Walk on a glacier! Columbia Icefield’s Glacier Experience

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Ever since I drove past the Athabasca Glacier, 48 hours earlier, I had dreamed of taking this picture.  I knew that walking across the middle of an ancient sheet of ice would be the highlight of my trip up the Icefields Parkway.  During my visit on Day 7, though, I was too cheap to pay for the Ice Explorer tour onto the glacier.  I spent the next two nights regretting the missed opportunity, and in the process, I convinced myself to spend the cash and take the tour on my way back down the highway.  I’m glad I did.

The Ice Explorer tour begins at the Icefields Centre, a big visitor center that feels a lot like a small airport, at the side of the Icefields Parkway, just north of Sunwapta Pass (the dividing line between Jasper and Banff National Parks — the Icefields Centre is on the Jasper side).  You can see more of the Icefields Centre, and the other trails in this area, here (my visit on Day 7).

As you can see, the ticket for a ride out to the middle of the Athabasca Glacier isn’t cheap: $49 (CAD) for adults, $24 for children.

 

After buying my ticket, I headed outside, where dozens of people were waiting to board the bus, for the first half of the journey to the glacier.

The bus takes visitors from the Icefields Centre, across the highway, and up a dirt road (which you can see in this picture).  The bus ride ends at a transfer point…

… where we all got off the bus, and onto the Ice Explorer.  It’s a specially-designed vehicle, equipped with huge tires and big windows, to give a good view of the surroundings.

Your time on the ice will be limited to about 15 to 20 minutes. You should try to get a seat near the front of the Ice Explorer.  Many of the other passengers will be elderly, and they will take a long time getting out of the vehicle and onto the ice — a process that can quickly eat up 5 minutes of your precious time on the glacier.

It doesn’t take much time for the Ice Explorer vehicle to reach its top speed, which isn’t much more than a slow crawl.  Because it must go down and up some very steep grades, its gears do all the work.  The engine is surprisingly small — with no more horsepower than an average pickup truck.

Just before the Ice Explorer heads down the hill, there’s a good view of the road ahead, out into the middle of the ice.

Windows in the roof let you see the mountains to the north (like Kitchener — likely the one you see here —  and Snow Dome) while you’re heading down the big hill to the glacier.

Be sure you notice Snow Dome (elevation 3,456 meters or 11,339 feet).  The icefield-capped mountain is a hydrological apex: one of only two peaks in the world that drains in three different directions.  Melting ice from Snow Dome can end up in the Arctic Ocean, Hudson Bay, or the Pacific Ocean.

Eventually the slow ride to the middle of Athabasca Glacier ends, and the ice walk begins.  The explorer driver gave us specific instructions on what we were allowed to do, and where we could go.  After all, the middle of a huge sheet of moving ice is not the safest place in the world.

The people who operate the Ice Explorer tour check the glacier’s turnaround area every day for any dangerous crevasses.  The perimeter of the turnaround area is marked with blue cones — and you’re not allowed to walk outside the designated area.  There are also orange cones scattered throughout the turnaround area, which mark “kettle pots” — small pockets of water that may be disguised by a thin sheet of ice.  Step into a kettle pot, and you’ll be wearing some icy cold, wet socks for the rest of the day.  Not all kettle pots are marked, and I found a previously unknown one, but fortunately I avoided an icy, ankle-deep plunge.

Outside the turnaround zone, it’s obvious there’s danger lurking.  The huge crevasses that form in the middle of a glacier aren’t always visible from the surface, but if you were to step into one, you could disappear into the ice in an instant.  Calling for help wouldn’t matter — the ice would freeze you before a rescue effort could be carried out.

I spent a few minutes of my quickly fleeting time walking around the perimeter of the turnaround area.  Eventually, I sat down on the ice, propped up my feet, and took the picture at the top of this page.  A trickle of melting glacier water circled the safe zone, and I took a few sips.  Just imagine, moments earlier that water was ice, and had probably been in that frozen state for hundreds of years.  It may have fallen to earth before Columbus arrived in the New World.

To the north, a small mountain ridge separates Athabasca Glacier from Dome Glacier, which flows off of Snow Dome.

To the south of Athabasca Glacier (looking directly into the sun, unfortunately), you can get a look at Mount Andromeda (on the right) and Mount Athabasca (on the left).  In between, the Double A Glacier fills the valley.

The time on the glacier went by quickly.  I was the last one back aboard the Ice Explorer.  The tour guides discourage people from staying longer on the glacier than their designated time.  They warn that you could end up on a tour in a foreign language, if you catch a ride on a different Ice Explorer on the way back.  However, there’s nothing stopping you from spending several hours on the ice, if you want to (though it might get a little boring, since there isn’t much to do once you get out there).

From the transfer point, there’s a good view back towards the highway and the Icefields Centre.  In the mid-1800’s, Athabasca Glacier would have filled this entire valley.  The glacier formed its terminal moraine on the opposite side of the highway.  This hill is where the Icefields Centre now stands. You can get a closer look at the terminal moraine, from my Day 7 visit.

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