Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book review: "The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer"

It's hard to believe all the things Bradford Washburn did in just one lifetime: He led ground-breaking mountain climbs, introducing new routes and techniques. He revolutionized aerial photography. He turned a stodgy science museum into a renowned institution. And, at age 88, when most men are retired or dead, he did research proving that Mt. Everest was even taller than thought.

In "The Last of His Kind," author David Roberts capably, though not perfectly, tells Washburn's story. He takes us to Alaska and the Yukon, where Washburn did most of his climbing and where he removed airplane doors so he could lean outside and get better pictures of the mountains. Washburn's climbs of Mt. Hayes and Lucania, and the traverse of the St. Elias range are particularly interesting reading.

At times, Robert veers off his main subject to give the reader some mountaineering history, which is not necessarily a bad thing. His telling of the K2 expediton of 1939 which did not involve Washburn is one of the best parts of the book.

There are plenty of good stories in "The Last of His Kind" but it sometimes hits disappointing dead spots. The first 70 pages other than an initial teaser is devoid of real adventure or drama, with Roberts rather blandly describing some of Washburn's early climbs. Too much space is spent on some prosaic elements of Washburn's life such as women he dated and not enough on his climbing adventures. The reader can afford to skip and skim.

Roberts also often gives away too much too soon for example, he says early in the book that, other than one incident, no one was ever killed or injured on any of Washburn's climbs. That's a suspense-killer.

Still, there are surprises. In a meeting with Amelia Earhart before her ill-fated flight, Washburn seemed to foresee the mistake that would doom her. Washburn's role during World War II in helping stem an alarming trend of frostbite among military pilots is interesting. And the story of fraud explorer Frederick Cook whom Washburn would spend years debunking is good, too.

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