(Last Updated On: August 21, 2012)
Title: The Accidental Adventurer
Author: Barbara Washburn
Accidental Adventurer is the autobiography of Barbara Washburn. The book chronicles Washburn’s life from her chilhood and beyond, starting from her school-aged days in Massachusetts in which she describes herself as more or less a tomboy and a child with an avid sense of adventure. Washburn also details her college days, her study-abroad in Europe, her first experiences with pre-WWII Nazis, and her decision to join the work force instead of just seek a marriage.
Washburn also tells the story of her courtship, or lack-there-of, with Bradford Washburn, her future husband and soon to be one of most well-known figures in American Mountaineering. Barbara interviewed for a secretarial position for Bradford Washburn, who was the director of the New England Museum of Natural History. She didn’t want the job, actually. But Bradford kept calling her every couple of weeks until Barbara finally accepted. Their relationship remained very business-like and professional for some time until Bradford simply asked her to marry him – right out of the blue.
Shortly after they were married, Bradford began planning for a climbing expedition in Alaska. It became evident that Barbara was not only invited, but was expected to come along with him. That’s how Barbara found herself on top of a 10,182-foot Mount Bertha as part of a first ascent team in 1940, with no prior alpine experience.
And Barbara’s adventures with Bradford continue. She continues returning to Alaska with her husband, completing a first ascent of Mount Hayes. Several chapters are dedicated to their post-WWII climb of Mount McKinley, in which Barbara became the first woman to summit the highest peak in North America. They mixed their mountaineering adventures with the adventures of raising three young children, which was largely unheard of in an era where the woman was expected to stay home and care for the children. Bradford must be commended for not forcing his wife into stereotypical conventions.
Eventually, the Washburn couple’s adventures shifted from pure climbing expeditions to surveying for maps. They began by surveying Mount McKinley and Alaska’s Squam Range. They then spent several years clambering around and surveying the Grand Canyon and another several year project surveying Mount Everest.
Throughout Accidental Adventurer, it is very clear that Barbara feels like she stumbles upon her adventures and her success. Barbara didn’t stop to contemplate that she was the first woman on top of McKinley. She knew it, but didn’t ponder it. She was simply trying to keep up with her husband. Barbara was an accidental adventurer, because her husband believed in her, and she believed in herself. She seems to attribute a lot of her successes to good luck. However, I think she had enormous perseverance and determination. Barbara unknowingly paved the way for female mountaineers and showed that it was indeed okay for women to partake in mountain adventures.
Though the book is written in a fairly dry manner, it is important to see through it. Barbara Washburn simply was writing from a humble standpoint. She didn’t want to glamorize her accomplishments. That is left for the reader to embellish.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in historical mountaineering as well as pioneering and adventure stories. The book is a quick read, and honors a lifetime of adventure!