On June 6, 1947, a few steps below the summit of Denali, a team member urged Barbara Washburn to take his spot leading the rope team so she would be the first to stand on the summit, since their climb would make her the first woman to ever climb Denali.
“I said, ‘Who cares a rip? I don’t care – I’m perfectly happy being number two here,’ ” she told an interviewer in 2010. But he insisted, so Washburn took the rope and led her team up the remaining steps to the summit. She later wrote, “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.”
“Years later, when the Boston Smith Club asked me to give a talk, I asked what they wanted me to talk about. They said, ‘Just your life.'”
Barbara Washburn probably never would have found herself on the summit of North America’s tallest peak had she not applied for a job as a secretary at the New England Museum of Natural History at the suggestion of her mailman. The director of the museum, Bradford Washburn, was a mountain climber and had already established several first ascents in Alaska. After her job interview, Bradford said he’d call her in two weeks about the job. He called her every day for two weeks, and she took the job in March 1939.
Eventually, their professional relationship became a little more personal, and Bradford proposed to Barbara in 1940.
“I sometimes wonder why I didn’t question him then about what kind of life he expected me to lead,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir, The Accidental Adventurer. “But I didn’t ask, and he didn’t bring up the subject. He must have already gotten a glimpse of my sense of adventure.”
They married, and a month after their wedding, began planning what would be Barbara’s first expedition-a trip to Alaska to attempt the first ascent of 10,182-foot Mt. Bertha, a big step up from anything she had done in the past.
“I had no mountaineering background,” she wrote in her memoir. “The extent of my experience was climbing a 4,000-foot mountain with a date, right after college. That wasn’t the best day of my life. It was hard work and I was out of breath the whole time.”
As the only female member of an eight-person team, Barbara spent a month ferrying supplies and moving camps toward Bertha and on the team’s second summit attempt stood atop the peak during a 19-hour, 40-minute day. After their descent, Barbara felt ill for several days and decided to schedule a doctor visit-and found out she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. She gave birth to Dorothy on March 7, 1941.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
As a mountaineer, Barbara was already bucking the status quo for women in the 1940s-she usually wore mens’ or boys’ parkas, since no company made a parka for women climbers. As a mother, if she chose to continue to climb with her husband, she would be doing something unheard of at the time: leaving children at home to pursue adventure, something women are still judged for 75 years later. After much soul-searching, the Washburns left their daughter in the care of Bradford’s parents and a nurse, and headed north to Alaska again, to attempt the then-unclimbed Mt. Hayes.
The team put its lightest member, Barbara, first on the rope through the corniced sections on the North Ridge, to test if they would break under a climber’s weight. Hiding her fear from the team, she tried to appear calm, and she didn’t slip or punch through a single cornice. The team stood on the 13,832-foot summit on August 1, 1941.
In September 1942, Washburn gave birth to the couple’s second child, and while giving birth was given pain medication that made her lose control of her emotions. When the attending doctor told her he was surprised to hear so much cursing from a “refined little lady,” she told him she’d learned to talk that way to drive sled dog teams in Alaska.
During World War II, Bradford was recruited by the military to test cold-weather gear, and as part of his service, climbed Denali in 1942, its third-ever ascent. In 1947, after the war, he was approached to climb it again, this time to help make a movie to stimulate interest in mountain climbing. He invited Barbara, who became so torn about leaving the couple’s three children at home that she developed a stress rash.
Only fifteen people had climbed Denali before the Washburns’ 1947 climb. Over two and a half months, the team ferried loads and moved camps higher along the Muldrow Glacier route and summited on June 6. Bradford looked down from the summit onto the West Buttress, a route he then realized looked safer-and would go on to pioneer in 1951.
Barbara’s career as an adventurer may have been accidental in the sense that she would have never been invited on expeditions without having met and married Bradford Washburn, but her summits were anything but. The Washburns later went on to take on extensive mapping projects, including Mt. Everest and a seven-year effort to map the Grand Canyon for National Geographic, but Barbara’s name will always be associated with Denali, she was referred to as “McKinley’s First Lady.”
In her book, she wrote about her humility-and understatement-of the climb at the time it happened:
“Reporters expected me to come up with some deep psychological reason why I needed to be the first woman on the summit of Mount McKinley-why I felt I needed to excel like this. They were always disappointed when I said I simply wanted to be with my husband. I explained that when I was first asked to join the expedition, I didn’t want to go because I had three small children.
“Today I’m smart enough to know I was doing something special. But at the time, my Aunt Cora said to me, ‘Barbara, you’re never going to get swell-headed.’ I guess I was just brought up in a family where you didn’t brag. I had no notion of being a role model for anyone, but I guess that’s the way it turned out. Years later, when the Boston Smith Club asked me to give a talk, I asked what they wanted me to talk about. They said, ‘Just your life.'”
Washburn passed away on September 25, 2014, just a few weeks short of turning 100.