Barbara Washburn
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Barbara Washburn

Mountaineer, Explorer, and Grand Circle Foundation Honorary Director

Growing up in a religious household just outside of Boston, Barbara Washburn didn't dream of climbing mountains. She had never so much as gone camping when she took a job with a man she assumed was "crazy" in a museum she had always considered "stuffy." Yet in 1947, as the mother of three young children, she stood at the top of Mt. McKinley and felt as though she was "looking out the windows of heaven."

Barbara Washburn's status as a role model to women stemmed not from her grand plans or ambitions; in a way, it was born of her utter lack of them. "She's a strong woman who never felt the need to call herself a 'feminist,'" says Alan Lewis, Chairman of Grand Circle Foundation. "Sure, Brad was always the one dreaming of new adventures, but Barbara was the first one to jump in and go along."

From her career to her marriage to the summit of Mt. McKinley, Barbara seized every unexpected opportunity with a devil-may-care spirit that can only be described as adventurous—the combination of a true love of life and the curiosity to see where it'd take her.

"That crazy mountain climber"

"Brad didn't excite me at all," Barbara says matter-of-factly, looking back on her early career in the 1930s. She was enjoying her work as a secretary at a Harvard University biology lab when her mail carrier pressured her into interviewing with Mr. Washburn, who had just become the youngest director in the history of Boston's Museum of Science. "I didn't want to work in that stuffy museum for that crazy mountain climber," she says with a laugh. Yet Brad apparently saw something in Barbara immediately, and called her every day for two weeks until she relented and accepted the job, impressed by his persistence and convinced that if anyone could make that museum great, Brad would.

Their relationship was purely professional when Brad asked Barbara if she'd like to go flying; in those days, it was unheard of to even consider a personal relationship with one's boss. It was sheer curiosity that compelled her to accept, though she didn't let on to Brad that she'd never been in an airplane before and had no clue what to expect. This first fairly routine flight led to a second that was decidedly less so: She accompanied Brad in an open cockpit, dressed in a flight suit and goggles that made her feel "like Ann Lindberg." Even at the beginning of their lifetime of adventures together, Barbara approached these new experiences without fear—all the while going on plenty of dates and making the most of her youth.

She was dating a Navy man and on her way to see him when she attended one of Brad's lectures in Hartford, Connecticut. Embarrassed to be there, she attempted to sneak out the back door before Brad caught sight of her. But catch her he did, and he bounded down from the podium to inquire: "What the hell are you doing here?" They ended up platonically sharing upper and lower berths on the overnight train from Hartford to New York—and while she shyly rejected his first subtle advance ("I saw a hand come down the side of the wall … and I just shook it and said, 'good night'!"), he proposed to her not long after. "I said 'yes' without even thinking—and I never asked about climbing mountains!"

The "window of heaven"

The couple was newly married when Barbara overheard Brad on the phone planning an expedition. Naively, she had assumed her husband's exploring days were over, and that he'd busy himself with his work at the museum—but not only was Brad heading out to the mountains again, he expected Barbara to join him. "I thought it was exciting," she says. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me." Her primary objective during this first journey, an ascent of Alaska's Mt. Bertha, was "not to be a nuisance." As it happened, she was far from one—so much so that Brad knew she could handle Mt. McKinley when the opportunity presented itself in 1947.

Not that she had any intention of climbing McKinley. By that time, the Washburns had three young children, and Barbara didn't feel comfortable leaving them for so long. But an RKO film crew would be recording Brad's expedition, and they were intrigued by the idea of having a woman along. She asked her children's pediatrician whether he advised against it; he said it shouldn't be a problem. RKO was paying for a nurse, and she had a trusted reference from one of her friends. "Nobody said 'don't go,'" says Barbara. "Not even my mother!" And so she went.

During the first night on the mountain at 30 degrees below zero, Barbara honestly didn't know if she could stand it. But, in typical fashion, those doubts didn't last long. "I was always able to keep up," she says, with just the slightest hint of pride. "I never called for a rest." On average, her pack weighed 35 pounds—and she wasn't afraid to take on more, which caught up with her at 15,000 feet. Brad had gone ahead to establish the high camp, and Barbara stayed back with two other climbers awaiting his word to continue. They ended up spending several days waiting out a storm, and by the time it was safe for them to climb again, Brad radioed a request for more supplies. Specifically, Brad wanted sugar, which the two men deemed superfluous and therefore refused to carry—so Barbara, always the good wife, dutifully placed it in her own pack. Newly top-heavy, she lost her balance and slid down an embankment. "I just sat down in the snow and cried," Barbara laughs.

Undeterred by the minor setback, she proceeded to do what no woman ever had before. The men encouraged Barbara to take the lead when the team was about to reach the summit. After all, she was about to make history. "I thought, 'fiddle-dee-dee,'" says Barbara. "I couldn't care less, except that it was over! And I didn't think the world cared, that it'd be such a fuss." Years later, when asked about her emotional reaction, Barbara joked that she couldn't help thinking, "Accidents happen on the way down." But as she stood up there trying not to freeze to death, she thought to herself, "I'm never going to be here again, I know that!" So she made a point to look down at the view. "It was just the way they say," she says. "Like looking out the windows of heaven."

Barbara Washburn with Washburn award recipient Hugh ThurnauerThe foundation of a friendship

It wasn't until 1992 that the Washburns became acquainted with Alan and Harriet Lewis, who were considering sponsoring the climb of another celebrated explorer: Col. Norman Vaughan. "Vaughan was already in his 80s, and he was organizing a climb in Antarctica," says Alan. "I went to Alaska to meet with him, and that's when I met Brad and Barbara Washburn." Harriet soon met them back in Boston, at a party held at the Museum of Science in Vaughan's honor.

Though they were separated by generations, the two couples quickly realized they had much in common. "Brad and Barbara saw that we were adventurous, too," says Alan. "They liked that we were always doing unique and crazy things." As luck would have it, one of those "crazy things" was just ahead on the horizon: Alan invited his new friends to Antarctica.

And so it was that Barbara and Brad became honored guests aboard Grand Circle Travel's 35th anniversary President's Cruise. As the ship traveled through Antarctica's Drake Passage, Alan and Harriet practically had to beg Barbara to host a talk about her adventures, which they figured would resonate strongly with women travelers in such a rugged destination. Eventually, Barbara gave in—and when the event was announced, the ship's lounge overflowed with both men and women eager to hear her speak. "Barbara was shocked at the turnout," remembers Martha Prybylo, Grand Circle's Executive Vice President of People & Culture. "She never thought anyone wanted to hear her story."

Not surprisingly (to anyone but Barbara), she kept her listeners absolutely enthralled. (Mark Frevert, Grand Circle's Chief Architect, was in attendance that day … and he remembers that Brad may have been "just a little jealous.") Buoyed by the warm reception, Barbara went on to give many other talks—and in 2001, she wrote a book, which she appropriately entitled, The Accidental Adventurer. The autobiography was a resounding success with critics—many of who claimed that Barbara's life story was "long overdue."

Still a guiding light

Shortly after their trip to Antarctica, Alan and Harriet invited the Washburns to serve on the Foundation's Honorary Board of Directors—a position that the couple gladly accepted. In honor of their legendary passion for furthering our understanding of the natural world, Alan and Harriet created the Washburn Award, which is given to the Grand Circle or OAT traveler who shows the greatest commitment to giving back to an overseas community. (Recipient Hugh Thurnauer is pictured with Barbara in the photo above left.) Though Brad passed away in 2007, Barbara continues to serve on the board. "She's a great advisor and an inspiration," says Alan.

When we look to Barbara for inspiration, however, we look beyond her mountaineering achievements—impressive though they are. We look to her willingness to take risks and persevere in the face of difficulty … especially in unfamiliar situations. This is what sets Barbara apart as a true leader—and while she might call it "accidental," we just think she's a natural.