I got a message in 2020 from a photographer and climber in Argentina named Pablo Betancourt. He had read something I had written years earlier and had discovered something that he thought might make for a good story.
A camera had emerged from the receding ice near the top of Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia. It still had film in it, with at least 24 frames exposed. And it had a name on it: Janet Johnson. She was part of an American expedition in 1973 and died near the summit under mysterious circumstances.
The answer, quickly, was yes.
And so began an international reporting odyssey delayed by Covid and featuring a team of colleagues. The result is Ghosts on the Glacier, a story published online this weekend.
Most Americans have not heard of Janet Johnson, or John Cooper, a NASA engineer who also died on the expedition. In the United States in the 1970s, there were a few (often inaccurate) news accounts, but the deaths were considered accidents and forgotten.
In Argentina, though, the expedition was a scintillating mystery, covered exhaustively and breathlessly for several years. As news faded, as questions went unanswered, it became a sort of ghost story.
“It remains the greatest mystery of Aconcagua,” a leading Argentine journalist told us.
Which is why, when one experienced guide on Aconcagua heard the name on the camera, he practically did a spit take: Janet Johnson?!
I found Johnson’s only close relative, a sister, now a widow in her 80s. She was both surprised and adamant. Yes, she said, get the film developed. Please find out what really happened to Janet.
We knew we had the potential for an interesting multimedia adventure.
The first hurdle was having the film processed by a trusted lab. Photo editors at The New York Times found one, specializing in the development of old or damaged film, in Saskatchewan, Canada. But it was late February 2020, and my plans to rush to Mendoza, Argentina, to get the camera and film from Betancourt and carry it to the lab (to avoid X-rays and insure its safety) was stymied by the onset of Covid.
The story was put on ice — quite literally. At the lab’s direction, Betancourt stored the camera and film in his kitchen freezer, simulating how it had been entombed in the glacier for decades.
Eventually, we flew Betancourt and the film to Saskatchewan. I met him there, along with two colleagues: the photographer Max Whittaker and the video journalist Emily Rhyne.
The photos were gorgeous. They raised more questions.
Most of a reporter’s investigative work is not glamorous. There are more dead ends than smooth roads. With leads from our research department, I spent countless hours in newspaper archives. I tried to find the other American climbers from the expedition to Aconcagua.
Only one was still alive. I eventually found him bedridden in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Utah.
But he had photos and documents. And so did other families, who were surprised to hear from me but were generally willing to dig through long-forgotten boxes.
Our team’s first stop was in Oregon to see Janet’s sister for a couple of days. Then I headed to Mendoza, a city at the base of the Andes foothills, where we hired Nicolás Garcia, a journalist and former colleague of Betancourt’s, as a fixer.
We built a list of names that had been mentioned, anywhere, in relation to the expedition, and tried to track them down. We spent hours in courthouses, police stations, the medical examiner’s office. We spent days in Mendoza’s main library, combing through thick books of old newspaper accounts.
I returned to Argentina with the Times team, including the videographer Noah Throop, earlier this year. With help from Garcia and Betancourt, we interviewed people on camera and followed every lead. We went to Aconcagua, where Emily and Max took a helicopter ride around the summit, and Max trekked to base camp. We went to Janet Johnson’s grave, near the trailhead of the mountain.
Back in the United States, I went to Missouri to meet with Paul Cooper, John’s younger brother. I visited Johnson’s childhood home, in Minneapolis, and her last home in Denver. I researched Johnson’s background and climbing history.
I began to write a draft of the story. Emily began creating short films that would blend with the text.
What did we find? I hope that you’ll look for yourself.
But it became clear to me that this was not just a story about what happened to two Americans on a faraway mountain 50 years ago.
In a way, it’s about memory and imagination, and the stories we choose to tell.
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