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Barbara Washburn

Barbara Washburn was interviewed on July 8, 2000 by Dave Krupa at the home of Brian and Diane Okonek in Talkeetna, Alaska. On the day of the interview, Bradford and Barbara Washburn were in Talkeetna waiting for clear weather so they could visit key locations in Denali National Park, such as Fake Peak, in an effort to clear up remaining mysteries about Captain Cook's claimed ascent of the mountain. In this interview, Barbara gives a modest account of her exceptional accomplishments, including a wonderful description of her trip up Denali in 1947 and the camaraderie of the climbers. She offers a remarkable window into life, not only as a woman adventurer, but as a social pioneer living a life for which there were few, if any, role models at the time. She describes how Amelia Earhart inspired her, as did the tenacity and adventurous spirit of her husband, Bradford. Barbara's warmth and humor show through in this interview, and it is easy to understand why she has become an inspiration to other women adventurers.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-24

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: Jul 8, 2000
Narrator(s): Barbara Washburn
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Growing up in the Boston area and her interests

2) Her education and searching for a job she liked

3) Working at Harvard University and meeting Brad Washburn

4) Taking the job with Brad Washburn in the museum and her first time flying

5) Attending one of Brad's lectures and traveling on to New York

6) The courtship of Brad and Barbara

7) Preparing for her first expedition with Brad

8) Organizing details for the trip to Alaska

9) The research they did on Mount McKinley and the need to establish a new, easier route

10) Being approached by a prospective mountaineering film crew

11) How fate brings people together at unexpected times, and getting to Mount McKinley

12) Flying into basecamp at McGonagall Pass and the first night

13) The team organizing at basecamp

14) Members of the camp wandering off and falling in a crevasse

15) Taking the dogs up the Muldrow Glacier and signs of altitude sickness

16) Getting stuck in a storm on the way up to High Camp

17) Waiting out the storm with Bill Hackett and Hugo Victoreen

18) Climbing from 15,000 feet to 18,000 feet

19) Deteriorating physically with such a long stay at 18,000 feet

20) Being the first woman to summit Denali

21) What it was like being on the summit

22) The ascent of the North Peak the next day

23) Descending from 18,000 feet

24) The final leg of the journey and the media hype afterwards

25) The exciting welcome home

26) The Washburn's reception in Alaska and moments she remembers

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: West Roxbury, MA\ Boston -- suburb\ father -- publisher\ Magazine of the Universalist Church\ mountain climbing\ swimming\ tennis\ school -- girls\ education -- classical\ field hockey\ camping\ Universalist religion\ Ferry Beach, ME\ mother -- intellectual\ ocean|

Section 2: Alaska\ Washburn, Bradford -- meeting\ Smith College -- graduation\ vocational office\ Dennison House -- settlement house\ teacher\ interviewing\ arts and crafts\ Earhart, Amelia\ fate\ sew\ volleyball\ Chinatown -- Boston, MA\ children\ school -- secretarial\ job -- temporary\ Liberty Mutual Insurance Company\ Hindenburg|

Section 3: Harvard University -- employment office\ biology\ dates -- graduate students\ mailman\ Harvard Institute of Geography\ Washburn, Brad\ explorer -- famous\ museum director\ interview\ secretary -- executive\ mountain climber\ money -- managing|

Section 4: parents -- living\ Washburn, Bradford -- persistence\ museum\ job -- interesting\ meeting -- Trustees\ typing\ flying\ Boston, MA\ Groton School\ Christmas cards\ relationship -- personal\ license -- flying\ flying suit\ cockpit -- open\ rumble seat\ goggles\ Smith College\ Lindbergh, Ann\ helmet\ subway|

Section 5: lecture\ Hartford, CT\ Navy\ war -- prior\ Annapolis, MD\ science museum\ train\ auditorium\ Washburn, Brad\ New York, NY\ train -- berth\ secretary\ breakfast\ Thomas, Lowell\ boss|

Section 6: date -- Navy guy\ Pennsylvania Station -- platform\ admiral\ Washburn, Bradford\ car -- chauffeur driven\ train\ marriage -- proposal\ mountains -- climbing\ Washburn -- family\ engaged -- secret\ secretary -- resign\ library\ Polk, Barbara\ curators -- dating|

Section 7: Washburn, Brad\ children\ marriage\ Alaska -- expedition\ food -- dehydrated\ boys -- college\ Harvard\ ski team -- captain\ Thomas, Lowell -- son\ adventure\ ski\ Jackson, NH|

Section 8: vegetables -- dehydrated\ expedition\ neighbors -- complain\ Limmer, Peter\ climbing boots\ Pollard, Todd\ archives\ boots -- leather soles\ boots -- hob nails\ Alaska\ Vaughan, Norman -- dogs\ New England\ train\ museum -- staff party\ Washburn, Brad -- reputation\ explorer -- famous\ Alps\ parents -- supportive|

Section 9: Washburn, Brad -- concerns\ Mt. McKinley\ group -- handicap\ children\ scientific objectives\ research -- cosmic ray\ University of Chicago\ Harvard University\ Geiger counter\ outer space\ camp\ Shein, Dr. Marcel -- physicist\ Victoreen, Hugo\ atom smashers\ route -- faster\ Muldrow Route\ West Buttress Route|

Section 10: Muldrow Route\ RKO\ Mt. Everest\ interview\ The White Tower -- Ullman, James Ramsey\ western world\ Nepal\ Mt. McKinley\ climbers\ children -- nurse\ grandparents\ pediatrician|

Section 11: preparations -- McKinley\ New York, NY\ fate\ RKO\ Radio Pictures -- president\ interview\ public relations\ Indianapolis, IN\ Lambert, Eleanor\ Minneapolis, MN\ Fairbanks, AK\ Anchorage, AK\ Pioneer Hotel\ bush pilot|

Section 12: plane\ truck\ mud flats\ wife -- killed\ Muldrow Glacier\ accidents\ Norris, Earl -- dog driver\ Haakon Christianson -- pilot\ Washburn, Brad\ basecamp\ McGonagall Pass\ Lange, Shorty\ Browne, George\ food\ weather -- cold\ sleeping bag\ public relations -- International News Service\ coffee\ cereal -- hot|

Section 13: sleeping bag\ newspaper reporter -- stories\ Hackon, Chris\ Shannon, Len -- reporter\ Los Angeles\ cigar\ nightclub\ snow\ ice\ basecamp\ Norris, Earl\ snowshoes\ campsite\ Washburn, Brad\ packs\ roped -- middle|

Section 14: pack load\ movie cameras -- professional\ batteries\ climbers -- experienced\ Mt. McKinley\ camp\ Pearson, Grant -- assistant park superintendent\ Craig, Bob\ glacier\ unroped -- wandering\ crevasses\ Washburn, Brad\ Muldrow Glacier\ Norris, Earl\ snowshoes\ ice ax\ dogs|

Section 15: chances\ dogs\ Muldrow Glacier -- head\ Karstens Ridge\ Butcher, Susan -- dogs\ altitude\ headache -- 12 camp\ aspirin\ nausea\ cough -- hacking\ altitude sickness\ research -- cosmic ray\ red blood cells\ anemic -- girls\ medical\ NOVA|

Section 16: Mt. McKinley\ Browne Tower\ storm\ Washburn, Brad\ Gale, Jim\ high camp\ Hackett, Bill\ army officer\ Victoreen, Hugo\ physicist\ Geiger counter\ radio\ igloo -- sleep\ tent -- cook\ spelling game -- ghost|

Section 17: articles -- Reader's Digest\ discussions\ cooking\ dishes\ gas\ Hackett, Bill\ basecamp -- tents\ cameramen\ Craig, Bob\ Browne, George\ Browne, Belmore -- son\ Victoreen, Hugo\ marriage -- mixed\ sociology\ army officer\ lieutenant\ divorce\ background -- narrow\ storm|

Section 18: trail\ crampons\ Hackett, Bill\ climber\ Victerine, Hugo\ climbing\ physicist\ sugar\ pack\ slope -- steep\ side hill\ rope\ snow\ crying\ rest\ day -- long\ Denali Pass|

Section 19: Hackett, Bill\ pack\ Washburn, Brad\ horizon\ hat -- fur\ researchers -- cosmic ray\ Gale, Jim\ Victoreen, Hugo\ high altitude\ deterioration\ red blood cells|

Section 20: weather\ summit\ rope\ Browne, George\ headache\ Browne, Belmore\ Hackett, Bill\ ice ax\ Lange, Shorty\ pictures\ summit -- approach\ summit -- woman\ Mt. McKinley\ Washburn, Brad\ Lydon, Chris -- WBUR|

Section 21: National Geographic\ book signing\ interview\ Lydon, Chris\ summit -- emotional\ accidents\ work -- survey\ view\ Wonder Lake\ Stuck, Hudson\ accomplishment\ cameramen\ pictures\ camera -- 35 mm\ camera -- 16 mm\ news reporter -- International News Service\ Lange, Shorty\ Washburn, Brad\ Craig, Bob\ Browne, George|

Section 22: weather -- cold\ North Peak\ Washburn, Brad\ work -- survey\ lunch -- picnic\ frostbite\ socks\ gloves -- thin\ descent\ Karstens Ridge\ Browne Tower\ clouds -- lenticular\ storm\ duffel bag|

Section 23: Karstens Ridge\ steps -- chopped\ rope\ snow -- soft\ snow -- firm\ University of Alaska -- students\ Washburn, Brad\ Livingston, Dr.\ Wood, Morton\ teacher -- English\ Thayer, Elton\ Argus, George|

Section 24: Muldrow Glacier\ muskeg\ river\ mosquitoes\ tent\ bells\ Anderson, Carl\ horses\ river crossing -- horseback\ Wonder Lake\ film -- 16 mm\ film -- 35 mm\ summit -- portraits\ media\ TV station -- Fairbanks\ Kinsey, Miriam|

Section 25: radios\ family\ children\ nurse\ books\ Mt. McKinley\ daughter -- enemy\ Boston, MA\ newspapers\ friends -- female\ war\ mothers\ Curley, Jim -- mayor|

Section 26: Alaska -- reception\ daughter -- Washburn, Barbara\ autographs\ Mt. McKinley -- solo\ reporter -- Anchorage, AK\ climb -- sociability\ experience -- sharing\ companionship\ friendship\ children -- discipline|