NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
27 Oct 1998
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
Don Smith [DS] 00:20
Tell me how you¿d like to be identified.
Brad Washburn [BW] 00:29
Well I¿m Dr. Bradford Washburn, the honorary director of Boston¿s Museum of Science, of which I was director for 41 years without a promotion. And I¿ve been out now since 1980 and I¿ve done a lot of the most exciting things in my life during those 18 years. It¿s been very thrilling. A lot of it with the National Geographic.
Barbara Washburn [BBW] 1:13
I¿m Barbara Washburn and I¿ve been married to Brad for 57 years and I¿ve joined him on almost all of his expeditions.
Just talk briefly about map making at a very basic level. How do you go about making a map?
Well at least during my lifetime, there¿s been an enormous change in how you make a map. I mean in the old days, way back in the turn of the century, you worked with a plane table, you measured distances with a tape, you had instruments that measured angles without the precision of modern instruments. But then when we mapped the Grand Canyon for the Geographic in the 70s, this was the era when lasers came into the ballgame, and you didn¿t use tapes anymore. You had prisms on what spot and at the other end of the line you had a laser machine and it sent a beam and it bumped off the prisms and it came back to where it started. The machine automatically divides the result in two and gives you the distance down to a mm. There¿s no way you could have done work of that kind of accuracy before. 2:40 And now there¿s been another complete revolution. Now we¿re using global position satellites, GPS. So, in my lifetime there have been 2 major surveying revolutions. It¿s quite amazing today, we did work on Everest, I was in charge of the plans, a station on Mt. Everest now a few feet below the summit, the highest bedrock in the world. And we know the location of that spot now, on he surface of the earth, in a spherical cm.
How about airplanes?
Well, you can use airplanes if you have some ground control. You need some points on the ground and then you can take vertical photographs. Those points on the ground will give you a scale. But as far as details are concerned, stereo vertical aerial photographs are the way of getting great detail in maps on the ground.
And aerial photography was quite a revelation in, as you say, your lifetime.
yes, aerial photography blossomed largely because of warfare. Because in WWI they were beginning to take photographs straight down out of balloons, but they didn¿t really know how high they were or where they were, but they were good pictures. And then you begin to get pictures that are taken from aircraft. And when we mapped Mt. Everest, for example, for the NG, back in the early 1980s, we used a leer jet from 40,000 ft and got gorgeous stereo photographs from which that map in the NG was shown to 11 million people around the world. It was absolutely incredible.
Do we lose anything by using these modern technologies, for example aerial mapping?
The work that was done by ground expeditions gave those people a lot of fun as well as a lot of misery, and it¿s just a question whether you wish you were doing it the old fashioned way¿the mapping you did on the ground was not just positions and measurements, but then you had to draw and sketch things in between. So when you made the map you filled in the details by sketching and guessing. Now there¿s not guesswork at all. The great majority of this stuff is now done by machinery.
You once said that map makers need to steep themselves in a place, do you still think that?
It helps. I think if you are very familiar with a place, the details of the map should give you a feeling for what that place looks like. Many people have chatted with us about the Everest map. Incidentally, I directed the project, but the detail in that map and its exquisite appearance, were the result of the work we did with SwissAir photo surveys.
And there¿s more to map making than just accuracy.
Yeah, the Swiss are the best map makers in the world. You might say why? Many people say it¿s because they¿re watchmakers. They love attention to minute detail. And the details on these maps give you a feeling so that when you see the whole map¿(clears his throat and starts over)¿6:54¿The Swiss detail is really absolutely thrilling. People say about the Swiss that they¿re nitpickers, maybe yes. But if you have a lot of detail in a map of which the viewer is almost totally unaware, it makes the map look alive. It makes it look like Everest.
Aesthetics are important.
Yeah, the shaded relief was brought into map making by the Swiss. This is sort of turn of the century stuff. Where you had the ¿light¿ on the map coming from the northwest and you¿d have very gentle shadows on the eastern side of these things which make the mountain look like a mountain. Which is very amusing, because if you have the ¿light¿ on the map coming from the SE, it makes it look upside down, and why, nobody can figure out.
That¿s a funny trick of the eye. There¿s a problem, isn¿t there, trying to represent on larger scales basically a spherical object on a flat plane?
Well, this is true, of course, when you do this you¿re losing detail around the edges. But I think when you¿re looking at an area, the peripheral part of it helps you to understand what is in your area of focus. I think this is true if you¿re driving today. The fact that you have peripheral vision even though you¿re looking straight ahead helps you know where you are. And I think that¿s true about a map. As you¿re looking at great detail at a little bitty thing on a map, if you¿re aware of what¿s going on in your brain of what you¿re seeing, it helps make it a little more natural.
When you¿re trying to represent the globe, though, you¿re trying to put something that¿s a sphere on a flat plane. Talk about projections.
Oh, I can¿t talk to you about projections. This is a nightmare of all sorts ¿there is some distortion no matter how good a map is except when you¿re looking at the area right straight below you. But the minute you get away from that point at which you¿re looking at any given moment, the rest of the map does give you a little bit of a feel of where you are at that specific spot.
Let¿s talk just a moment about the Grand Canyon. What did that involve?
Well the way we did it, which was in the early 1970s, has one amusing statistic in it. 697 helicopter landings, over a period of 3 ½ years. Now today, this would have been vastly accelerated and simplified if we were using global satellites to position these points. But the minute you¿re using lasers to measure the distances between those pinnacles out in the canyon or measuring where the Phantom Ranch is looking down from the rim, you double the amount of work because GPS, you can stand on the spot¿and in 15 minutes it¿ll tell you where you are within 10 feet, and if you want to know exactly where you are you just run it for ½ hour and it shows you where you are with incredible accuracy. But, there¿s one big problem with GPS, as far as altitude is concerned because you¿re getting the distance down from satellites instead of up from the ocean. So these altitudes are wonderful as a comparison, each altitude with another, but the GPS does not give you sea level altitudes of anything.
Is that where the future of mapmaking is going? GPS and satellites?
Oh I think so. On the other hand who would have ever dreamed that that was going to take over for lasers. I mean if somebody had said to me in 1970 that we were going to be able to do this by satellite I¿d say you¿re absolutely crazy. And something is going to happen in the next 50 years that¿ll make this stuff absolutely ridiculous. Let¿s wonder what on earth that¿s going to be. (laughs)
It wasn¿t that long ago, in the span of your lifetime that flying hadn¿t been heard of too much. We take flying for granted now, but in the early days flying had its drawbacks didn¿t it?
I vividly recollect, and this is relevant to what¿s going on right now, John Glenn. At the time that John Glenn made his first trip in space, my father was dying of cancer, and we rigged his chair up to the TV, which in of itself was pretty new at that time, and he saw the whole performance on TV. And he turned to me at the end of that experience and said, `you know Brad, what an amazing thing science is. When I was a youngster (he was born in 1869) we had gas lights in our house, we had no TV, we had no radio, no automobiles, no airplanes, and none of these satellites, what on earth is going to happen in the next 100 years¿.
Well flying wasn¿t exactly safe when you began flying, was it?
Well I guess¿there¿s still a tiny element of risk in it. But everyone agrees that you¿re safer in an airplane than in an automobile now.
But it wasn¿t then when you started, did you ever have any close calls?
Way back in 1938, when I was flying an airplane something went wrong during a landing. We went down in the water and two of the passengers drowned and two of us got out alive, it¿s sort of a miracle.
Tell me about you and Amelia Earhart.
Back in 1936 the NG asked me if I would make the first photographs of Mt McKinley from the air. And during this July, working with PanAmerican airways, we had an electra twin-engined aircraft with which we made these flights. And up to that time only two flights had been made over the top of Everest and they were both stunts and they barely did it. These flights were absolutely routine¿and everything worked very smoothly. 15:32 Back as a youngster in 1927 I did a book called Among the Alps for Bradford by Putnams sons in a series of books by boys for boys. And George Putnam who then married Amelia Earhart in 1936, in January of 1937, he invited me to come down to his home in New York and I met her and we chatted for the whole weekend about the flight she was going to make around the whole world. And I remember George Putnam sitting in a chair, and I was on the floor with Amelia, and we were going map over map. And we got¿everything was going fine until we got to New Guinea¿
16:32 But I said `Amelia you¿ve absolutely got to have a radio when you get to this island, you¿re never in the world going to find that sliver¿it¿s all by itself¿.just a sliver out in the middle of nothing¿.all day long while you¿re making a flight just have a noise, on a specific frequency on that island, it could be `dah, dah, dah¿¿.
17:35 if you don¿t have that¿ everyone of those clouds below you will throw a shadow on the ocean and as you¿re nearing, you think you¿re nearing the end of the flight, you¿re going to be more interested in those shadows than you were 2 hours before that, and you may want to come down and make sure it¿s an island or a shadow. And if it isn¿t you have to fly back up again and you¿re drinking gas at an unbelievable rate. You¿ve got to use radio.
And did she take your advice?
She did not. She didn¿t take my advice at all. And people say, gee, you¿re lucky you hadn¿t gone with her. And I¿ve always said, if I¿d have gone with her we would have had radio and we would have been around today to argue about it. But anyway, she was an extraordinary girl¿and she did one thing that nobody did, she flew an electra without a co-pilot.
Let¿s talk about Everest. You must have an idea of what it¿s like to climb Everest.
No, I¿d have loved to try to climb it, but I was too young before WWII when you couldn¿t get into that part of the world anyway, and after WWII I was so involved in the museum that no matter how much money people offered me I couldn¿t have gone there at all.
Let¿s talk about Edmund Hillary. Appraise Hillary.
Well Ed Hillary just deserves unbelievable praise for what he did. He not only just climbed Everest, but Everest has been his life and Nepal has been his life. Ed, who Barbara and I know very well, is just a fine human being. Every buck he¿s raised by lecturing goes back into this Himalayan Foundation. He¿s revered in that part of Nepal because he¿s built schools for the Sherpa children and hospitals for the Sherpa people. All I can say is that here is someone who could have thrown his life away in publicity and he winds up being loved and respected by everybody everywhere, still.
Let¿s talk about your project, what do you hope to accomplish?
Well we made the map of Everest. Let me get back to a little philosophy. When you get to be retired and over 80, the thought of going down to Florida and playing shuffleboard didn¿t appeal to me. And I thought philosophically, what would I like to do today, with my experience in mapmaking, flying, and photography, if I were 35 and I had the marvelous equipment that people have got today. Well I said to myself, I¿d like to map Mt. Everest. 21:02 And I¿ve had just as much fun out of doing this thing with wonderful youngsters and brilliant people¿as I would if I had climbed the darn thing. It¿s very exciting to put together¿a battle plan for how you make a detailed determination for the rate at which Everest is still going up, using this GPS equipment. Because Everest is still going up, it¿s not like the Appalachians which are being warn off. India is being thrust underneath Asia, and as it¿s being shoved under Asia, it¿s pushing up the Himalaya, the mountain range. The exact opposite of the Alps. The Alps were formed in Africa and were shoved on top of Europe. Here you¿re being shoved underneath Asia. If you were to go 30 miles north of Everest, to the plateau of Tibet¿and you bored a hole straight down, 20 miles down, you¿d hit India¿it¿s still going up 3-4-5 mm a year, and geologically speaking, if you want to compare that to a track star, that¿s a 2 minute mile.
I¿d like to ask Barbara when you first started mountain climbing, it was at a time that women weren¿t really expected to do things that men did, is that correct?
Right. I call myself and accidental mountaineer because climbing mountains was not on my agenda. But when I married a climber, it was obvious that he wasn¿t going to stop climbing and I decided I better go with him. And that¿s how it happened. Fortunately I liked it, and I never was a problem on the trip, you know being the only girl you thought I must never complain or cause any trouble and so I never did complain, and fortunately I was able to keep up.
Do you feel that it was unfair that women were regarded as people who weren¿t supposed to do things that men did?
Not necessarily because that¿s just the way it was in the old days. I remember discussing this with a Harvard Law School Dean and I said `why can¿t I go to Harvard Law School?¿ and he said `don¿t be silly, you¿re going to get married and have babies and you¿re taking the place of a man.¿ But now, of course, women they¿re finding are very, very strong. People have asked me what I did to get into training and I said I wielded the baby carriage because nobody, women didn¿t do things like that, run or swim or anything.
Do you think it¿s better now?
I¿ve got an amusing question you ought to ask Barbara¿a few years ago a woman soloed Mt. McKinley, Barbara tell the story, this is a great little story.
A few years ago I got a telephone call while I was washing the breakfast dishes in my home in Boston, and he said `I¿m a newspaper reporter in Anchorage, Alaska, and a girl has just soloed Mt. McKinley and I want to know what you think about it?¿ Well I didn¿t have a moment to think so I said, `the poor thing, she missed all the fun!¿ And he said, `what do you mean by that?¿ And I said, `to me the fun was not putting one foot in front of the other and stamping up the hill, it was sitting around the stove at night and having interesting conversations.¿
Nevertheless that¿s something that people didn¿t expect women to do, to be the first at this or that.
That¿s right, and I didn¿t take it very seriously. But when we reached the summit, I was on the rope with two other fellows and one of the fellows said, `now Barbara you must step up first¿ because I was in the middle of the rope, and I said `don¿t be silly, we go up together¿ and he said `no, no, you don¿t realize, you¿re the first woman up here and this is a very momentous occasion¿. And I didn¿t realize that until the newspaper men began to ask me what it was like.
I¿ve got an amusing inter-relationship with Barbara¿s comment and that is, a year ago we were in Alaska and I was sort of basking in her shadow. It was the 50th anniversary of her descent of Mt. McKinley by a girl. And three days before that date, which was June 6th, 1997, the 10,000th person climbed Mt. McKinley.
I¿d like to ask a little bit more about the Grand Canyon. Could you tell us what the finished map looks like.
Well we tried to make it look as much like the Grand Canyon as we could. And this was brought about by shaded relief¿I¿ve never been in such rough country as were there¿
It¿s a big map, isn¿t it?
Well, the map is not the whole canyon, we called it the heart of the Grand Canyon which is the part of it that¿s most frequented by tourists, both the north and south rims. But the canyon itself is a very long business, going all the way down to Lake Meade. And we selected essentially the part between Yackie point on the east and Hermit canyon on the west and the north and south rims where so many hikers go every year.
And talk about what Barbara did.
We were side by side all the way in various different ways. She was almost invariably on the receiving end of the laser beam. She and Wendy Mason¿would go out on one of these pinnacles. We¿d have a little drill hole and a stainless steel pin to mark the spot and they¿d put directly over the spot¿a laser prism directly above that spot¿29:35 we had an interesting experience you¿d never dream of one day. Barbara was 5 or 6 miles away from me. The helicopter dumped me on a point where I was going to set the laser machine up and measure her and I noticed as we were landing that he was almost out of fuel. So I said, why don¿t you go back over to the rim, have lunch, gas up and come back and we¿ll be through measuring this distance. So I then measured the distance and waited for about an hour for the helicopter. There wasn¿t a breath of wind and there were no other airplanes anywhere near me and I lay down on a little sandy spot on the top of this place, and it was so quiet that I could hear my own heart beat. ¿thump¿. It was an amazing experience.
There aren¿t many places on the face of the earth like that, are there?
You can go to a¿chamber. MIT has one and there are a number in America¿and if you¿re in there all alone, you have the very thrilling experience of total silence.
Let me get back to flying for just a moment. In the early days when you were flying, you were going into uninhabited places and if the airplanes crashed you would be in a lot of trouble, and airplanes crashed a lot.
We made a number of flights for the Geographic in 1935 and we made the first flights around Mt. Logan, on the boundary between Canada and Alaska. And we had no radio, we were just in an airplane. And if we¿d cracked up there, the chances are 50/50 that they never would have found the airplane. We were there first to photograph it¿and then to make a map of the whole place. It was a rough map¿there were times when, I remember one time when we were flying over the Hubbard Glacier, 15000 ft, and all of a sudden the engine stopped, dead, total silence. Well the pilot aimed down a little bit and fiddled with a whole lot of stuff. We had plenty of gas in one wing tank but none in the other one. And it was in that moment where normally the gas begins to pull out of the other tank instead of the one that's all used up, but this time it was this way over a minute and we had to aim it down and we were all beginning where the hell we were going to land, but it finally picked up¿we never had a forced landing.
Were you ever invited to fly with Earhart?
No. But the length of that interview, it was perfectly clear to her that I didn¿t want to do what she wanted to do, so you can¿t even say that I was interviewed. I spent the weekend with her and we talked at great length about it and later I was told that they were considering me but she was very depressed about me as a navigator because I wanted her to do what she didn¿t want to do.
Down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, in order to measure the trails we had to roll a wheel, it was sort of like a bicycle wheel, and that was my job a good part of the time. And we were down by the bottom of Hermit Trail and I was very hot and very tired and I suddenly said to myself, anyone who does this for fun ought to have his head examined.
Let¿s look at the whole century. How the status of mapmaking at the beginning of the century and now, it¿s obviously changed a lot, how does it feel to have lived through these changes?
Well it¿s thrilling to be able to look back. The thing that I¿m interested in now is what on earth is going on 30 years from now when we look back at the crude way we¿re making maps that we think are so good¿
35:36 at the time Barbara had her 50th anniversary of climbing McKinley, we were in a little town in Alaska¿and they asked us if we would go to the school and tell the kids, questions¿and Barbara can tell the first question that was asked. This is very amusing and very cute.
A little boy in the fourth grade said, `Mrs. Washburn, this is a question for you¿¿. `I cannot understand how anyone can be married to the same person for 50 years¿. And there I was. I had to think of an answer quickly. So I said I thought the secret was that we had done so many things together because today the wife is with her career in one direction, the husband is in another, the kids are in day care, and they don¿t have an awful lot to talk about when they get home to dinner at night.¿