Review: Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum

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Only one of its kind

Colorado is a state with a long and rich tradition of outdoor sports. Skiing, mountain climbing, rock climbing, spelunking, snowshoeing, hunting, fishing,… The list is endless. So is it any surprise that the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, the only museum in North America dedicated exclusively to mountaineering, is in the small, foothills city of Golden, Colorado? Open since February, 2008 and housed in the former, 1920s-era Golden High School building, it is a joint effort of the the American Alpine Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, and the National Geographic Society. As a result of his influence on mountaineering through photography, exploration, and cartography, the museum bears Bradford Washburn’s name.

Mountain rescue

As you enter the main exhibit hall, you will notice the emphasis on the story of mountain rescue. Beginning in the first half of the last century with mostly informal groups of concerned mountaineering experts, mountain rescue has evolved into several specialized disciplines practiced by organized teams of trained specialists. Today in Colorado, there are more than 40 search and rescue teams that perform nearly 1800 rescues a year.
Accompanying this display is an interesting exhibit on the evolution of mountaineering rope, and a hanging display of the changes made in rescue litters. You know those cot-like objects that you see dangling underneath helicopters engaged in rescuing injured people.

Mountain climbing safety

Walk down the stairs and step across a crevasse, one of the constant dangers of high-altitude mountaineering. It is covered with transparent, strong glass of some sort, so you will be safe. But, I admit that it gave me an eerie feeling to step across it. This is a typical and frequent danger that anyone who is crossing alpine terrain must remain cognizant of. More than one mountaineer has failed to return home as a result of slipping into one of these lethal ice cracks.

Other informative and distinctive exhibits clearly explain the many other dangers mountaineers face. Some such as lightning and avalanches are obvious, others such as temperature and altitude are subtle. Temperature, for example, decreases roughly 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet ascended. So the temperature at the top of a Colorado fourteener is potentially much colder than in Denver. High altitude pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid in the brain), caused by climbing too fast, can be treated by descending quickly. These are just a few of the dangers that I learned about during my visit. (Hey isn’t that one of the reasons to visit museums?)

International focus

More than 1,000 climbers have conquered all of Colorado’s fourteeners. Considering that the U.S is a nation of 300 million people, that is an elite “club” when you think about it. The museum, however, covers more than Colorado mountaineering. It is international in its focus.

In the middle of the main hall is a detailed relief map of Mount Everest. Based on maps by Bradford Washburn, a Seattle firm took nearly a year to create the relief. It is a detailed depiction of Mt. Everest above 18,000 feet.

Exhibitions about other parts of the world are included in the museum. They include the Andes, Japan, and Tibet among others.

There is much to see and learn here: specific mountains and their unique challenges, equipment and its uses and development, people and their contributions to the sport. I have only detailed part of what you will see.

So I recommend at least two hours for your visit. The displays are rich in graphics and information. And the museum experience is like reading a book about mountaineering while having a visual display to learn from. That is something no book can do.

About Bloice Davison

Bloice C. Davison, III blogs, travels occasionally, and takes pictures. He has experience in the telecommunications, banking, retailing and outside sales businesses. He is a former fly-fishing guide and fly-fishing instructor for the Orvis Company. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Specialist in the United States Air Force. A 1988 graduate of Virginia Tech, he also has a BS in statistics from the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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