Barbara Polk Washburn, First Woman to Ascend Denali, Dies at 99

A noted climber, Washburn also made significant contributions to cartography.
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A noted climber, Washburn also made significant contributions to cartography.

Barbara Polk Washburn, noted alpinist, cartographer, and the first woman to ascend 20,322-foot Denali, passed away Thursday at her home in Massachusetts. She was 99 years old.

Washburn, who would later call herself the 'accidental adventurer,' didn't exactly expect to be summiting frigid peaks and traveling around the world while growing up in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood during the 1920s. However, she was predisposed to exploration and attended Smith College before marrying photographer and mountaineer Bradford Washburn, then head of Boston's fledgling Museum of Science, in 1940.

The newlyweds began planning climbing expeditions almost immediately and would become a dynamic husband-and-wife team, making first ascents of several Alaskan peaks. From The Boston Globe:

The [1941] expedition to [Alaska's] Mount Bertha was not without perils, including once when Mrs. Washburn found herself dangling in midair over a crevasse, tied to a rope, as she struggled to gain traction on an icy slope. “I was scared to death but was ashamed to admit it,’’ she wrote. “I covered up my fright by laughing almost hysterically.’’

The final summit push and descent took 19 straight hours on the trail.

Her recovery from the trip was even slower and more painful than expected, prompting a trip to a doctor before leaving Alaska. The physician reported to her husband: “Hell, there’s nothing wrong with this girl, she’s just pregnant.’’

In June 1947, Washburn became the first woman to summit Mt. McKinley (Denali), though she was unaware of this until after the fact. Later, the Washburns spent nearly seven years creating a comprehensive topographic map of the Grand Canyon, which was released in 1978. The pair also participated in an effort to map Mount Everest and were honored by the National Geographic Society in 1988.

The Globe's full remembrance of Washburn's extraordinary life is well worth a read.

Read more: Boston Globe