Driving through the Rockies in the warm Canadian summer, it can become all too familiar to see snow & ice, to the point where it becomes as habitual as seeing the clouds surrounding these gargantuan mountains. However, making contact with snow can be rather difficult, as it’s typically a couple thousand feet too far out of the way. Fear not curious traveller! One of the most popular & most scenic places to lay your hands on that frozen goodness is only a short drive away. Located between the northwestern tip of Banff and the scenic southern corner of Jasper National Park is an icefield of epic proportions. Feeding a whopping eight glaciers, the Columbia Icefield is the “Grand Daddy” of all icefields in the Rocky Mountains. I recently had the opportunity to set foot on the tip of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park and observe this ancient beast in all of its frozen majesty.
What is the Athabasca Glacier
The Athabasca Glacier covers almost 325 of the most badass kilometers in Alberta. While it may have seen some decay in the last hundred years, she’s still thick as ever and willing to let travellers from all over the world climb all over her. This Canadian glacier is the largest accumulation of ice & snow south of the infamous Arctic Circle, and can reach depths of as much as 360 metres. Candice & myself recently had the opportunity to check it out and snap a few photos along the way.
A Red Monster in the Mountains
I approached a bright red monster, stretching my neck upwards to take in its massive height and size. This bus was the love child of a winterized school bus and a monster truck. Each tire weighing in at over 650lbs. I laughed looking at the treads of the tires. I pictured my mountain bike fitting inside the rim of one of these tires. We climbed into one of the 22 Terra Bus’s owned by the Columbia Icefield with a large group of eager tourists. The familiar smell of plastic school bus seats made me smile. I was happy to see the seats were still in perfect shape. Back in elementary school, those plastic seats didn’t last more than a month before someone had stabbed them with a pen or chewed them to pieces.
Our tour guide was extremely knowledgable and encouraged everyone to cheer as we desceneded down the 30% grade which lead to the incline to the top of the glacier. People from all walks of life held onto the squeaky plastic chairs, expecting the red monster bus would take a roll. As cool as that would have been for this story, we made it down safe and sound and picked up some speed as we climbed towards the top of the Columbia Icefields.
Sweet Winter Wheels
As the red monster bus tires made contact with the glacier we could feel the speed decrease. Our guide informed us that despite these tires weighing over 650lbs, they typically only kept them at 12 to 15 psi as it was easier to control in the snow and was easier on the glacier. Brewster makes every effort to implement voluntary practices that all work towards the common goal of minimizing environmental impact. How very Canadian of them! After 10 minutes of driving and keeping our eye out for a Grizzly Bear that was reported to be in the area, we parked alongside 3 other red monster bus’s.
What does it taste like?
Exiting the bus, I smiled as I watched children and adults all reach down to grab a piece of this frozen terrain carver. Many of which had likely never this much ice. Looking up you could see we were barely on the tip of this icefield. 325 square kilometers goes way beyond the piece of ice we were standing on. I snapped some pictures and reached down to taste the running water caused by glacial melt. My Swiss friend asked “What does it taste like?” I laughed as I replied “Cold water”.
I jumped up and down on the icefield, half expecting to fall through, but also to test how solid this thing really was. It really puts your life into perspective knowing this piece of ice has been around longer than my family has been in Canada. Heck, it’s been around longer than Canada has been a country with borders. After snapping what would have been several rolls of films, had we not been spoiled with the privilage of digital cameras, we boarded the monster bus again. Several people were waiting in the bus trying to warm up. The winter-esque conditions in the Columbia Icefields aren’t for everyone.
Mountain Goats To the Left
The engines of the Terra Bus roared back to life. Our guide spoke over the deep rumble, “Did everyone have a blast”, a choir of replies followed “Yea”. The bus slowly turned around and made its way back to the Parkway. We listened to the gentle purr of the red monster, the entire group seemed quiet after experiencing the icefields. “GOATS!”, our guide yelled. The entire bus load of people dove to the left side of the bus as we drove past a pack of wild mountain goats. Several kid goats were spotted with the adult goats and an outpoor of “Awww”‘s were poured from mouths.
As we drove on our Guide told us that the Glacial melt from the Columbia Icefields feeds three different oceans. The Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. In the midst of hearing everyone say “Oh, thats nice!”, we were also told that if you were to pee on the Columbia Ice Field, you’d be peeing in three oceans at the same time. I looked back on the trip and shook my head. “Should have done it when I had the chance“, I thought.
Have you ever conquered a glacier or pee’d in three oceans at the same time? If so, I’d love to hear from you (comments below)!
Special thanks to the Moose Network for their awesome help with planning my recent trip through the Rocky Mountains. Big thanks to the folks at Brewster & Columbia Icefields for putting us up on this wicked snow-cruise.