Refuge Notebook: Bradford Washburn – an early explorer’s use of aerial photography over a century of exploration and science

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is doing on the history of remote sensing and aerial photography for Refuge Notebook.

Bradford Washburn’s historic mountaineering and mapping expeditions in far northern Alaska and the Yukon are legendary. He helped point the way to future scientists who use remote sensing and digital mapping in their work today, as we do here at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Bradford Washburn was an American explorer, mountaineer, aerial photographer, and cartographer who climbed, photographed (aerial photography), and mapped mountain ranges in Alaska, Canada, and the Himalayas. He has climbed Denali three times and pioneered the first ascent of the West Buttress climbing route, a favorite with climbers today.

Barbara Washburn, his wife, accompanied him on many of these expeditions and was the first woman to summit Denali. He was the first to take aerial photographs of Denali and several other mountain peaks and glaciers across Alaska and the Yukon.

Washburn also recalculated the heights of Denali and Mount Everest and created detailed topographic maps of both mountains. His surveys of the Grand Canyon produced one of the first large-scale maps of the interior of this magnificent canyon.

Most of his expeditions have been supported by National Geographic and the Museum of Science in Boston, where he served as museum director for 41 years.

In 1935, Washburn led the National Geographic Yukon Expedition, the first successful crossing of the St. Elias Range from the Yukon Territory to Alaska.

The expedition aimed to map this mountain range and its glaciers using aerial photography and surveying methods that required reaching multiple peaks throughout the range. The three-month trip took place in late winter, and the Washburn team spent most of that time on the ice.

On this expedition, Washburn experimented with the use of aircraft and aerial photography for route reconnaissance which his team used to map the mountain range. He made special modifications to the plane by removing the cabin door and installing a rope system to tie himself down so he could lean over the side of the plane with his K-8 Fairchild camera and snap photos of the mountains below.

Dressed in heavy winter clothing, he braved freezing temperatures at altitudes between 12,000 and 18,000 feet for hours while performing these aerial photography flights.

After successfully traversing, mapping, and naming several mountain peaks and glaciers on the 1935 Yukon Expedition, Washburn returned to the St. Elias Mountains in 1937 on another expedition. It became one of Washburn’s most difficult adventures due to the dangerous survival situation he and Robert Bates found themselves in during the trip.

On this expedition, Bob Reeve, a famous Alaskan Bush pilot, flew a Fairchild 51 fitted with skis so he could drop Washburn and Bates onto the Walsh Glacier in the St. Elias Mountains. After a 3 hour flight from Valdez, Reeve successfully landed on the glacier.

However, before they could unload all of the mountaineer’s supplies, the plane sank on its belly in glacial slush due to unusually warm temperatures. They frantically tried to extricate the plane, but all three were stranded on the glacier for five days.

After conditions improved, Reeve was able to get the plane off the glacier after reducing enough weight, but that meant leaving Washburn and Bates behind. They found themselves stranded in one of the most remote mountain wilderness areas in North America, with no one to rescue them and running out of food and supplies.

Washburn and Bates traversed nearly 100 miles of rugged, uncharted terrain living on squirrels and rabbits to return to civilization. Despite their survival situation, they were still determined to make the first ascent of Mount Lucania on their trek, and were the first mountaineers to ascend Mount Lucania’s 17,192 feet.

In 1936 and 1937 Washburn took the first large format aerial photographs of Mount McKinley. At high altitude and in icy conditions, Washburn and his flight crew used oxygen above 15,000 feet to capture photos of this lofty peak.

This journey led to future expeditions in the 1940s and 1950s that involved unprecedented achievements in aerial photography, mountaineering, and mapping of North America’s highest peak. In his work, Washburn reached the top of the mountain three times in 1942, 1947 and 1951.

In 1953, after several years of surveying Denali, Washburn estimated a new height for Denali at 20,320 feet. The current height of 20,310 feet was established in 2015 using the latest GPS survey methods.

Then, in 1960, Washburn produced, for the first time, a detailed topographic map of the mountain known as the “Mount McKinley Map”. Many mapmakers consider it a masterpiece, and mountaineers and scientists still use it today and will continue to do so for years to come.

In the 1970s, Washburn and his wife undertook another large-scale mapping project. They spent the next seven years surveying and mapping the Grand Canyon. Before beginning this surveying work, he commissioned two sets of 26,000 foot and 16,000 foot aerial photographs that covered the entire canyon to get an aerial view of the project.

The Washburns spent the next few years surveying the canyon using the latest laser surveying technology and helicopters to access the more remote parts of the canyon. In 1978, National Geographic released the 1:24,000 scale topographic map, and to this day it is still considered a work of cartographic art among cartographers.

Washburn never stopped exploring, photographing and mapping the wild landscapes he loved. In his 70s he undertook one of his last aerial photography and mapping projects which required all the skill, leadership and ingenuity he had acquired over years of directing and organizing remote scientific expeditions.

By the time of this trip in 1980, aerial photography and surveying technology had advanced considerably from Washburn’s earliest excursions. This time around, he wanted to capitalize on new technologies to map the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.

After much negotiation and planning, he received permission from the governments of Nepal and China to conduct several photo mapping flights over the mountain. These high-altitude flights took vertical mapping photos at an altitude of 39,000 feet.

He planned to use aerial photos from those flights and infrared images from the Space Shuttle Columbia (taken 156 miles above earth) to create a detailed topographic map of Everest. After years of work and with the help of a team of international scientists, the National Geographic Society has released one of the finest topographic maps of Washburn.

Using the latest GPS technology at the time, he and his team recalculated a new height for Mount Everest at 29,035 feet.

Washburn’s career spanned nearly a century, and he received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his scientific achievements in Alaska and around the world. You can learn more about Bradford Washburn and his extraordinary expeditions through his National Geographic articles, reviews and autobiography, “Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life.”

With early aerial photography and mapping work from explorers and scientists like Bradford Washburn, we continue to use aerial photography and other remote sensing techniques to understand changing environmental conditions in places like Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

In part three of this series, I will write a brief history of how aerial photography and cartography experienced tremendous technological advancements after World War II, and the use of aerial photography and cartography in natural resource management in Alaska.

David Merz is a Seasonal Biological Science Technician at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge who is part of a team using aerial photography and remote sensing to understand changing environmental conditions on the Kenai NWR and throughout Alaska.

Bradford Washburn maps produced by National Geographic. (Photo by David Merz)

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