A cache of equipment belonging to researcher Bradford Washburn, including three of his cameras, was recovered from a Yukon glacier after 85 years.
Now conservation specialists will see if they can salvage any images from film still in two of them.
Though the film has nothing to reveal, the team that uncovered the cache say the find is helping give researchers a new, clearer picture of how glaciers have moved over the decades.
In 1937, Washburn, an American mountaineer who pioneered aerial photography, and Robert Bates left an estimated 450 kilograms of gear at their remote base camp on Walsh Glacier before setting out to climb nearby Mount Lucania.
Poor conditions meant two other climbers who were supposed to be coming along couldn’t start and Washburn and Bates had to travel as light as possible.
The couple successfully scaled the mountain – the second highest located entirely in Canada – but never returned to camp to collect their belongings.
It wasn’t until 2020 that professional big mountain skier Griffin Post read about Washburn’s lost cache and began planning a way to track it down.
“In the back of my mind it’s just stuck – well, what if it’s not at the bottom of a crevasse? What if it’s just there and nobody’s really taken the time to find it?” he said.
Post spent 18 months sifting through old base camp photos that had survived Washburn’s journey to try to match the mountains in the background with the modern topography.
Those GPS coordinates became the starting point of the search, but on a 50-kilometer-wide, moving glacier, that wouldn’t be enough.
To determine where the cache was now, 85 years later, the team brought in Dora Medrzycka, a PhD student in glaciology.
“Before we started, we only had access to satellite data … and for that, we have data that goes back at most to 2010 or 2000,” Medrzycka said.
“So we’re trying to estimate how far the glacier has moved in 85 years, but we only have data for part of it. That complicated everything.”
And the glacier itself didn’t make it easy for him.
Medrzycka said Walsh is a rare “surging glacier” that can regularly reach speeds of up to 10 to 100 meters per day, compared to a common glacier that moves at a relatively steady speed of less than a meter per day.
Only on day 6 of the team’s second trip to the glacier in August did Medrzycka break through. She noticed a long ribbon of debris that ran the entire length of the glacier with the exception of two gaps.
“I said to myself, each of those gaps is a wave, whatever’s in between is the time the glacier just flows normally,” she said.
With this additional data, Medrzycka was able to calculate a new search point about two kilometers from where they had concentrated.
There they discovered a gasoline can and a pair of goggles.
“That moment was like such disbelief. It’s funny, of course you’re intrigued and want to look at the objects, but my first reaction was to hug one of the crew members,” Post said.
Looking at old photos of Washburn’s trip, Post realized that they hadn’t found the central base camp, but a smaller advance camp that the men had used.
Seven kilometers from the first items, they discovered the remains of the larger cache containing tents, ice axes, skis and the cameras from 85 years ago.
“There was absolutely no thought. I think we just screamed and laughed and everyone was really excited,” said Medrzycka.
The team was not allowed to remove anything found on the glacier, but alerted Parks Canada, which sent workers there three weeks later.
When they arrived, 30 centimeters of snow had fallen, completely covering the find.
Parks Canada archaeologist Sharon Thomson said the staff dug and used warm water to loosen the artifacts.
An ice ax, ski bindings and clothing fragments were among the two dozen items retrieved from the cache, along with two film cameras and a sizeable chunk of an aerial camera.
Thomson said both film cameras still contain film and experts will see if they can figure out how to develop the images.
“Right now, all of the artifacts are with our conservation specialists in Ottawa and in Winnipeg, and we are pursuing the potential to restore imagery from this film,” she said.
“The conservators are turning to other experts in this field internationally, just to find out what’s possible and are looking for analytical methods that could provide some images on this film.”
Regardless of whether images are recovered or not, Medrzycka said the cache’s discovery gives scientists a more detailed understanding of how glaciers move.
“We were able to trace the path that the cache has traveled since the 1930s, and we were able to determine how much the glacier has moved in 85 years,” she said.
“And then when we combine that information with the satellite data, with the aerial photos that we have, including the Washburn photos, we can then try to figure out how the flow has changed.”
Post, who is making a film about the experience, said the realist in him recognizes that image recovery is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have hope.
“It was also unlikely to survive 85 years on a glacier and be recoverable. I think it would be very special to have this footage from 85 years ago, regardless of what’s on it.”
By Ashley Joannou