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Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer

Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer

3.3 8
by David Roberts

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“Stunning and stirring.”

Boston Globe


In The Last of His Kind, renowned adventure writer David Roberts gives readers a spellbinding history of mountain climbing in the twentieth century as told through the biography of Brad Washburn, legendary mountaineering pioneer and photographer. Jon


“Stunning and stirring.”

Boston Globe


In The Last of His Kind, renowned adventure writer David Roberts gives readers a spellbinding history of mountain climbing in the twentieth century as told through the biography of Brad Washburn, legendary mountaineering pioneer and photographer. Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, has praised David Roberts, saying, “Nobody alive writes better about mountaineering”—and nowhere is that truth more evident than in this breathtaking account of the life and exploits of America’s greatest mountain climber.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Before his 30th birthday, Bradford Washburn was already a legendary mountaineer, completing four major first ascents on his way to becoming "the greatest mountaineer in Alaskan history." Soon after, Washburn took over the creaky New England Museum of Natural History, which by his retirement in 1980, had become the renowned Boston Museum of Science. Washburn (1910-2007) was also an innovative cartographer as well as a self-taught photographer whose aerial shots garnered major acclaim. A longtime friend of Washburn and a former mountaineer, Roberts (No Shortcuts to the Top) is an ideal candidate for writing Washburn's biography, but the book lacks the depth of compelling biographies. Roberts's decision to extensively profile Washburn's various expeditions (and those of others) offers no insight on the man, while contributing to the book's glacial pace. Roberts obviously has nothing but admiration for Washburn and his accomplishments, but that inhibits opportunities to examine the dark side of Washburn's personal life-his responsibility for a fatal plane crash in 1938; son Ted's inappropriate behavior with high school students that divided the family-which are almost glossed over. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
From prolific mountaineering writer Roberts (Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, 2008, etc.), a well-crafted biography of "the greatest mountaineer in Alaskan history."Because the author knows the world of climbing so well, as both practitioner and chronicler, he brings an insider's perspective to this life of mountaineer and photographer Bradford Washburn (1910-2007). As a longtime friend of his subject, Roberts writes with measured authority about Washburn as a character, especially his overwhelming passion, impatience and stubbornness. In describing Washburn's vast explorations in Alaska and the Yukon, his extraordinary number of first ascents and the sharpening of the "increasingly virtuosic exercises in the fast-and-light style he had invented," Roberts avoids hagiography-no small feat given Washburn's prodigious talents. Not only did he fill in many blank areas on maps of the northern regions of North America, Washburn brought great flair to the art of cartography and aerial photography, as well as museum administration-he transformed "the moribund New England Museum of Natural History into the eventually world-renowned Boston Museum of Science." Though unadorned, Roberts's style effectively captures the suspense and danger of Washburn's adventures. A thorough and admiring portrait. Author appearances in Boston and New York. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Agency

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The Last of His Kind
The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer

Chapter One

Boy Adventurer

He was born Henry Bradford Washburn Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 7, 1910. There's no getting around the fact that Brad was a Boston Brahmin: he could trace his ancestry back to William Brewster, of the Mayflower and Plymouth Colony. But he was never rich, even when he was the director of the Museum of Science. An uncle who'd made a fortune in the wire goods industry put Brad through prep school. Entering Harvard in the fall of 1929, just as the Great Depression hit, Brad could barely finance his college education. A lifelong habit of penny-pinching was inculcated during those early years.

Brad's father, Henry Bradford Washburn Sr., was a minister who eventually became dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. His mother, the former Edith Colgate, was the widow of his father's best friend, who had died of typhoid fever in 1902. Brad grew up with a half-sister, Mabel, from his mother's first marriage. Though fifteen years older, Mabel, whom Brad called "Sis," became his close friend and faithful correspondent throughout his teenage years. A year and a half after Brad's arrival, his mother gave birth to another son, Sherwood ("Sherry"), who would go on to become a world-renowned physical anthropologist, one of the first experts to maintain that Piltdown Man was a hoax. (In a brilliant practical joke, several pranksters planted the jawbone of an orangutan and the skull of a modern man in a gravel pit in Sussex, England, in 1912, then claimed to have excavated an early protohuman, the so-calledmissing link. It took more than four decades for the forgery to be exposed.)

Judging by his writings and his achievements, Brad's character seems to have been fully formed at the age of eight. During the First World War, Brad's father moved the family to New York City, where he selected chaplains for military duty abroad. Already fascinated by the outdoors, Brad spent many a solitary hour fishing from the docks off the Hudson and East rivers. Though its publication was no doubt finagled by his father, Brad's first literary effort to see print was a five-paragraph essay that came out in The Churchman on May 12, 1919. It is called "Fishing: What a Boy Thinks."

Despite the idiosyncratic spelling that an editor wisely left intact, Brad already comes across as the self-taught expert confidently lecturing others about the proper way to do things:

Fishing is a very bad habit when out of season. You should not fish to [sic] much because the fish are disterbed and move from place to place; they get scerd and wont bite. I have fished to eat. It is not good to fish for fun and after you have got a great many fish to throw them away or give them to the cat. God never intended them to be throne away, he ecspects them to swim around and chase their tales.Despite his jaunty tone, the lad had a sensitive side: "I have never liked to take the hook out of the fishes mouth, it makes me feel bad and I know the fish don't like it. They make a little grone and are off to the happy hunting ground."

But the young angler quickly reverts to practical instruction:

It is always best to stand at least ten feet from the water. I have always had good luck with a steel rod. The best store to get them is Abarcrombi and Fich, Madison Ave. and 45th St. Most -people think that children living in a city have no chance to fish. That is not true because I have caught a lot of tomy cod off the 79th St. dock, New York.

All his life, Brad would prove to be something of a genius at tinkering with gear in the field. At the age of eight, he knew exactly how to manufacture the ideal tackle:If you want to do this, solder a bell onto the end of a strong peace of wire, on the other end a screw. Fasten this on the dock by means of the screw. Have about a hundred feet of line to the wire and with about three hoocks on the end of the line with a sinker. Tie the loose end of the line to the wire and throe the line into the water. When the fish bite the bell will ring. Give the line a quick gerck and pull the fish off and rebait.

After the war, the family moved back to Cambridge. Many decades later, Brad would credit Miss Florence Leatherbee (it was always "Miss Leatherbee"), his fifth-grade teacher at Buckingham School, with kindling his interest in geography. "She showed us maps of the world," Brad would tell journalist Lew Freedman in 2005. "She had a Hammond Atlas and it showed where gold was found, and copper, and coal. Looking at it, you had the feeling of the world being a live place instead of just a map." At the age of fourteen, Brad drew his own first map, of Squam Lake, the family's summer retreat in New Hampshire.

Throughout his life, not entirely in jest, Brad would maintain that he became a mountain climber because he suffered from hay fever as a boy. In the summer of 1921, at age eleven, he started hiking up the low hills behind Squam Lake, where he discovered to his amazement that the higher he went, the less his hay fever bothered him. On July 21 of that summer, with his cousin, Brad made his first ascent of Mt. Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest peak in New England. Four years later, with his father and Sherry, Brad repeated the ascent in winter. Mt. Washington has a gentle topography, but especially in winter, thanks to its ferocious weather, it can be a dangerous climb. The crown of the Presidential Range has killed more climbers than any other American mountain. (The highest wind speed ever measured anywhere in the world, 231 miles per hour, was recorded at the summit observatory in 1934.)

Brad's parents were loving, involved, and indulgent, and Brad and Sherry shared a happy and adventurous childhood straight out of Tom Swift. The small but elite Buckingham School was situated only a few short blocks from the Deanery, the Washburn family house on Mason Street. (By now, Brad's father had become dean of the Episcopal Theological School.) Brad attended Buckingham through fifth grade, then switched to nearby Browne & Nichols for sixth and seventh grades, because beyond fifth grade, Buckingham tutored only girls. (In 1974, the two schools would merge, becoming Buckingham Browne & Nichols, or simply BB&N.)

In December 1922, three months into seventh grade at B&N, Brad was abruptly offered a "chance-vacancy" at the posh Groton School, in Groton, Massachusetts. He transferred in midterm from B&N, becoming overnight a boarder rather than a day student. Writing from Groton to his parents, Sherry, or Mabel every few days, twelve-year-old Brad was miserably homesick. To his mother on December 14, he put up a brave front: "It is a wonderful school. . . . I am having a fine time." To Sis, at about the same time, he confessed his real feelings:

"I am sorely afraid that I cannot stay here much longer. I have been on detention every day since I have been here. The work is far too hard for me."

The Last of His Kind
The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer
. Copyright © by David Roberts. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

David Roberts is an avid climber and the author of more than twenty books, including The Mountain of My Fear, which was named on National Geographic Adventure's list of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. His articles have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, and Smithsonian, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
SuburbanMountaineer More than 1 year ago
This is the biography of Bradford Washburn, one of the author's mentors. 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, documentary photographer (though arguably his work was quite artistic) 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.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
If you like your reading excitement based on reality rather than the fantasy world, pick up a copy of The Last Of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer. Should you not recognize the Washburn name, he was "acclaimed as the greatest mountaineer in Alaskan history. He would be hailed, with the Italian Vittorio Sella, as one of the two finest mountain photographers ever. As a cartographer, he produced maps of Mt. McKinley, Mr. Everest, the Grand Canyon, and other regions...." At the age of 28 he took over the near-to-dying New England of Natural History and boosted it to become the renowned Boston Museum of Science. Washburn was, indeed, the last of his kind, and we're privileged to read about his achievements in this comprehensive biography, which includes extensive materials gleaned from the mountaineer's diaries kept during each of his expeditions. Extraordinary even as a youth Washburn was intrigued by the outdoors, its magnitude, and challenges. His first published piece appeared when he was 9, "Fishing: What A Boy Thinks." While at Groton he made a collection for his biology teacher - all the ferns (over 30 variations) that were found within a mile of the school. By the age of 16 he had climbed Mont Blanc after which he reached the top of the Matterhorn. Thus, at that young age he had more Alpine experience than the vast majority of American climbers at any age. Even greater achievements lay before him. As we know courage comes in many forms and it beat strongly in Washburn's heart as he came within a hair's breadth of death several times. An acclaimed writer of mountaineering David Roberts has crafted an excellent biography, an appropriate remembrance of a remarkable man. - Gail Cooke
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To those of us who feel climbing a waste of time
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