Bradford Washburn’s cameras found after 85 years on a Yukon glacier

In June of 1937, a bush pilot lifted off from the Walsh Glacier in Canada’s Yukon Territory, leaving behind legendary mountaineer Bradford Washburn and climbing partner Bob Bates. The plane had gotten stuck in slushy snow for five days after landing them there, so when it was extricated and ready to fly again, the pilot told the climbers there was no way he was coming back for them.

If they wanted to achieve their objective — making the first ascent of 17,192-foot Mount Lucania, the third-highest peak in Canada, 190 miles east of Valdez, Alaska — they would have to hike back to civilization after the climb. And so, after they summited Lucania and an adjacent peak, they left nearly all of their gear on the glacier — including two movie cameras and a large-format still camera — and hiked 95 miles to a small town where they caught a flight back to civilization.

Their gear remained 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 discovered it mere hours before they were scheduled to fly home.

“It was so surreal, and a moment I definitely will remember for the rest of my life,” Post said this week. “The validation I felt was the biggest thing. I’m not saying validation from people who doubted we’d find it — sure, there was a little of that — but validation about the self-doubt you had, that your gut was right and that this was a good idea, that this was possible.”

Washburn (1910-2007) is a legend in mountaineering, so the find — not to mention the adventure story associated with locating it — is bound to thrill climbers around the world.

“Brad Washburn is and was the preeminent Alaskan explorer, mountaineer and photographer,” said Ed Webster, a noted mountaineer and photographer of the modern era who knew Washburn. “He not only pioneered the standard route up Denali/Mount McKinley, which is the way thousands of climbers have reached the summit of the highest peak in North America.

“He also explored Alaska, first via airplane, and then on expeditions in the 1930s. He made his reputation, and made history, by photographing the Alaskan peaks from an open doorway in a plane flying at high altitude using a large-format camera,” Webster continued. “The incredible detail and resolution of the pictures is due to the large size of the negatives. No one has produced more stunning images of Alaskan mountain ranges.”

Washburn also was the founder and longtime director of the Boston Museum of Science. The American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, which is named after him, displays an informational panel on his life as well as an ice ax he used on three ascents 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 photos are stored at the American Alpine Club library adjacent to the museum in Golden.

Finding his historic cache on the glacier was far more difficult than simply identifying the spot where Washburn and Bates made their base camp for the Lucania climb. By definition, glaciers move. The cameras were found 12 miles down glacier from where Washburn and Bates 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. It was like, ‘This is definitely the mother lode. If there are cameras, this is where they left them for sure.’ Sure enough, the first one we walked up on was one of the motion picture cameras, right next to a tarp I presume they covered the cache with. Two other cameras were like 20 yards away.”

The story of Washburn’s harrowing Lucania trip was told in a 2007 book by mountaineering author David Roberts called 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 abandoned it, and in the epilogue,” said Post, a resident of Jackson, Wyo., who earned undergrad and MBA degrees at DU. “He’s flying over Lucania with Washburn, and Washburn says something to the effect of, ‘We should come back and look for it.’ That always stuck with me.”

The glacier is in Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve. Parks Canada, that country’s national park service, connected Post with universities that have research permits to operate within the park. Glacier experts at 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 lining up sponsorship from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Protect our Winters, Post set out with two snowboarders in April to shoot some ski and snowboard film footage for TGR and do a reconnaissance of the area where Washburn set up camp.

“The valley is just huge,” Post said. “There are crevasses, and so much terrain to cover. The first time I got a good look at it, I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be really difficult.’ ”

Post gave Copland’s team updated GPS coordinates for the original base camp location so they could work up projections of where 85 years of glacial movement might have repositioned the artifacts. In August, Post went back with a team of seven including a graduate student from Copland’s team, glaciologist Dora Medrzycka. After searching for six days in vain, she noticed some clues in the glacial moraine that led her to believe the camp was further down glacier from where they had been looking.

On the day they were scheduled to leave, they checked out her hunch. She was right.

“Like four hours before the heli picked us up, I was like, 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 fuel can and then a pair of goggles and some clothing, stuff that was undeniably of the Washburn-Bates expedition.”

That wasn’t the main cache, though. Most likely it was the remnants of an advanced camp Washburn and Bates used on the Lucania climb. Post’s team continued searching further down glacier and found the main cache 3 miles from the first find.

Under best-practices rules laid down by Parks Canada archeologists, Post’s team could look at 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 enthusiastic about the find as well,” Post said. “They were amazing to work with throughout the whole process. Three weeks later, we went back with a team of archeologists from Ottawa and Winnipeg 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 on the adventure.

Both of Washburn’s motion picture cameras contained film that had been exposed, and other film cannisters were found nearby.

“Now it’s just a question of whether there is anything salvageable on the rolls,” Post said. “The cameras were pretty beat up, but I’d say we’re cautiously optimistic that there is something on there. If there is imagery, even if it’s fairly basic, it would be so thrilling to watch that come back to life after 85 years.”

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