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  • by Tom Eastman

Surveying the Presidential Range

Some men are described as achievers; their days never long enough to complete all their work, their lives full of accomplishment and excellence. Such a man is H. Bradford Washburn, Jr., former director of the Boston Museum of Science and noted mountaineer-explorer-photographer-cartographer extraordinaire. At 70 years, he is physically fit and youthful looking, with a sharp wit and self-effacing sense of humor, which add color to his lectures on past adventures and projects.

Known throughout climbing and academic circles as the leading expert on Mt. McKinley and other Alaskan peaks, and more recently for his authoritative mapping of the Grand Canyon, Dr. Washburn and his wife Barbara have spent their weekends over the last two years in New Hampshire's White Mountains re-surveying the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington. Sponsored by the Boston Museum of Science and the Mt. Washington Observatory, the project, when completed in the next year or so, will result in a new, accurate large-scale map of the Northeast's highest peak. That new map will show the topography of the region in much greater detail, making it a useful tool for hikers and scientists alike.

Washburn's involvement with the project developed two-and-one-half years ago following a lecture he had given in Boston for the benefit of the Observatory on his Grand Canyon project, detailed in the July 1978 issue of National Geographic magazine. An avid supporter of the Observatory since its establishment in 1932, he talked afterwards with Observatory president Alan Smith about the possibility of a similar undertaking for the Presidential Range.

"I have been aware of the need for large scale maps of the trails there ever since I wrote a trail book as a teenager on the area, only to discover that no such maps existed," explained Washburn. "Later at Harvard studying geography for my post-graduate work, I became even more interested in trying to make an accurate large-scale map of the range. When Alan approached me about the idea of a large scale relief model of Mt. Washington to be used as the centerpiece of the museum's new home in the Sherman Adams building, I agreed that it was a good idea. To make a good model, however, you need to have an accurate large scale map to work with, and that's how the project got started."

Simply put, Washburn and the team of volunteers from various groups in the area such as the Observatory, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Auto Road and the Cog Railway have been taking the old data done up to 140 years ago, resurveying the range, and feeding the information back to the United States Geological Survey. The first step in the process begun two years ago was to devise a system of 22 peaks in the Presidentials to see as key points to measure the altitude and distances between the mountains. Next, aerial photographs were taken at heights of 14,000 and 10,500 feet directly over the summit of Mt. Washington and on other peaks, using an elaborate method to pinpoint each so that they would show up in the photos.

That system involved the use of large jib sails on wooden frames to act as markers for the summits. Volunteers from the Observatory and the AMC packed the triangular sails to each of the 22 peaks, with the framework set up so that the lower point precisely indicated the summit, marked by a small USGS brass plate which states the elevation, longitude, and latitude of the site. When photographed, the unfurled sails revealed an arrow pointing directly to the peak's summit. Normally, when using aerial photos the USGS takes them from heights of 20,000 feet or more, an altitude that Washburn believes is worthless when attempting to produce a large scale, detailed map. "At that height, you just can't get the kind of contour detail that we're after with this map. Consequently, our photos were taken at much lower elevations," Washburn explained.

Following the photography work, the next step to be taken was the time consuming task of making exact measurements between the network of 22 peaks, after which the elevation and distance between all other points on the aerial survey could be completed. Washburn intends to be finished with this stage of the map-making process by the end of this fall at the latest, and is currently working weekends with Barbara and sometimes other volunteers such as Alan Smith and Casey Hedgton on this phase. The measurement process involves drilling a hole three inches deep and one inch in the diameter in the bedrock at the summit of each mountain. A three-inch iron-threaded pipe is put into the hole, and is then coupled. When surveying that point, a second pipe is screwed on top of it to hold a prism. An electronic laser device is then utilized from the summit of another of the 22 to beam a ray of light to the prism, which reflects it back to the original point. The laser houses a mini-computer, which interprets the data into the desired distance measurements, calculating the length of the laser beam within 1/1000th of a foot.

Once the project is completed, the equipment will be removed and the holes will be filled in by small stainless steel bolts. Unlike the USGS system of using round brass plates, Washburn is using the less easily stolen and more vandalism-proof pins to ensure that they remain where he left them. He noted that vandalism is the major factor he has had to deal with, other than the often severe and always fluctuating weather common to Mt. Washington. "I must say that of all the areas in which I've surveyed, and I've been to many places in my life, the Presidentials have been the worst in terms of vandalism of the surveying controls," the recipient of numerous international awards for scientific achievement stated. "During the course of this project, it's been unbelievable trying to keep the targets in place. People steal, break, and throw them away, and we've had to rely on some great help from the AMC crews at Pinkham and Madison to protect them. It's been a frustrating problem hampering us throughout," he noted.

Surveying was often a problem whenever the skies clouded up, making sights invisible or difficult to read from other summits. The wind also can make the instruments difficult to use -- gusts at one point last fall reached speeds of up to 190 mph on top of Mt. Washington. Washburn related how the crisp skies of fall made viewing the sights exceptionally clear, but noted that the temperatures steadily became much colder, making the jotting down of figures a trying task. The snowless early winter of 1980, however, allowed Barbara and Brad to continue with their surveying efforts until snow finally shut the Auto Road down in mid-January, but not until after they had gotten stuck at the six-mile markers of the eight-mile-long road on January 5th. Washburn, who in 1935 led a National Geographic Society Yukon Expedition across the Canadian subarctic into Alaska in the dead of winter and who has made numerous other harsh winter expeditions in both Alaska and the Alps, said that he just pushed his luck too far. "Luckily, Guy Gosselin was driving behind us in the Observatory truck and he was able to bring us on up to the summit, where we were able to continue with our readings."

The Washburns resumed their work in the mountains when the Auto Road opened for Observatory use this spring. Once all of the measurements are completed in the fall, the next step in the map-making process calls for the data to be fed into a machine costing $150,000 that will draw in the contour lines depicting the topography of the mountains in the aerial photographs. As Washburn explained, "My work with the surveying is really like a man putting up the steel frame for a building. From that steel frame, the walls and exterior can be finished to make a whole structure."

The new map will use a scale of one foot to a mile (1:5,280), a figure which will allow for great documentation of details. It will be composed of six large sheets, with each sheet representing 80 square miles, and will depict the immediate area surrounding Mt. Washington. The map will replace the commonly used one pieced together by an old acquaintance of Washburn's, Lewis Cutter. Cutter some years ago realized the need for one map which showed all of the Mt. Washington region. He took the four maps then in existence of the Presidentials and put them together to form one, the map published for years in the AMC guidebook. It is Washburn and the Observatory's intention to produce a map that will far surpass the earlier one.

Originally, the expected expense for the project was in the vicinity of $50,000. Close to three years later, the cost is now estimated at $96,000 and perhaps more, according to Washburn. Despite that inflationary jump, he is proud of the project's large volunteer participation, which has allowed it to progress without even higher cost increases. Says the chairman of the board of the prestigious Boston Museum of Science, "No money has been generated for the project other than the modest amount granted out of my Museum of Science research " fund. What we have been able to accomplish is the result of the efforts of committed and helpful volunteers. To me, that's the exciting thing about an endeavor of this sort -- it's a people project, and that makes if fun as well."

Washburn's cartographic skills developed through his involvement with mountaineering and the need for accurate maps in that pursuit. He has had a lifelong love affair with the White Mountains, beginning with his youth when his family used to vacation at the now burned Glen House at the base of the Auto Road. He skied and hiked extensively in the area in the 1920's, enjoyed a close friendship with legendary mountain man and AMC leader Joe Dodge, and later built and owned a home in Jackson. Following the publication of his guidebook to the region's trails at the age of 16, he entered Harvard where his father was a professor in the theology department, majoring in his undergraduate years in French Literature and History. While in school, however, he also took classes in cartography, and helped finance his education by delivering lectures at other schools about his climbing and hiking expeditions to the Alaskan wilderness. As his interest in geography grew, he began making more trips to Alaska, a practice that he continues to this day.

During World War II, Washburn was decorated for his services in connection with the development and testing of cold-climate and high altitude equipment for the United States Army Air Forces. He continued to lead expeditions up Mt. McKinley during this period, furthering his knowledge of the continent's highest peak and writing of his experience in various magazines as well.

After the war, he returned to his civilian post as director of the Boston Museum of Science, a job he had assumed in an unusual manner at the ripe age of 29 in 1939 prior to the start of the world hostilities. As the story is told, the young climber, who had already established a worldwide reputation for his Alaskan expeditions, was en route to give a speech in Philadelphia and happened to sit down next to a man who identified himself as the chairman of the board of the Boston museum. By the end of the trip, the gentleman offered the directorship post to the young climber, but Washburn refused on the grounds that he knew nothing about running a museum. As the curtain opened for him to give his lecture at the academy, a janitor handed him a telegram from the chairman, reiterating the offer. Back in Boston, he accepted it and over the course of the next 41 years, transferred what was then a tired old institution into a modern, lively and informative organization which bridges the gap between science and fun, a philosophy which has guided his own life.

Now a 16-million-dollar plant on Boston's Esplanade in Cambridge visited by more than one million people last year, the museum under Washburn's direction has been acclaimed as the first in the world to unite natural history, physical, applied and medical science, and a planetarium into a single popular science center. The museum grew because of the director's insight, and also because of his ability to raise funds. According to his wife Barbara, the effort required a great deal of energy and perseverance, two qualities which Washburn has never lacked. "Brad would invite all these people to dinner and then would give his spiel about the museum after dinner. Usually, the people left as supporters of the institution's revitalization," she explained last week while waiting for her husband to deliver a lecture at the 47th annual meeting of the Mt. Washington Observatory Inc.

Aside from his mapping of Mt. McKinley, a project that took 15 years to complete, his biggest project was mapping the Grand Canyon from 1971-1977. As with the Mt. Washington project, Barbara accompanied and collaborated on the exhaustive undertaking with her husband, one which was completed only after long hours in the hot sun and over 700 helicopter landings in remote sites.

Recently retired as of May, Washburn says that he prefers to say that he's merely being "recycled", as his new contract calls for him to assume a different set of responsibilities now. The benefit of that new status, he says, is that he now has more time for research projects such as the Mt. Washington Presidential Range survey.

When that project is completed and the relief model is displayed in the new Observatory museum, it can be safely assumed that Dr. Washburn will be proud of the accomplishment, but don't count on his standing in one place admiring it for long. There are other mountains, lakes and canyons to map, and greater challenges to be encountered. As Barbara noted as the Observatory meeting came to a close at the Wildcat base lodge last Saturday, "In retirement, I think that we'll continue to be busy as ever. The one thing that we both would really like to do is see Mt. Everest, but just to look at it, not map it," she said, before adding, "But of course, with Brad, you never can know just what he'll try next."

NOTE: Bradford Washburn died Jan. 10, 2007, at age 96. His wife Barbara passed away Sept. 25, 2014, just shy of her 100th birthday.

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