Explorers Bradford Washburn and Robert Bates traveled to the remote Yukon wilderness to climb Mount Lucania in 1937, but the month of inclement weather that preceded their trip left Walsh Glacier, the starting point of their expedition, with “unfathomable” Mud and “cut to pieces by dozens of new crevasses,” Washburn wrote in The Alpine Journal.
Poor conditions made it impossible to get a flight off the glacier after their ascent, so the men hiked more than 100 miles to safety, dumping supplies that would have been too heavy to carry.
Embedded in the cache they left behind were cameras that Washburn, a renowned photographer, wanted to retrieve a year later but never did.
Instead, an expedition team of seven recovered the cameras in August, 85 years later and more than 12 miles from where they were left. The research team announced their discovery on Thursday.
The explorers found part of one of Washburn’s air lock cameras, a Fairchild F-8. They also procured two film cameras with film loaded, a DeVry “Lunchbox” camera model and a Bell & Howell Eyemo 71, as well as mountaineering gear.
Parks Canada conservators, who oversee national parks in Canada, treat the cameras to see if images can be recovered.
The idea to recover the cameras came from Griffin Post, a professional skier, who learned about the cache while reading a 2002 book about the explorers’ harrowing journey, Escape from Lucania by David Roberts.
He read Washburn’s journals, enlisted the help of scientists, and this year led two expeditions to the glacier in Kluane National Park and Reserve in Canada’s northwest corner in search of the cameras.
“You do all this research, you have all this science-based reasoning, and you think it’s absolutely possible: we’re going to go in there and look in that particular area, and it’s going to be there,” the Post said Saturday. “And then when you first see the valley of the Walsh Glacier and how massive it is and how many crevasses there are, how rugged the terrain is, your heart kind of sinks and you’re like, no way, that’s just there so much terrain.”
To find the items, the team hired Dorota Medrzycka, a glaciologist who interpreted maps and historical observations of the glacial flow to determine where the cache might be located. But she could only give guesses, and the group spent days searching the glacier.
“It would take us all day to walk 10 kilometers up the glacier and get back to camp,” Medrzycka said. “And there were quite a few crevasses going up, so you had to zigzag a lot to find places to jump over them.”
The group couldn’t easily return to where Washburn and Bates left the cameras because the glacial flow had changed the landscape.
Glaciers move at a constant rate from year to year, but not Walsh Glacier, Medrzycka said. Unlike most others, it’s a surging glacier, meaning it moves faster for a period of a year or two every few decades.
In a normal year, Walsh Glacier typically flows less than 1 meter per day. During the rise, it moves more than 10 meters, or about 32 feet, per day. There have been two upswings since the 1930s.
Towards the end of the team’s week-long trip in August, Medrzycka noticed two anomalies in the ice pattern that she believed were caused by the waves and was able to calculate a new estimate of where the objects might be.
The revised estimate resulted in the team being sent to the articles the next day.
“To know that my educated guess actually paid off and was correct is an incredible feeling,” said Medrzycka.
Their findings also provided a new data point about the glacier that will be helpful to researchers.
“We can now better understand the change in dynamics on Walsh Glacier and potentially better predict how this specific glacier might change in the future,” Medrzycka said.
Whether the increase is related to climate change is unclear, she said.
“This erratic flow means they don’t behave like other glaciers in the region,” Medrzycka said. “It’s hard to tell how much of what’s happening on Walsh Glacier is related to climate or if it’s just internal behavior.”
The team was assisted by Teton Gravity Research, a company that creates media showcasing extreme sports, and plans to release a film about the item’s recovery.
Post said while it seemed unlikely, he was cautiously optimistic the researchers would be able to recover images from the cameras.
“It was so unlikely to even find the cache after 85 years,” he said. “Yes, it’s unlikely that any part of this film can be salvaged – but maybe.”