(CNN) — The search for lost treasure has long been a staple of travel legends. So does the idea of ill-fated exploratory expeditions. Now, seven months after the discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s ship HMS Endurance, comes a new discovery: explorer Bradford Washburn’s cameras, lost on a remote mountain glacier 85 years ago.
Explorer Griffin Post, an expedition leader for Teton Gravity Research, found the equipment during a week-long search in August on remote Walsh Glacier in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
In June 1937, Washburn and his climbing partner Robert Bates set out to scale Mount Lucania – Canada’s third highest mountain at 17,147 feet and at the time the last unclimbed peak in North America. It is part of the Kluane National Park and Reserve on the traditional territory of the Kluane First Nation.
They were supposed to start and finish their climb at Walsh Glacier, halfway up at 8,750 feet, but it wasn’t to be. Unusual weather meant there was slush on the glacier – the plane taking them there got stuck and the pilot refused to return for the explorers. Stranded, the couple had to walk not only the ascent but the entire descent, trekking over 150 miles through the wilderness to the nearest town. To do so, however, they had to dispose of their belongings: a £900 cache of gear, including tents, mountaineering gear and three cameras.
The cameras were recovered by Post’s team along with the rest of the equipment – and two of them were still loaded with film. They have now been turned over to the Parks Canada team who will attempt to develop the photos.
Post tells CNN he got the idea for the expedition two years ago when he read “Escape from Lucania,” which tells the story of the Washburn-Bates expedition and mentions the abandonment of the cache.
“In the afterword, they fly over the area and Washburn says, ‘We should go back and look for this gear.’ I’m still thinking about it six months later,” he says.
‘What do we do?’
Publish matched aerial images of the glacier with their physical location.
Tyler Ravelle/Teton Gravity Research
Of course, finding something on a moving glacier is a little more difficult than finding something in a normal place. During the 18-month preparation for the expedition, Post combed through old documents, diaries and correspondence to try to locate the original location, while a University of Ottawa cache team led by Dr. Luke Copland used glacier mapping techniques to work out how far the cache might have traveled in eight decades.
By August, they were ready to try.
“I went back and forth between being pretty confident — we’d done the research, the scientists had made a projection — and waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, ‘What are we doing?'” says Post. With tents, tarps and skis and the cameras the cache was quite large so they figured it would be reasonably visible. But it wasn’t just the projections that could have been wrong; someone else might already have found the hiding place. “Even so, I think if we hadn’t found it, it would still have been a great story,” he says.
It seemed so for a while want be the story. Six days of searching turned up nothing. “By the last morning I had come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t find it and that it was time to move on,” says Post.
“We put a lot of time and energy into it and made a great recording, but it wasn’t out there. I agreed.
“We still had four hours to go and it would have been disappointing not to make it through to the last moment. I knew we had to give it one last push.”
Then, as the clock ticked past noon, the team’s glaciologist, Dorota (Dora) Medrzycka of the University of Ottawa, came up with a theory.
“We had covered the entire area where we thought it was most likely, but by the final afternoon Dora came up with the theory that we were looking in the wrong place based on what she was seeing,” says Post.
Medrzycka realized that the glacier had risen further than originally predicted.
Tyler Ravelle/Teton Gravity Research
Medrzycka joined the project two weeks before the search, and while she wasn’t part of the team that calculated the original estimate, she says that when she was on the glacier, she “had a suspicion that it might be further down.” could .”
And on that last day, “standing there in the middle of the glacier, it was like a spark,” she says. “Being in the environment sparked this idea.” Was it like fate? “Nearly.”
Standing on the ice, Medrzycka noticed a pattern in the moraine – the debris bar that generally runs along the top of the glacier.
“Rather than being continuous, it sort of stopped in the middle. And I saw that there were two long gaps in the satellite photo.”
Some glaciers occasionally “rise” – accelerating into a rush for a year or two before returning to their normal pace. The group knew that Walsh Glacier was rising rapidly—it had happened twice since 1937—but each glacier flows at a different rate. In fact, they now know that during its undulations, the Walsh moved at 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per year instead of the regular 100-200 meters (328-656 ft) per year.
Looking at the gaps in the rubble, Medrzycka had that spark. The gaps in the moraine corresponded to the waves, she realized—where the glacier had moved too fast to collect debris. When she saw how long these gaps were, she could see that the glacier had risen farther and faster than they originally predicted.
In the last three hours of the search, they moved two kilometers (1.6 miles) further than the furthest point from their original target area – and almost immediately a member of the team spotted a fuel canister.
“The cache was half buried,” says Post. “The tents stuck out through the ice. Some things could have just been saved. There were goggles, clothing, items undeniably from that experience based on the photos.
“They literally couldn’t have written a better ending.”
Medrzycka recalls seeing a “big piece of canvas – a tent or the tarps that covered everything” and calls the moment “truly incredible”.
“The chance that we would find such a small cache on such a huge glacier was slim. Everyone had given up hope so it was really epic. There was surprise, disbelief and great relief – my guess was right, the pressure was off. We couldn’t be happier.”
The cameras – with film in them
Washburn’s Fairchild F-8 aerial camera (lens is shown) was in fragments, but the other two were intact.
Leslie Hittmeier/Teton Gravity Research
Due to the movement of the glacier over 85 years, the items were “tens of meters” apart, Medrzycka says – but that afternoon the team found nearly the entire cache, minus some items that had been carried away by meltwater over the years.
Among the loot were three cameras: Washburn’s Fairchild F-8 aerial camera (he later became famous for his aerial photography), which was damaged, and two film cameras that are still intact: a DeVry “Lunchbox” model and a Bell & Howell Eyemo71A .
The latter two had film in them – they’ve now been turned over to the University of Ottawa to see if they can recover footage. “We know that part of the film has been uncovered, and given that it has survived 85 years on a glacier with such unlikely odds, as an unrelenting optimist I am cautiously optimistic that some can be saved,” says Post.
Skiing “is no longer exciting”
The team made the discovery in the final hours of their search.
Leslie Hittmeier/Teton Gravity Research
For Medrzycka, the biggest contribution is to understand the evolution of the Walsh Glacier.
“We have satellite imagery from today to 2000 and then a little bit back to the 1960s, but nothing before that. Going back to the 1930s shows us how the river has changed, and I think it’s quite unique for that reason,” she says.
“It teaches us that it is important to look at longer time periods if we want to understand how glaciers are changing with climate change.” They’re still crunching the data on what it might mean.
What’s next for Post and his team? Because, as he admits, when you’ve found a historic stash of gear that’s been lost for 85 years, “skiing just doesn’t sound as exciting anymore”.
“A few people have come forward with lost items, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say they piqued my interest,” he says.
When they made this trip, people asked them to look out for the remains of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster plane that crashed in 1950 with 44 people on board. Several people in the Yukon thought it might be in the area – although they didn’t find anything.
But maybe they’re going back.
“It seems like a worthwhile thing to look for, but it would take me some time to research,” he says.
He is now thrilled to have found the 1937 hideout and the team is already in contact with the families of Washburn and Bates, both of whom died in 2007.
“It’s an amazing adventure and survival story,” Post says of the 1937 expedition – adding that even if they hadn’t found the equipment, it would have been worth it.
“Creating challenges for yourself and pursuing them, even when they are so unlikely, is such a fun part of life. If we hadn’t found her we wouldn’t be as excited, but it would still have been part of the journey – and challenges like this drive us all.”