(NEW YORK) — In 1937, American explorer Bradford Washburn abandoned a cache of heavy equipment, including cameras, while attempting to climb Mount Lucania in the Saint Elias Mountains of northwestern Canada.
Washburn and his friend Bob Bates had to make their way back to civilization through the harsh Yukon wilderness when the weather made it unsafe for a pilot to pick them up, as chronicled in Escape from Lucania, a book by David Roberts.
Two sentences of that book stuck in the mind of professional skier Griffin Post: According to Roberts, Washburn was heartbroken to leave behind his cameras and always wanted to go back to get them.
So Post set out to do it for him, 15 years after his death — and 85 years after the equipment was abandoned.
He got in touch with Luke Copland, a glaciologist at the University of Ottawa, to help figure out where Washburn’s equipment may have ended up. It had been left on Walsh Glacier, and glaciers move, so Washburn’s notes about where he was were no longer directly useful.
That’s how Dora Medrzycka, who just earned a Ph.D. in physical geography with a specialization in glaciology with Copland as her supervisor, got involved.
Washburn is legendary in the mountaineering community for both his adventures and his research. His documentation of mountains has been used to build maps and routes that climbers still use to this day — so the images he would have gotten in 1937 could prove useful for research almost a century later to see just how much the landscape changed.
Copland and Medrzycka provided an estimate of where the glacier probably moved, and Medrzycka joined Post and a group, including a crew from Teton Gravity Research, to search.
The group adventured out to the mountains in late spring 2022, when the snow would be safer to ski on, but was unsuccessful in locating anything.
“But the information we got helped us kind of reassess the estimation of where the cache had moved to,” Post told ABC News.
They went back out again in August but were getting discouraged, as they weren’t finding the cache where they thought it would be.
“I was not only disappointed, but I pretty much knew that I was letting everybody down,” Medrzycka told ABC News. “Because technically, I was the one that was supposed to have the knowledge to figure out where it was. So I definitely felt like I had failed everyone, and that responsibility was pretty, pretty hard to bear.”
But she had a theory. Looking out at the field, she saw what looked like a break in the medial moraine, a line of debris that forms on a glacier’s surface. Medrzycka looked at a satellite image and could clearly see two places where that happened.
This is where it gets a little technical. Glaciers move, and sometimes they surge, moving very fast. It’s not clear why that happens, but it does, according to Medrzycka. The glaciologists knew the Walsh Glacier had surged twice since the 1930s, and Medrzycka theorized that the breaks in the moraine happened when a surge happened, so she calculated how far the glacier probably moved using the break points she could see as markers.
Following Medrzycka’s theory, they spotted something on the last day of the trip — just where she predicted it would be.
The group found several items sitting on the surface that were obviously Washburn’s, including goggles and fuel canisters, but it was farther down the glacier than they’d expected. Now, Post had a theory: The treasure Washburn left was abandoned at their base camp; were these scattered items just gear Washburn and Bates left at a camp higher up on the mountain?
They traveled a little farther and sure enough, found the full cache. Post, who had been preparing to come home empty-handed, said it was “so surreal.”
“For all the work that went into it and knowing all along that it was just a guess, and all that doubt that you had from others and yourself, to overcome that and be like, ‘Yeah, my gut was right. This was possible. This was here’ — it was just such a special moment to share with the crew and be with those people in that landscape and come back successful after essentially stealing victory from the jaws of defeat,” he said.
“When we did find it, man, that was priceless,” Medrzycka said. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
The equipment is now with Parks Canada, which was also involved in the venture, as they work to preserve it and see if it’s possible to retrieve any of Washburn’s footage.
Finding the location of the cache is already a gain for glaciology research. Before this, there was little data on this glacier movement from before the 1960s, so knowing how far Washburn’s cache moved from 1937 until now adds decades of information, Medrzycka said. That information can also be used to predict possible future movement or changes in the glacier.
Post was struck by how much the area had clearly changed since Washburn was there. There are some images from Washburn’s expedition they were using to try to figure out where things were. But it wasn’t lining up with what they saw, Post said.
“All of a sudden being there, you realize that maybe 100 or 200 vertical feet of ice has essentially disappeared,” he said. “And so the baseline or all the bottom of the photos, it’s just this new terrain that wasn’t visible before because it was under all of this ice.”
Arctic sea ice, as of September, is shrinking by 12.6% each decade, according to NASA, which points to that as evidence of rapid climate change.
“Everything that happens in the south doesn’t just stay in the south,” Medrzycka said. “And whatever happens in the Arctic or in high mountain environments doesn’t just stay there. So whatever activities we have in the south, whatever emissions, the pollution that we’re creating, all that does have an impact on the glaciers even if they are very far from us.”
The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a 2021 report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and threatens the rest of the world with impacts like rising sea levels.
For Post and Medrzycka, this expedition was significant as an outdoors adventure, a research trove — and a combination of science and athleticism to succeed.
“We don’t usually operate around the same circles, but once we found each other on the ice surface, we all belong there, right?” Medrzycka said. “This is exactly our element, this is where we feel comfortable and really shows we’re all linked by our love of the mountains and of the glaciers.”
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