07/31/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

The Fire of Adventure

Events of July 6 and 20, 2012

"They looked from the side of the plane to the water below
Fresh out of Spain with the wind at their backs at a blow
And I was along for the ride, up in the sun and I opened my eyes
And I felt it then, the fire of adventure, the dreamer again
To this I sing, and wait for the wind that lifted Tingmissartoq's shining wing."

-- Bill Staines, "Song for Tingmissartoq".

As people who've been reading this blog for a while will be well aware, I have an interest in many different people, places and concepts in history, some of them rather random and obscure. I love finding out more about topics that interest me, and the possibility of learning something new about a favorite topic is always exciting.

Of course, given that some of these topics are, well, obscure and random, often I'll hear people follow up one of my long monologues about these topics with "So how exactly did you get interested in 1960s superhero comics?" (or "Komodo dragons," or "Nikola Tesla," or "Sir Ernest Shackleton," or "atomic submarines," or whatever else the topic I'm raving about happens to be.)

The truth is, my obsessions often come completely out of the blue. I just see or hear something that some part of my brain thinks sounds interesting, and then I feel compelled to learn more about it. I learned who Carl Sagan was purely through hearing his name mentioned in passing in a lecture by another scientist. I read my first books about Harry Houdini because I wondered who that guy was whose name kept showing up in the card catalog at my elementary school library when I searched for Harry Potter. And, as I've written before, I'm an archaeology major now because I saw a fascinating painting in my science textbook in sixth grade.

I never go somewhere planning to make a discovery and come away with a new subject to investigate, but that's exactly what happened a few months ago.

After finishing my finals, I had one day in Boston before my mom would come up to campus to take me and my stuff (my stuff and I?) home. I decided to treat myself and visit the Museum of Science, where I hadn't been since the BU SEDS Yuri's Night celebration. Since it was a Friday, I knew that the museum would be open until 9 PM and that there would be free stargazing on the roof, so I figured I could spend the afternoon and evening there and then come home.

I've been lucky enough to visit the National Air and Space Museum twice after hours, and to sleep over at the American Museum of Natural History, and I have to say that there really is something special about museums at night. No, exhibits don't really come to life (at least, they haven't when I've been around... ) but when there's fewer guests around and things are quieter, you have more of an instinct to linger and take in details, to wander instead of rushing, to notice things you'd otherwise miss.

In the last half-hour or so before stargazing started, that was how the Museum of Science was, especially on the top floor of the main atrium space looking at the space station display. I headed down the softly-carpeted stairs to check out the large topographic globe in another part of the museum (I'm a sucker for geography), and found myself in front of a painting...

There are several paintings in the museum of people who donated money or collections, but this one wasn't a typical portrait. The man and woman in the painting were dressed in climbing gear and kneeling on a mountain summit, holding an American flag and the flag of the National Geographic Society.

Understandably, this was rather intriguing to me, and the immediate question in my mind was "Who are they?"

Fortunately, there was a plaque under the painting that I quickly read:

July 30, 1940
First ascent to the 10,000 foot summit
of Mount Bertha, Alaska Coast Range."

Cool! But why are they here in the museum?

"Founding Director of the Museum, Brad led this institution 1939-1980. Through passion and foresight, with Barbara's encouragement, he transformed a sleepy Natural History Museum on Berkeley Street into the [sic] full spectrum, state-of-the-art learning center at Science Park."

So... the couple who founded this museum were also super-awesome adventurers? Like the O'Connells from the animated Mummy series that I watched when I was little, only real? How did I not know this before?!?

As that initial surge of intrigue faded, I remembered that yes, I vaguely did remember having come across a photograph online of the people the National Geographic Society had given special awards to on their 100th anniversary in 1988 a few years before. I hadn't recognized every name listed in the captions, so I'd looked them up and I did remember that my quick searching had revealed that one of the older gentlemen in the picture had been the founder of the Museum of Science.

But if I'd found anything else out about this Bradford Washburn during that brief Google session I didn't remember it, which was a shame, because now I was curious. I felt that familiar itch to learn more because OMG there's something cool in history that I don't know anything about!

Of course, it was now time for the stargazing session to start, so research would have to wait. I hurried over to the parking garage and had a wonderful few hours alternatively looking at crescent Venus, talking with the observatory presenters as we waited for clouds to pass, and helping the presenters with the experience I'd gained from a year of helping the BU Astronomical Society show people the stars at our Public Observatory Nights. (Amusingly, there was some kind of event going on at the nearby Boston Garden that night, and the searchlights they had pointed at the sky could be seen on the low clouds overhead.)

The next day was spent packing up my dorm room and heading home to good old Southampton, but once I was safely settled at home, I was able to get down to some proper research.

I was able to find Mr. Washburn's obituary from the Boston Globe on their website, which gave me a good summary of his life and adventures. Essentially, he had the sort of biography that automatically makes anyone who reads it feel like an underachiever: climbed Mont Blanc by 16, wrote three books by 20, led an expedition to map thousands of miles of uncharted territory in Alaska at 25, took a position as a museum director that nobody else wanted and proceeded to turn that institution into a nationally-famous museum, happily married for 66 years, mapped the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest, took wilderness photographs that even Ansel Adams admired by hanging out the side of an airplane, and, somehow, despite all of those dangerous exploits, lived to be 96.

(Oh, and the ascent of Mount Bertha that painting showed? That was the couple's honeymoon.)

However, I quickly realized that there was a lot of information about Washburn's life that wasn't online, but in books and magazine articles that I had no access to. But I had a feeling I knew where I could find that information -- there had to be a library at National Geographic Headquarters, and if they'd sponsored some of Washburn's expeditions and given him the Centennial Award, they had to have some sort of information about his adventures.

So, as I wrote in my last post, I made an appointment to visit the Headquarters Library on the next available Friday -- the only day I had off from work that they were open. (The library is open from 1 to 5 on weekdays, but I work every weekday except Friday.)

The library was welcoming and comfortable, decorated with reproductions of N.C. Wyeth's paintings of pirates and well-stocked with armchairs -- the perfect sort of place to read adventure stories. The librarian on duty helpfully showed me how to use their catalog system and pulled up a bevy of books and magazine articles. The articles I could look up in the bound collected volumes that were in the reading room, while the librarian quickly fetched the books from the back rooms where they were kept. I spread them out on a table, sat down, and started to read, taking notes when I wanted to.

I stayed until the library closed, but I didn't have time to read all of the books, and the next Friday, the whole Headquarters building was closed, but two weeks later, I was able to come back and repeat the experience.

The New York Times was a bit premature when it announced, "the whole world has now been discovered," after Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911. Between that era of sextants and wooden dogsleds and our own world of GPS and Gore-Tex, there was an intermediate time that's easy to overlook, because it was also the era when the wholly new frontiers of the hydrosphere and atmosphere were being opened up. But in the 1930s and '40s, there were still places in North America where you could walk off the map, and find yourself very, very lost.

That was exactly what happened to Washburn and his climbing partner Robert Bates in 1937, when unseasonable warmth turned their attempt at making the first ascent of Canada's Mount Lucania into what one biographer aptly called "a death march". (Here is an NPR story in which Mr. Washburn and author David Roberts tell the story of that escape much better than I could. Suffice to say, their pilot had to leave them behind in the wilderness, and then things got much, much worse.)

I said that my search produced a lot of books and magazine articles, so many that they almost covered the table in front of me. But I don't have any trouble deciding which was my favorite -- Barbara Washburn's autobiography, The Accidental Adventurer. It's one thing to read about hardened explorers who eat nails for breakfast climbing Denali, but it's an entirely different experience reading about that same expedition in the very honest and funny voice of a former secretary with little mountaineering experience who nevertheless became the first woman to reach the summit.

Even though "No one offered young ladies instruction in putting on crampons or wielding ice axes" when she was growing up, Mrs. Washburn became an accomplished explorer and mountaineer in her own right, to the point where her husband admitted "I wouldn't last thirty minutes climbing solo." That 1947 expedition was captured in this classic newsreel -- despite airdrops of supplies by military planes, getting to the top was challenging indeed!

There really was something magical about sitting there in that leather armchair, reading these stories, and looking at the beautiful, artistic black-and-white photographs Mr. Washburn took of this terrain -- people, tents and support planes dwarfed before those massive peaks and glaciers. The photos really did create a sense of "being there" -- exploring along with these people, and sharing in their triumphs and hardships. It's really something to imagine, in this day of supersensitive cosmic ray spectrometers aboard the International Space Station, that the closest those scientists in 1947 could get their instruments to the radiation of outer space for longer than the span of a short balloon or sounding rocket flight was a temporary station high on Denali's hazardous slopes.

I'm sure Mr. Washburn knew that feeling very well -- having done his early mapping in Alaska in small, unpressurized bush planes, the maps of Mount Everest he produced in his 70s and 80s used lasers, GPS receivers, and infrared images taken from the Space Shuttle!

It makes sense to consider those who completed the final major geographical explorations of the planet Earth as a breed apart from those involved in the exploration of space, existing in a different world. "What would Captain Scott have done with GPS?" we joke. But the life of Bradford Washburn spanned both of these frontiers, a fact surely not lost on a man who spent forty years on a mission that made for less exciting biographical writing than mountaineering but was just as rewarding -- educating the people of his home city about the discoveries scientists have made, and the new scientific frontiers that still await future explorers.

"Each one of us," Mr. Washburn quoted Aristotle at the conclusion of his National Geographic article on the Everest mapping project, "adds a little to our understanding of Nature, and from all the facts assembled arises a certain grandeur."