Upper Valley Residents Remember Barbara Washburn

Recently, Barbara Washburn passed away at the age of 99. She was the first woman to set foot on the summit of Denali, but her legacy in the Talkeetna area has as much to do with who she was as what she did.

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Barbara and Brad Washburn’s adventure together began in New England.  Ken Pauley, who worked with the Washburns at the Museum of Science in Boston, explains how they met.

Barbara Washburn/ (Photo: Museum of Science, Boston)
Barbara Washburn/ (Photo: Museum of Science, Boston)

“She was his secretary.  Needless to say, over time, there was a relationship developed.  They spent a lot of time together, and became husband and wife…”

After Brad and Barbara were married in 1940, Ken Pauley says it was not common to see them apart.

“They were inseparable. Whither he or she went, they went together.”

That led to shared adventures around the world, from the Grand Canyon to Mt. Everest.  One such adventure occurred in 1947, when the Washburns were part of an expedition on Denali.  RKO films documented the expedition in the short, “Operation: White Tower.”

Not only had no women summited North America’s highest peak as of 1947, but Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson says that Barbara Washburn may have been the first to even try.

“Essentially, she was the only woman along, and one of the first women, probably ever, to venture into the Alaska Range on a climbing trip.”

The expedition was a success, and Barbara Washburn was the first woman to set foot on Denali’s summit.  Mountain guide Brian Okonek says that her fortitude went even further, however.

“She must have been tough as nails on the trail, because she not only did Denali…but she did both summits, and did the first summit of Mt. Hayes…”

Being the first woman to summit Denali cemented Barbara Washburn’s place in mountaineering history.    The fame that earns someone in a place like Talkeetna is self-evident, but Diane Calamar-Okonek says that didn’t translate back on the East Coast.

“They enjoyed their notoriety here, which Barbara said they didn’t have at all at home.  They were just regular people, and her friends didn’t particularly know that she had been a climber or done all of these amazing things in Alaska.  They had no clue.”

A big part of the reason that Barbara Washburn’s fame was somewhat subdued outside of the mountaineering community is that she didn’t talk about it much, as former Denali National Park Ranger Daryl Miller explains.

“She was so understudied.  She was always so gracious, and accomplished so much, but never really said much about anything she did as a climber.  If she did, or was asked about it, she would always downplay it.”

More important than fame to Barbara Washburn were individual relationships. Diane Calamar-Okonek says that people were a big part of what drew Barbara to climbing.

“One thing she really enjoyed was the camaraderie of climbing.  When we had a woman here who soloed Denali, her first reaction was, ‘Oh, what’s wrong?  Doesn’t she have any friends?’”

That sense of friendship and camaraderie extended well after Barbara Washburn’s relatively brief climbing career. Roger Robinson says that the Washburns made a priority of befriending many people in the Talkeetna area.

“The people that lived here were like family to her.  When she would come, they were always keen on looking up a lot of people and making connections.”

That sense of family holds especially true for Taras Genet.  Taras is the son of Ray Genet, an accomplished climber who died while descending Mt. Everest in 1979. Taras says his relationship with the Washburns was very close.

“My dad had passed away when I was only a year-and-a-half old, and they were kind of surrogate grandparents in some sort of way, because they gave my mom a lot of support, and they always connected with us when they did come up…”

In addition to helping his family after the loss of Ray, Taras Genet says the Washburns served as an inspiration.

“They were just so full of energy.  The things they were doing, most people just don’t have that kind of energy, especially in their older age.  They just never slowed down.”

Taras would go on to summit Denali at the age of twelve, making him, at that point, the youngest person to do so.

Brian Okonek also says that the Washburns’ sense of adventure never seemed to fade, and that, during conversations, they were, “always watching over their shoulder at the weather, because they never, ever skipped an opportunity to go on yet another flight around the mountain.”

Barbara Washburn passed away on September 25th in Lexington, Massachusetts.  November 10th would have marked her 100th birthday.  Here, in the shadow of Denali, she won’t be soon forgotten.