The explorers Bradford Washburn and Robert Bates traveled to the remote Yukon wilderness in 1937 to climb Mount Lucania, but the month of bad weather that preceded their trip had left the Walsh glacier, the starting point of their expedition, covered in “fathomless” slush and “cut to ribbons by dozens of new crevasses,” Mr. Washburn wrote in The Alpine Journal.
The poor conditions made it impossible to get a flight off the glacier after their climb, so the men hiked more than 100 miles to safety, shedding supplies that would have been too heavy to carry.
Nestled in the cache they left behind were cameras that Mr. Washburn, a renowned photographer, had planned to retrieve a year later but never did.
Instead, a seven-person expedition team recovered the cameras in August, 85 years later and more than 12 miles from where they had been left. The team of explorers announced their discovery on Thursday.
The explorers found a portion of one of Mr. Washburn’s aerial shutter cameras, a Fairchild F-8. They also recovered two motion picture cameras with the film loaded, a DeVry “Lunchbox” camera model and a Bell & Howell Eyemo 71, as well as mountaineering equipment.
Conservators at Parks Canada, which oversees national parks in Canada, are treating the cameras to see if any images can be recovered.
The idea to recover the cameras came from Griffin Post, a professional skier who had learned about the cache while reading a 2002 book about the explorers’ harrowing journey, “Escape from Lucania” by David Roberts.
He read Mr. Washburn’s journals, enlisted the help of scientists and this year led two expeditions to the glacier in Kluane National Park and Reserve in the northwest corner of Canada in search of the cameras.
“You do all this research, you have all this science-based reasoning, and you think it’s totally possible: We’re going to go in there and look in this certain area, and it’s going to be there,” Mr. Post said on Saturday. “And then the first time you actually see the valley of the Walsh glacier and how massive it is and how many crevasses there are, how rugged the terrain is, your heart kind of sinks and you’re kind of like, no way, there’s just so much terrain.”
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To find the items, the team enlisted Dorota Medrzycka, a glaciologist who interpreted maps and historical observations of the glacier’s flow to determine where the cache might be. But she could only provide estimates, and the group spent days searching the glacier.
“It would take us the whole day to walk 10 kilometers up glacier and come back to camp,” Ms. Medrzycka said. “And going up, there was quite a bit of crevasses, so there was a lot of zigzagging to try to find spots to jump over them.”
The group could not simply return to the spot where Mr. Washburn and Mr. Bates had left the cameras, because the glacier’s flow had changed the landscape.
Glaciers move at a constant speed from one year to the next, but not the Walsh glacier, Ms. Medrzycka said. Unlike most, it is a surging glacier, which means that every few decades it moves more quickly for a period of a year or two.
In a normal year, the Walsh glacier typically flows less than one meter per day. During the surge, it moves more than 10 meters, or about 32 feet, per day. Since the 1930s, there have been two surges.
Toward the end of the team’s weeklong trip in August, Ms. Medrzycka noticed two anomalies in the pattern of the ice, which she guessed had been caused by the surges, and was able to calculate a new estimate about where the items might be.
The revised estimate ended up sending the team to the items the next day.
“Knowing that the educated guess I made actually paid off and was right, it’s a very incredible feeling,” Ms. Medrzycka said.
Her findings also provided a new data point about the glacier that will be helpful for researchers.
“We can now better understand the change in the dynamics on Walsh glacier and potentially be able to better predict how this specific glacier might change in the future,” Ms. Medrzycka said.
Whether the surging was tied to climate change was unclear, she said.
“This irregular flow, that means that they are not behaving like other glaciers in the region,” Ms. Medrzycka said. “It’s difficult to say how much of what happens on Walsh glacier is related to anything climatic or if it’s just internal behavior.”
The team was backed by Teton Gravity Research, a company that creates media showcasing extreme sports and plans to release a film about the item recovery.
Mr. Post said that though it seemed unlikely, he was cautiously optimistic that researchers would be able to recover images from the cameras.
“It was so unlikely to find the cache in the first place after 85 years,” he said. “Yes, it’s unlikely that some of that film is salvageable — but maybe it is.”