In June 1937, a bush pilot took off from Walsh Glacier in Canada’s Yukon Territory, leaving behind legendary mountaineer Bradford Washburn and his climbing partner Bob Bates. The plane had been stuck in slushy snow for five days after landing there, and when it was freed and ready to fly again, the pilot told the climbers there was no way he was coming back to get them.
If they were to achieve their goal—the first ascent of 17,192-foot Mount Lucania, Canada’s third-highest peak, 190 miles east of Valdez, Alaska—they would have to trek back to civilization after the climb. And so, after scaling Lucania and an adjacent peak, they left almost all of their gear on the glacier — including two film cameras and a large-format still camera — and hiked 95 miles to a small town, where they flew back to civilization.
Their gear stayed on the glacier for 85 years, but this summer a Teton Gravity Research expedition led by University of Denver graduate Griffin Post found their treasure, including the cameras and film. They spotted it just hours before they were due to fly home.
“It was so surreal and a moment that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life,” Post said this week. “The validation I felt was the biggest. I’m not saying validation from people who doubted we’d find it – sure, there was a bit of that – but validation about the self-doubt you had, that your gut feeling was right, and that it was a good idea, that this was possible.”
Washburn (1910-2007) is a mountaineering legend, so the find — not to mention the adventure story associated with its location — is sure to delight climbers around the world.
“Brad Washburn is and was the pre-eminent explorer, mountaineer, and photographer of Alaska,” said Ed Webster, a prominent modern-day mountaineer and photographer who knew Washburn. “Not only did he pioneer the standard Denali/Mount McKinley route that has taken thousands of climbers to the summit of North America’s tallest peak.
“He also explored Alaska, first by plane and then on expeditions in the 1930s. He made his mark and made history photographing the peaks of Alaska from an open door in an airplane flying at high altitude with a large format camera,” continued Webster. “The incredible detail and resolution of the images is due to the size of the negatives. No one has produced more stunning images of Alaskan mountain ranges.”
Washburn was also the founder and longtime director of the Boston Museum of Science. The American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, named after him, features an information plaque about his life, as well as an ice ax he used on three climbs of Denali and the ice ax his wife, Barbara, used when she became the first woman to climb Denali in 1947 .
Dozens of Washburn’s photographs are preserved in the American Alpine Club’s library adjacent to the museum in Golden.
Finding his historical cache on the glacier was far more difficult than simply identifying where Washburn and Bates made their base camp for the Lucania ascent. By definition, glaciers move. The cameras were found 12 miles below the glacier where Washburn and Bates had left them.
“It was this mass of tents and skis and ice axes and climbing debris from 85 years ago,” said Post, 39. “We’re all just screaming now. It was like, ‘This is definitely the mother vein. If there are cameras, I’m sure they left them here.’ In fact, the first one we entered was one of the film cameras, right next to a tarp they presumably covered the cache with. Two other cameras were about 20 meters away.”
The story of Washburn’s harrowing Lucania journey was told in a 2007 book by mountaineering author David Roberts entitled Escape from Lucania. Post read it and it fired his imagination.
“He talks about the gear cache in two sections[of the book]when they actually gave it up and in the epilogue,” said Post, a resident of Jackson, Wyo., who earned his bachelor’s and MBA degrees from DU has acquired. “He flies over Lucania with Washburn, and Washburn says something like, ‘We should come back and look for it.’ I always remembered that.”
The glacier is located in Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve. Parks Canada, that country’s national parks service, connected Post to universities that have research permits to operate within the park. Glacier experts from the University of Ottawa led by Dr. Luke Copland were able to help him with estimates of how far the glacier might have moved.
After sponsoring Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Protect our Winters, Post set out with two snowboarders in April to shoot ski and snowboard footage for TGR and explore the area where Washburn made camp.
“The valley is just huge,” Post said. “There are crevasses and so much terrain to negotiate. The first time I looked at it carefully, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be really difficult.’ ”
Post gave Copland’s team updated GPS coordinates for the base camp’s original location so they could make projections of where 85 years of glacial movement might have repositioned the artifacts. In August, Post returned with a team of seven, including a PhD student from Copland’s team, glaciologist Dora Medrzycka. After six days of unsuccessful searching, she noticed some clues in the glacial moraine that led her to believe the camp was further down the glacier than they had been looking for.
On the day they were supposed to leave, they checked their guess. She was right.
“About four hours before the heli picked us up, I thought, let’s go two kilometers further down the glacier and start looking there,” Post said. “About 45 minutes into the search, one of our crew members found a jerry can and then a pair of goggles and some clothing, items no doubt from the Washburn-Bates expedition.”
But that wasn’t the main cache. Most likely they were the remnants of an advanced camp that Washburn and Bates used in the Lucania Ascension. Post’s team continued the search further down the glacier and found the main cache 3 miles from the first find.
Following best practice rules established by Parks Canada archaeologists, Post’s team could view the artifacts but not disturb them. They took photos, flew out that afternoon, and met with Parks Canada officials the next day.
“They mobilized pretty quickly and were excited about the find, too,” Post said. “It was fantastic working with them throughout the process. Three weeks later we returned from Ottawa and Winnipeg with a team of archaeologists and were able to extract the three cameras, a bunch of film and some other artifacts.”
That was in September. All three of Post’s trips were filmed by Teton Gravity Research, which will produce a film about the adventure.
Both of Washburn’s film cameras contained film that had been exposed, and other canisters of film were found nearby.
“Now it’s just a matter of whether there’s anything left to salvage on the reels,” Post said. “The cameras were pretty broken, but I’d say we’re cautiously optimistic that there’s something to it. If there are images, even if they are fairly simple, it would be so exciting to see them come back to life after 85 years.”
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