The First Woman To Climb Denali, Barbara Washburn, Rightfully Became A Mountaineering Legend
America's tallest mountain has been known as Mount McKinley for almost 100 years. But on Monday, President Obama officially restored its native Alaskan name, Denali. Alaska made the name change in 1975, and has been asking the federal government to do the same ever since. Now, the state has finally got its wish. The summit of Denali (whose name means "the high one") is 20,237 feet above sea level. Climbing it is no easy feat — the National Park Service says that it's a "very serious undertaking." The average trip to and from the summit today takes between 17 and 21 days. In 1947, Barbara Washburn became the first woman to summit Denali, becoming an American mountaineering legend.
Washburn went on her first mountaineering expedition a month after marrying her husband, Bradford Washburn, in the early 1940s. She was the only female member of the eight-person team that climbed the 10,182-foot tall Mount Bertha in Alaska, and spent a month moving supplies and camps closer and closer to Bertha's summit. After her first climb, she went to the doctor because she was having a painful recovery, only to find out that she was actually pregnant.
Washburn was an anomaly in the 1940s, chasing adventure with men and wearing men's clothes (since climbing gear for women didn't even exist). She continued climbing taller and riskier mountains with her husband, even after the couple had three children.
The Washburns climbed Denali — known as Mount McKinley then — with a small group to film a documentary on mountain climbing for RKO Radio Pictures. Well-known mountaineers in the early 20th century were all men, and RKO was intrigued by the prospect of showcasing a female climber. She didn't want to participate at first, as she was worried about leaving her kids at home for three months, but she eventually conceded when RKO offered to pay for a nurse to watch them.
The 70-day climb was extremely challenging. According to The Boston Globe, Washburn got intense headaches from altitude sickness during the climb, had a fire erupt in her tent, and was trapped in a blizzard for nine days. In her 2001 memoir, The Accidental Adventurer, Washburn wrote: "In an attempt to bolster my morale, I spent time picturing the children playing in their swimsuits in our yard back home."
Washburn didn't climb Denali for the recognition, but because she enjoyed doing it with her husband. She wrote in her memoir:
Reporters expected me to come up with some deep psychological reason why I needed to be the first woman on the summit of Mount McKinley — why I felt I needed to excel like this. They were always disappointed when I said I simply wanted to be with my husband. I explained that when I was first asked to join the expedition, I didn’t want to go because I had three small children.
Today I’m smart enough to know I was doing something special. But at the time, my Aunt Cora said to me, "Barbara, you’re never going to get swell-headed." I guess I was just brought up in a family where you didn’t brag. I had no notion of being a role model for anyone, but I guess that’s the way it turned out.
The Washburns went on numerous mapping expeditions, creating topographical maps of natural landmarks like the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest. She was also a teacher, working as a reading specialist in Cambridge during the winters and pushing for special programs for students with learning disabilities. Washburn died in 2014, at the age of 99.
Image: Christoph Straessler/Flickr (1)