Glacial expedition uncovers cache of cameras left behind 85 years ago

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Lead image credit: Teton Gravity Research / Leslie Hittmeier

Griffin Post’s expedition team headed to Walsh Glacier in Yukon’s Kluane National Park to search for a cache of cameras left behind by legendary mountaineer Bradford Washburn 85 years ago. After nearly a week of searching, bad weather forced about half the crew to fly out, and the remaining team members were about to call it quits, too. However, on the last day of the hunt, one of the team’s scientists, Dora Medrzycka, proposed a theory for where the gear could be.

‘We literally had an hour before we were going to leave, when we started to find parts of their gear and remnants of their trip that was indisputably theirs’ Post said following the expedition in August. ‘It was so surreal. You’re kind of in disbelief, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh — we were right! This exists!”‘

Teton Gravity Research / Leslie Hittmeier

Medrzycka, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, thought that the discovery depended upon how far the glacier had moved since Washburn had been on the glacier in the early 20th century. Walsh’s Glacier doesn’t move like typical glaciers, explained Medrzycka. It goes through cycles of slow, regular flow and then decades of ‘surging.’

‘Surging glaciers…have those short periods of intense activity and this irregular behavior that really makes it hard to reconstruct the movement of these glaciers over long time scales,’ explained Medrzycka. On the final day of the expedition, she noticed bands of debris that provided insight into how and when the glacier might’ve surged. She then extrapolated glacier movement and formulated a new theory, which ‘turned out to be pretty spot on.’

Teton Gravity Research / Leslie Hittmeier

Griffin Post has been interested in the cache of gear since he read about Washburn’s 1937 climb of Mount Lucania. During the expedition, Washburn abandoned the gear. While information was scarce, Post’s interest was piqued. Post used 3D mapping apps alongside photos from Washburn’s expedition to try to triangulate where the gear might’ve been stashed. He then emailed glaciologists, including Luke Copland, a professor of glaciology at the University of Ottawa and Medrzycka’s teacher. Copland had studied the area in the past, and had heard of old artifacts being found on other glaciers. However, ‘finding out where [Washburn’s gear] was 85 years later, that’s a really tough challenge.’

Teton Gravity Research / Tyler Ravelle

Copland and others determined that the gear was probably left on the lower part of the glacier, avoiding decades of snowfall. ‘We projected it would have moved perhaps 10 kilometers down the glacier, but when they actually got to the field, it had really moved much further than that,’ Copland explained. The glacier is more than 70km (43 mi) long and a few kilometers wide. It’s a wide search area. When the team arrived, it began feeling like a needle-in-a-haystack type of treasure hunt.

Teton Gravity Research / Tyler Ravelle

Some needles are found. Washburn’s cache includes his famed aerial F-8 camera, motion picture cameras, climbing gear, tents and cooking items. Bradford Washburn was a famed explorer, mountaineer, photographer and cartographer. Just a year after his trip to Walsh Glacier, he established the Boston Museum of Science. Washburn was one of America’s leading mountaineers. He pioneered aerial photography and created maps of numerous mountain ranges. It feels a bit unjust to list some of his major accomplishments in just a paragraph, as his work throughout his 96 years was prolific. Washburn died in 2007.

Alongside recovering amazing historical artifacts, Post’s team also collected significant data on the glacier and its history. Washburn’s gear has been turned over to Parks Canada, who are working on preserving the artifacts.

Images used with permission from Teton Gravity Research. Individual photographer credits are available in the image captions.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/bradford-washburn-camera-cache-1.6633661



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