in part. Bradford Washburn embarked on each expedition with a desire to share what he found. As editor Lew Freeman tells us in the preface to Exploring the Unknown:

When Washburn planned an expedition to Alaska, usually to attempt a first ascent of a notable mountain, it was not simply about getting to the top. Yes, that was a goal, but equally imperative was the desire to record observations and technical findings, to make the unknown known. Washburn did not travel to Alaska simply to cover rugged terrain. He went with the idea of explaining the terrain for others to follow.

Bradford's Exploring the Unknown takes a very different format than Barbara's book. Produced more like a small coffee table book, the pages are highly glossy in order to show Bradford's excellent photographs, as well as the maps he surveyed and edited, to advantage.

Three historic expeditions are detailed: The Harvard - Dartmouth Mount Crillon Expedition of 1931, the National Geographic Society Yukon expedition of 1935 and the Mount McKinley: First Ascent of the West Buttress of 1951. Each section begins with a Washburn map of the area under discussion and a concise preface by Freedman introducing the expedition, its team members and their purpose. Bradford Washburn's expedition diaries, interspersed with photos from the ascent in question, make up the bulk of the book. Washburn's diaries are succinct. Here, Washburn and his party attain the summit in 1951, his final ascent of Mount McKinley. Washburn has held back to take photographs:

As I worked my way up after after them, the view to the south was staggering. A 10,000-foot wall dropped off to the Kahiltna Glacier where we had landed three weeks ago. The green of Tokositna Valley was wonderful to see, creeping far up among the icy peaks. Mount Hunter, which had long dominated our view, now looked utterly insignificant.

Seasoned journalist Freedman is largely responsible for getting both books going. Presently covering the outdoor adventures beat for the Chicago Tribune, it's difficult to imagine anyone better suited for the dual Washburn project. Freedman is a graduate of Boston University, earned his master's degree from Alaska Pacific University and built a friendship with the Washburns during the 1980s while working at the Anchorage Daily News as sports editor. His hand in both works -- The Accidental Adventurer and Exploring the Unknown -- is a delicate one. Freedman is never a presence, but rather, he seems to have guided both books to their -- very different -- potentials. The quiet skill with which he does this attests to his abilities as a journalist and editor. | August 2001


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.