Scaling the Heights of Romance and Adventure Together


Life is risky.

When I first met Brad and Barbara Washburn 13 years ago, I didn't realize Brad had known Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared in the Pacific while attempting an around-the-world flight in July 1937.

Not only had he known Earhart and her husband, publisher G.P. Putnam, but Brad--a respected cartographer and mountaineer--had spent a weekend at their home advising her on plans for the adventure that was her dream, and her death.

Earhart chose not to follow Brad's advice. He thinks it could have saved her life. "People say it's good I didn't go with her," he told the National Geographic expeditions council at lunch recently. "But if I had, she wouldn't have gotten lost."

Brad and Barbara sit side by side on a sofa at the Geographic. Married 61 years, they're cute as buttons together and you'd never guess their lives have been full of amazing adventures and shocking danger.

Brad turns 91 this month. Both are energetic, sharp-minded, full of humor. When they married in the spring of '39, he was founding director of Boston's Museum of Science, she his secretary.

Soon they were climbing an Alaskan mountain, and I remember a wonderful story Barbara told about it at a Geographic dinner I covered honoring them and other "Pioneers of Discovery" in 1988. "It was a lot icier than Brad thought, and I had to go on a rope across a very steep ice slope. I had no idea about climbing; I'd never done this before.

"He just said, 'Now tie the rope around your waist. . . . You just swing across this ice slope, and this is called rappelling.' And I did it because I was young and starry-eyed and in love."

They're still chuckling at that one.

"That was on Bertha," Brad recalls now, referring to their first ascent of that Alaskan peak in 1940. "There was a very steep ice gulf, and I didn't want to chop steps. The best way was to go straight up 50 feet, hitch a rope and just swing across."

Simple, just like marriage.

In 1947, Barbara was the first woman to climb 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. She's just published a book about this and other experiences, "The Accidental Adventurer" (with Lew Freedman, Epicenter Press).

On one climb, she writes, she and a male team member had to relieve themselves. "But we were all very modest and there were no trees . . .

"Brad responded, 'No problem, we have lots of rope.' He tied the rope around . . . my waist and let me down the other side. As I was relieving myself, looking out over such magnificent scenery, I began to laugh uncontrollably. What would my friends at home think?"

Barbara raised their three children, held part-time jobs as a social worker and accompanied her husband on expeditions that deepened their love and cemented their marriage.

Brad's new book, "Exploring the Unknown" (also with Freedman, Epicenter), contains diaries of his Alaska/Yukon expeditions from the mid-'30s to his 1951 first ascent of the West Buttress route on McKinley, now the most popular way to the summit.

Together, they mapped McKinley (doing a lot of aerial photography), the Grand Canyon (it took seven years) and Mt. Everest (more aerial work, including a near-fatal plunge). Recently, Brad helped finance and direct an expedition to measure snow depth atop Everest.

I ask the Washburns for the secret of their happy marriage.

"We've taken a lot of calculated risks together," Brad says. "If you go all the way through life without risks, you'll have a hell of a dull life."

"It's very important to do many things together," Barbara says. "We always made good preparations, though, so we knew we were safe. We investigated the pilots we flew with, for instance."

"We flew with pilots we trusted," agrees Brad.

I'd never have thought to mention Earhart, but a Geographic PR person brings up her name.

Earhart was a social worker--Barbara once worked in the same Boston settlement house--who began flying as a hobby. In 1932 she was the first woman to solo across the Atlantic; in 1935 the first person to solo from Honolulu to Oakland. She became a role model for girls and women, her name a household word.

In 1936, Purdue University provided Earhart with an advanced aircraft, a Lockheed 10E Electra, and she began planning an around-the-world flight. It wouldn't be the first, but her trip--29,000 miles along an equatorial route--would be the longest.

In preparation, Earhart wrote President Roosevelt on Nov. 10, 1936, to ask for help from the Navy.

"In the past the Navy has been so progressive . . . and so broad-minded in what we might call its 'public relations,' " she wrote, "that I think a project such as this (even involving a mere woman!) may appeal to Navy personnel."

"Do what we can and contact Mr. Putnam," the president scrawled on the letter.

Brad knew Putnam because he'd written a boys' book for Putnam's in 1929, "Among the Alps With Bradford." ("I made enough money from it to buy a 1929 Ford Roadster," Brad grins.) He also was familiar with the Lockheed Electra, "a terrific airplane."

Earhart and Putnam invited Brad to their Rye, N.Y., home in January 1937. "So I went down and we chatted at dinner about her decision to fly around the world. After supper we spread her wonderful collection of maps on the floor and talked about her flight.

"I pointed out to her and Putnam two problems. I said, 'You've got to get a radio on Howland Island' "--the tiny speck of land Earhart would aim for as a mid-ocean refueling point after a 2,556-mile flight from New Guinea.

A radio there, Brad explained, would make finding it "a cinch," since Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan could use a direction-finder on the plane to home in on radio signals. Brad said it would be easy to get a ham radio operator to go to the island and provide the service.

"But she didn't want to do it," Brad recalls.

Second, Brad continues, he urged Earhart to carry special low-frequency radio equipment that would enable ships to locate her. "I said, 'If there's no one working a radio on Howland Island, then you've got to have low-frequency radio to work with ships.' "

Again, Brad says, Earhart declined.

Why? I ask. What happened in the living room that night long ago?

Brad pauses.

"Well," he ventures, "I've never said this to anyone, but I may as well cough it up."

Putnam was sitting in a chair. Earhart and Brad were on the floor over the maps.

When Brad made his suggestions, Earhart looked up at her husband and asked, "What do you think, G.P.?"

"If you go to all that trouble," Putnam replied, "the book will not be out for the Christmas sales."

Earhart and Noonan took off July 2, 1937. Their last position report and sighting, according to the Naval Historical Center's Web page, was over the Nukumanu Islands, 800 miles into the flight. A Coast Guard cutter was near Howland to help guide them to the island by radio contact.

"It soon became evident that Earhart and Noonan had little practical knowledge of . . . radio navigation. The frequencies Earhart was using were not well suited to direction finding," the naval historical report notes, "and the reception quality of her transmissions was poor."

No physical evidence of the fliers or their plane ever was found.

"It was," Brad says, "a needless tragedy."

"Really awful," Barbara adds.

A good couple is hard to find.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World