The Last of His Kind

To continue my armchair approach to hiking and mountaineering lately, I am happy to report completing read The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer by David Roberts.

This biography is about David Roberts’ mentor.  As Roberts said of Washburn and his remarkable accomplishments in Alaska, “not only is he one of a kind, but as one of a kind they don’t make any more.”  The book is a wonderful tribute to Alaska’s greatest mountaineer.  Washburn was an explorer in Alaska, photographer and the Director of the Boston Museum of Science.  The book is a wonderful survey of earlier climbing and the great man’s life off the rock and ice.

While there are numerous other books on Washburn and while he is part of many other stories, the point this book makes that is most unique is about Washburn’s mountain photography.  His work is distinct from others like Ansel Adams and Roberts identifies why: Washburn took photos of mountains to document the mountain and possible routes.  They were archived records rather than artistic works, though they are certainly appreciated by mountain lovers like me.

Even in some of his controversies, Washburn is hard to dislike and even harder to unappreciate his strengths after reading this story, which is typical of a biography by a “fan” like Roberts.  Regardless, and unfortunately, because of the times and the evolution of mountaineering and exploration, there will never be another like him.

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Scenery Junkies

The majority of my time enjoying the mountains is through photos in coffee table books, Backpacker and Climbing magazines, and my own pictures — and the majority of my own shots are about ten years old now.  The photos the professional mountain photographers give me a glimpse of ranges I have not been to and a sense of the risks of the climb. 

Some of my photos fail to show the true depth of the features or give a sense of the vertical perspective.  I am often left apologizing to my friends when they look at my pictures.  Most of them have never climbed a mountain, so they don’t know what it’s like, so I say, “Well, the picture just doesn’t do it justice.”  But the photos in Backpacker and Climbing often seem fanciful or doctored to the non-hiker/climber.  So it is hard to express how those photos are often a better representation of what I saw.   

Regardless that I sound like a photo-loony to my friends, I appreciate those professional photos immensely.  I like the classic ones by done in black and white by Ansel Adams and Bradford Washburn that accurately show the dimensions of the mountain side with dream-like wonder.  When I flip through Alpinist, Climbing, gear catalogs and some other publications, many of those amazing photos come from mountain photographer Jimmy Chin

Chin has been climbing for years and continues to do so.  He’s made ascents in the Himalayas and elsewhere, but it’s what he shares that makes him special to the hiking and climbing world.  He is a gifted photographer that brings the depth, colors and sense of the place to me through his photos. 

He will be at the National Geographic Society headquarters tonight and I am looking forward to hearing his stories and taking in his slide show.  I will let you know how it goes. 

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