Famed explorer Bradford Washburn left an equipment cache on a glacier 85 years ago. This pro skier found it. – Outside Online – Outside | Episode Movies


Professional big mountain skier Griffin Post has an affinity for outdoor adventure books from yesteryear. A few years ago, Post began reading about Bradford Washburn, one of the pioneers of American alpine climbing, who made more than a dozen first ascents in Alaska and Canada in the 1930s-1950s. Washburn later became a noted aerial photographer and cartographer, and he also founded the Boston Museum of Science. He died in 2007 at the age of 96.

“His seemed like a life well lived,” the 39-year-old Post said Outside. “A lot of these climbers can seem one-dimensional, and he was the multi-faceted guy. He seemed to have that constant curiosity and sense of exploration that lasted for years. He wanted to make the most of his life.”

A former US Freeski Champion and a regular on the Freeride World Tour, Post is now a regular in adventure ski videos and earlier this year he starred in HBO series edge of the earth Series produced by Teton Gravity Research. Two years ago he read David Robert’s 2007 survival story about Washburn entitled: Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survival. The book chronicles Washburn and Bob Bates’ ill-fated 1937 expedition to scale Canada’s 17,192-foot Mount Lucania, which at the time was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. The duo endured a number of setbacks along the way, and they had to leave most of their gear behind along the way. They eventually scaled the mountain and then scaled the nearby 16,644-foot Mount Steele before exiting the wilderness with almost no food or gear left.

Post was drawn to the book and he focused on a specific element of the story. Washburn and Bates left £1,000 worth of camera equipment, surveying gear and supplies on the Walsh Glacier at the foot of Mount Lucania, which was lost to history and never recovered. The equipment was probably still out there, buried in the ice, 85 years after it was left behind.

Griffin post. (Photo: Tyler Ravelle/Teton Gravity Research)

An eventful expedition

Washburn and Bates flew to the Saint Elias Range in June 1937 aboard a small airplane from Valdez, Alaska. The plane had already made three flights to and from their landing site on the glacier to deposit the hundreds of pounds of gear they would need to survive and to document the arduous climb. Their mission went awry from the start when their transport plane landed on the melting glacier in the middle of a rainstorm. Unusually high temperatures and unstable snowpack trapped the aircraft in slush. They dug for five days and finally freed the vehicle, but the plane could only take off with the pilot on board and a return mission was not possible (the ordeal was even filmed).

Descending west off the glacier seemed too dangerous, so Washburn and Bates made a difficult decision. Stashing essentials in their backpacks, they set off to scale the summit and then head east to safety via a series of peaks and passes. This decision resulted in them leaving the gear camp – containing most of their tents and survival gear – on the glacier.

When mail read from the abandoned corridor Escape from Lucania, his eyes widened. “There are those two lines in the book about how heartbroken Washburn was about leaving his Fairchild F-8 camera behind, and that just stuck in my mind,” says Post. “I just thought the stuff must still be there.”

Those two phrases piqued Post’s curiosity and led to hours of internet research, phone calls to climate scientists and historians across North America, and eventually my own expedition, supported by TGR for an upcoming documentary, whose name is still known.

An aerial view of Walsh Glacier. (Photo: Tyler Ravelle/Teton Gravity Research)

Follow in Washburn’s footsteps

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, Post pored over photos of the cache site that survived Washburn’s expedition to try to get a sense of the camp’s original location. The area is within Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve on traditional Kluane First Nation territory, just a few miles east of the Yukon Territory’s border with Alaska. He was assisted by archivists from Boston University and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, both of whom have photographs, hand-drawn maps, and journals from Washburn’s various expeditions, and agreed to share the documents with him. Post also spoke to University of Ottawa glaciologist Luke Copland to get a sense of how the moving ice might have affected the site.

“[Copland] sent me a map of where it might be — that became my treasure map,” says Post. “The map made it feel really real. I set it as my phone wallpaper so it’s a constant reminder.”

In early 2022, Post built a slide deck around the film idea and presented it to producers at TGR. Why not send yourself and other big mountain skiers to the area, start skiing some of the smaller peaks near Mount Lucania, and then spend time finding the leftover gear?

Griffin Post compares photos of Bradford Washburn to topography in the Saint Elias Range. (Photo: Tyler Ravelle/Teton Gravity Research)

TGR had already finalized its concept for an annual ski and snowboard film, but the company was considering ideas for a documentary-style film to pursue. Post’s Pitch had several components to a successful adventure film, and none were more important than the legend of Washburn and an opportunity to dig up relics from the past.

“Griffin was so excited about it – it was almost like Washburn was calling out to him,” says Drew Holt, executive producer at TGR. “We were happy about that too. To be honest, no one thought they would find it.”

In late April, Post led a three-week expedition to the glacier with pro snowboarders Jeremy Jones and Robin Van Gyn. The group encountered heavy snowfall and spent 11 days hiking and climbing peaks in the area. Post knew the deep snow would reduce their chances of finding the gear. Still, towards the end of the trip, the group walked more than 70 miles to and from the spot on Post’s map to see if they could dig up the equipment. After more than a day of searching, the group gave up.

“Although the skiing was good, the goal was to find the cache and I was pretty heartbroken,” says Post. “There was a moment when everyone started going back and it was just me and Robin and finally she told me it was time to go. She gave me a big hug. I knew it was a long road to find at this time of year.”

The crew rode new lines but ultimately returned home without the cache. (Photo: Leslie Hittmeier/Teton Gravity Research)

A return trip

Post returned to Jackson, Wyoming, but he didn’t give up on the idea of ​​locating the equipment. He worked with Copeland to construct another model that suggested a new location for the cache. TGR agreed to fund another trip to the site in late August, but this time it was a smaller affair. Jones and Van Gyn stayed home, and instead, Post flew back with a small film crew and one of Copeland’s graduate students named Dorata “Dora’ Medrzycka.” “This time it was all about searching,” says Post. “We didn’t even bring skis.”

In August the snow depth was much lower and the glacier was pockmarked by crevasses. The crew spent six days searching a vast area, but again found no trace of the cache. Medrzycka had just one day to go before the air transport departed with a plan. From her own calculations of the glacier’s speed, she believed the location was between three and four miles down the valley. The next morning, Post and two others went to the site she had designated and began digging. After an hour, a crew member discovered a crushed metal gasoline can. Then someone found a pair of glasses – unmistakable relics from a bygone era of adventure.

The tents and equipment were difficult to spot from the air. (Photo: Leslie Hittmeier/Teton Gravity Research)

“I gave the cameraman a big hug – I was on the verge of tears,” says Post.

The glacier had pushed the cache much farther than scientists had predicted — it was about 14 miles from where Washburn and Bates had left it. The gear they found was actually part of a smaller gear dump for Washburn and Bates. Post and his crew radioed a helicopter and after circumnavigating the area, they found the main collection of equipment.

“It was half buried and if you didn’t know what you were looking for you would have missed it because it blends into the landscape,” says Post. “But if you really looked, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a ski pole, that’s an ice ax.’ It was all there.”

The crew mapped and logged some items and then departed for home. A month later, Post returned, this time with officials from the Canadian National Parks Service and a team of archaeologists. Digging through the ice, they found three cameras — including Washburn’s beloved Fairchild F-8 — as well as film crates, hiking poles, tents, and other survival gear. Crews retrieved the cameras and film back to an Ottawa lab, where developers hope to salvage any images Washburn may have taken prior to departure. Other equipment was collected and cleaned.

The team located Washburn’s Fairchild F-8 camera. (Photo: Leslie Hittmeier/Teton Gravity Research)

According to the Post, the expedition was successful on several fronts. The cache’s discovery showed researchers how far the glacier had moved in 85 years and could help future glacier models predict movement, since much of the current science surrounding prediction is based on GPS data from the last few decades. The recovered items will likely end up in museums in Boston and Canada to commemorate the expedition. And the upcoming film could help future generations learn more about Bradford Washburn and his influence on modern adventure culture.

Post also followed his desire to locate lost and untraceable items.

“With all these ups and downs and doubts, there seemed to be so many reasons this stuff wouldn’t be there,” he says. “The feeling of validation was indescribable.”

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