Tuesday 15 October 2019

Mountaineers turned cartographers

The Heart of the Grand Canyon Map, published in 1978 (National Geographic Maps)

When the sport of mountaineering arrived in the Alps in the mid-1800s, cartography was still essentially an undertaking that was reserved for the military. Once they had organised themselves into alpine clubs, practitioners of the sport came to the conclusion that existing maps were either not fit for purpose or they were simply not available to the public. A number of these alpine clubs thereupon assumed the mantle of cartographer – indeed, to this day, the Deutsche and Österreichische Alpenvereine still produce their own detailed maps of the Alps and regions beyond. Later, other individuals, acting alone or with others, would take it upon themselves to create their own maps, either to fill in the blanks, or simply to add to our knowledge of the mountains, so leaving their own idiosyncratic mark on the cartographic and mountaineering landscape.

Two individuals that very much fit into this mould are the American mountaineer, Bradford Washburn (1910-2007) and English fellwalker, Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991). In terms of personality, they were highly disparate and it is hardly likely they were even aware of each other’s existence. Washburn was a brash American who later became curator of the Boston Science Museum, whilst Wainwright was a social introvert whose day job was working as municipal treasurer for a sleepy town in the north of England. Yet both of them had an abiding love of the outdoors and contributed enormously to our love and appreciation of the hills.

Bradford Washburn

Bradford Washburn (1910-2007) came to prominence as a mountaineering talent during his time at Harvard University. His playground of choice was the remote mountain country of Alaska and the Yukon where he made several first ascents, often opening up supply routes in inaccessible areas by plane, a complete novelty in the 1930s.

His skills were soon recognised by the National Geographic which commissioned him, at the age of 25, to write an article for the magazine describing the first ascent of Mount Crillon (3847m) in Alaska. After this, he established a lifelong relationship with the magazine and also became an avid contributor to the American Alpine Journal.

In 1938 he was appointed director of the Boston Museum of Natural History (later the Boston Science Museum), where he worked until retirement in 1980. From here he was able to strike out on another career path as museum curator, but he combined this role with a long list of other activities, which included mountaineering, photography, and - not least - cartography.

Having given up serious mountaineering in the early 1950s, he applied his skills to survey work. With his unrivalled knowledge of Alaska he entered into a collaboration with the Swiss Eidgenössische Landestopographie (now Swisstopo) to produce the first detailed map of the Mount McKinley range (now Denali) in 1960. Incorporating many familiar Swiss cartographic features, it was the first time that the topographic service had ever printed a map outside Switzerland.

In 1970, Washburn teamed up again with the National Geographic for his Heart of the Grand Canyon Map project (see main image). Determined to create a unique two-dimensional representation of this natural wonder, Washburn, working with his wife Barbara, spent seven years working on the map. To gather the data, they hauled cumbersome equipment, such as theodolites and odometers, over hundreds of miles of trails. Many of the points they surveyed were so inaccessible that they had to be dropped in by helicopter. After the fieldwork came the job of committing the data to paper and to do this he once again called in the support of the Swiss topographic services.

In the early 1980s, Washburn coordinated an ambitious plan to map Everest. Multinational in nature, it involved the Boston Museum of Science, National Geographic, the Swiss topographic services and had the blessing of the Chinese and Nepalese governments who had hitherto blocked efforts to have the mountain surveyed. Using vast amounts of photogrammetric material that Wasburn himself had recorded, often in treacherous conditions, his aim was to produce a 1:50,000 map that was very much in keeping with Swiss topographic traditions. He clearly succeeded.

Alfred Wainwright

Description of Bowfell (2960 ft): from Alfred Wainwright’s ‘The Southern Fells’

The name of Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991) will forever be associated with the Lake District in the north-west of England. Ever since his 7-volume hand-drawn and hand-written Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells were published between 1952 and 1965, they have been inspiring ramblers with great enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Born into a working class family in the Lancashire mill town of Blackburn, he took up work as a clerk with his local council. He was 23 years old when, on a walking trip to Lake District, he became smitten with the fells. Later, as his accountancy career progressed he was appointed as borough treasurer in the town of Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District and much closer to his beloved hills. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Wainwright spent all his spare time exploring the Lake District alone, travelling by public transport.

An accomplished illustrator, Wainwright hatched a plan to produce a pictorial guide to the Fells, initially without any intention to publish. At weekends he would roam the hills with a camera and notebook, meticulously sketching scenes and noting every feature of the landscape. On long winter evenings he would pore over Ordnance Survey maps and commit ink to paper, by way of illustrations, diagrams, maps, route descriptions and accompanying text.

It was an exercise in methodical planning. He divided the Lakeland into 7 areas, which would then provide material for the 7 different volumes. He included 214 fells (now affectionately known as the Wainwrights), the highest being Scafell Pike (3210 feet/978m) and the lowest Castle Crag (985 feet/300m). For each of these hills, he produced pen-and-ink drawings showing the main features, maps, bird’s eye views, summit routes, 360-degree panorama plans and wheels.

At the time, they were the most informative and detailed guidebooks ever written about the Lakeland and they have more than stood the test of time. His works have become British icons. In the words of his biographer Hunter Davies, they are "not merely guidebooks, but philosophical strolls, personal outpourings of feelings and observations, written and drawn by a craftsman, conceived and created as a total work of art". Wainwright himself described the first in the series as "a love letter".

Wainwright was something of a recluse and he shunned the limelight. He preferred animals to people and liked solitude best of all. He would have been horrified by the present-day commercialisation of the hills, which ironically he helped bring about with the guides. A million copies of his guides were sold within his lifetime and he died a rich man, leaving all his money to an animal refuge. His ashes were scattered across his cherished fells. 

This article was written as part of the Mapping the Mountains exhibition, organised under the auspices of the Dutch Mountain Film Festival #9, which takes place in Heerlen (NL) from 31 October 2019 to
29 February 2020.
For more information: https://www.dmff.eu/en/events/mapping-the-mountains-exhibition/