In 1937, legendary aerial photographer and cartographer Bradford Washburn abandoned hundreds of pounds of camera gear, surveying gear, and supplies when he encountered inclement weather while exploring Canada’s frigid Yukon region.
In August, 85 years later, a team of scientists and professional mountain explorers discovered the long-lost historic stash of equipment buried in the ice of the remote Walsh Glacier.
Eight decades ago, Washburn and fellow explorer Robert Bates were attempting to scale Mount Lucania in the Saint Elias Mountains when inclement weather forced them to abandon heavy camera equipment.
In late April 2022, professional big mountain skier Griffin Post embarked with fellow adventurers and scientists on a three-week expedition to the glacier in Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve to locate the cameras.
“I was hopeful, but I knew it was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Post said in a press release. “A lot can happen on a glacier in 85 years.”
Dora Medrzycka, a University of Ottawa glaciologist, was hired to travel to the site and map the glacier to determine where equipment may have moved over time.
“They essentially needed help figuring out how the glacier was moving and the best way to find the cache,” Medrzycka told Insider. A team of glaciologists from the University of Ottawa assisted the expedition remotely.
Upon arriving in the region, the team searched on foot, skis, and snowboards. “We had an idea of where to start looking, but nothing very specific,” Medrzycka said, adding, “We walked many kilometers up and down the glacier. We had trouble finding him – we couldn’t see him anywhere. “
To get a feel for the camp’s original location, the team pored over photos of the cache site that survived Washburn’s expedition.
The team only found the cameras during a second, shorter trip to the glacier in August. “We were pretty close to giving up because all our efforts didn’t bring us anything,” said Medrzycka.
On the penultimate day of the trip, Medrzycka came up with a new theory as to where the artifacts might be. Glaciers typically move at a constant rate from year to year, but Walsh Glacier is a rare “surging” glacier, she said, meaning it moves faster for a year or two every few decades.
She noticed that piles of debris had migrated the entire length of the glacier, which she believes was caused by the flood. This told her how and when the glacier had flowed in the past. The observation allowed her to calculate a new estimate of where the objects might be, which was three or four miles down the valley and about 14 miles from where Washburn had left them.
Her hunch eventually led the team to the missing gear. “It was an incredible feeling and I was relieved that I didn’t fail to find the cache,” Medrzycka said, adding, “It was an epic moment for everyone.”
Weeks later, Parks Canada archaeologists returned with the expedition team to the glacier to pull the camera out of the ice. The team found a significant portion of Washburn’s Fairchild F-8 aerial camera with two film cameras still loaded with film, hiking poles, tents and other survival gear.
According to Medrzycka, the team knew Washburn had captured images of the landscape before leaving his gear. Now they plan to further develop the decades-old film in hopes of salvaging the images.
“What’s really important here is that this is new data, which we couldn’t have without finding this cache,” Medrzycka said, adding, “We were able to trace the path that the cache has traveled since 1937.”
She said the results could help scientists better understand how glaciers move, adding: “Now if we combine this information with satellite data, we can try to find out if and how the flow of this particular glacier, the Walsh Glacier, over the past few years, has changed eight decades.”
Correction: November 3, 2022 — An earlier version of this story incorrectly introduced Bradford Washburn’s first name as Brad.
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