Unfrozen After 85 Years

Parks Canada got the call late last August—a cache of items left behind in 1937 (by legendary photographer Bradford Washburn and expedition partner Robert Bates) was found on a remote glacier in the Traditional Territory of Kluane First Nation, within Kluane National Park and Reserve.

Media company Teton Gravity Research was on the Walsh Glacier attempting to find the cache as part of a film and research project documenting long-term changes of the glacier. They were joined by a glaciologist from the University of Ottawa, Dr. Dora Medrzycka, who was using innovative glacial mapping processes to determine where the cache may be located after decades of glacial movement. It wasn’t until the last day of the expedition when, after spotting a long band of glacial debris and doing some quick calculations, Medrzycka led the team to the discovery.

So how did a cache of items end up on a remote glacier? Originally, Washburn and Bates were to be joined by two other expedition members and had brought enough supplies for a four-member team. Due to poor weather the two other members could not be flown in, resulting in an excess of gear that had previously dropped on the glacier. Also due to the weather, it became apparent that a plane would not be able to pick Washburn and Bates up, after their planned first ascent of Mount Lucania, and that they would have to find their own way down from the glacier. They decided to abandon much of their equipment at base camp and to walk out, but not before also summiting Mount Steele and then leading themselves out to the Donjek River where a chance encounter with local Indigenous people from the Kluane region led to their rescue.

Due to the need for Washburn and Bates to change their plans so drastically, the main cache contained an unusual variety and quantity of material for an abandoned mountaineering camp, including gear, tents, food, clothes and camera equipment.

When an artifact of potential significance is found in a place managed by Parks Canada, it is requested that you leave the item in place and report the finding to the nearest Parks Canada office. In most cases, Parks Canada leaves artifacts in place, as their current location is a part of their history and context. When it came to the artifacts discovered in this cache, some items were selected for retrieval based on whether the item could yield new information (such as Washburn’s cameras) or if the item has a direct link to Washburn’s pioneering use of photography in expedition planning and the theme of mountaineering in the park.

Parks Canada archaeologist Sharon Thomson commented, “The rediscovery of the Washburn-Bates cache, after 85 years locked in the ice, adds a tangible dimension to an exciting story of exploration and survival at almost unbelievable odds. From a cultural resource management perspective, it presents a rare and valuable opportunity to study change, over time, on an archaeological site in a dynamic glacial environment.” Time was of the essence for Parks Canada to assemble a team to head out to the Walsh Glacier, as the artifacts were deemed at risk due to the changing dynamics of the glacier, and the team only had one day on-site before the winter weather started to come in.

The team documented 50 items from the cache and brought back 23. Of the items that were selected for retrieval, the most iconic was a portion of Washburn’s Fairchild F-8 aerial camera. The camera is believed to be Bradford Washburn’s first-ever aerial photography camera—a format in which he gained notoriety. Washburn pioneered the use of aerial photography, with his photos being extensively used in the planning of many mountaineering expeditions, and he used the camera in 1936 to capture some of the first aerial photographs of Denali, as well as in 1935 to map the Saint Elias Mountain Range. In addition to the Fairchild F-8, the team retrieved two motion-picture cameras: a DeVry “Lunchbox” model and a Bell & Howell Eyemo 71A, with film still loaded in each camera, along with several pieces of mountaineering equipment.

Retrieval of the artifacts was not as straightforward as digging items out of the ground, as some of them were actually frozen in the ice, adding a layer of complexity to the collection process. However, Parks Canada conservator Cindy Lee Scott had a plan—she had read about the work of other glacial archaeologists, largely in Norway, who would melt the ice surrounding the objects with warm water. No fancy technology needed!

Parks Canada is currently working with partners on a plan to conserve and interpret the story of this important archaeological find. Conservation efforts include careful cleaning and drying, with the goal of stabilizing the objects (i.e., to stop or slow down further deterioration), rather than restoring them. The cameras will require more-extensive conservation work, including the careful removal of the film rolls still housed within them.

“The opportunity to participate in such an extraordinary find is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s so rare to work on archaeological artifacts that have such a direct connection to the person who once used them. Washburn’s legacy as an aerial photographer makes holding his cameras feel like you’re holding a little piece of mountaineering history in your hands,” said Scott.

The big question still remains: Will it be possible to recover images from the cameras? Parks Canada is working with experts to find the answer (stay tuned to find out!).

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