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  • Writer's pictureMaanasi Sridhar

The Columbia Icefield Tour: The Ultimate Glacier Excursion

The Canadian Rockies are breathtakingly beautiful, incredibly enriching, and it offers many unique experiences to its thousands of visitors. One such experience is the Columbia Icefield Tour.

The Athabasca Glacier

The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains, encompassing an area of about 325 square kilometers. Lying about midway between Lake Louise and Jasper, Columbia Icefield is an extensive snow-covered upland with comparatively little relief. It is composed of six glaciers, the three largest: Columbia, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan Glaciers, flow in deeply carved valleys. Also, Athabasca Glacier is situated close to the Icefields Parkway, and is the most accessible stretches of glacial ice in North America and most visited glacier in Canada.

View of the Athabasca Glacier from the Columbia Glaicer Icefield Discovery Center in Jasper.

The Glacier Discovery Tour departs from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center, which is located directly across from the Athabasca Glacier. There is a restaurant and cafe, and an impressive interpretive exhibit about the ice field located within the Discovery Center. It also has a gift shop and restrooms. A shuttle took us from the Discovery Center to the next terminal, where we had to transfer to a Brewster’s custom-built Ice Explorer bus, which drove us all the way to the top of the Athabasca Glacier. After we disembarked we had about 25 minutes to spend on the glacier. From there we headed back to the shuttle and onwards to the nearby Glacier Skywalk, a glass floored walk on a cliff's edge overlooking the Sunwapta Canyon. Spending our day on the glacier and later on the Skywalk, we were famished. We had a great meal at the Altitude restaurant, located at the second floor of the Discovery Center, with a spectacular glacier view, before heading out to our next adventure.

Read on for a more detailed account of our trip to the Columbia Icefield...

The Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer

The minute we laid our eyes on the monster red and white Terra Bus our excitement quadrupled! We weren't the only one's surprised by the sheer size of the bus, pretty much everyone on the tour was thrilled by it! Standing just under four metres high, fifteen metres long and fitted with six gargantuan tires, each one over one and a half metres in diameter, the Brewster Ice Explorer is a multi-passenger vehicle, built right here in Calgary, Canada. Although the top speed for this monster bus is capped at 40km/h, and it moved very slowly, I wondered if this 25,000-kilogram Ice Explorer would cause too much damage to the glacier. I was later informed that the extra-large low-pressure tires supposedly don’t impact the fragile terrain much, and that it also provided the Terra Bus with a strong grip on the slopes.

On the way to the glacier there is a steep incline, cut into the glacial moraine, and vehicles ascending have the right of way, so our Ice Explorer had to stop for a little while to allow the other one to climb up the hill. At the bottom of the hill, all Ice Explorer vehicles go through a tire wash of sorts where it drives through melted glacier water to keep the tires as clean as possible prior to climbing on the glacier, as dirty ice can melts quicker than clean ice. Since every little action goes a long way, it is imperative that conservation and tourism go together.

A well-know fact, albeit alarming, is that due to climate change Earth’s glaciers are receding or melting rapidly, and the Athabasca Glacier has been receding for the last 125 years. Losing half its volume and retreating more than 1.5 kms, the shrinking glacier has formed rocky moraines in its wake. It's just a matter of time before the glacier disappears. Researchers are predicting that by 2100, seventy percent of the mountain glaciers in western Canada could be gone.

Once we splashed our way through the stream of glacier water, the Ice Explorer climbed on to the Athabasca Glacier and parked at a designated spot alongside the other Terra Buses. Each Terra Bus had a color-coded picture up front to help identify it from the other, we made sure to make a quick mental note of it before exiting the bus. There are just twenty-three of these vehicles in the world, including a customized one permanently located at McMurdo base in the Antarctic. The other twenty-two buses are located in Banff, Alberta. Costing over 1.3 million CAD, each Ice Explorer takes ninety days to assemble and is custom-built to order, and some are wheelchair accessible as well.

View from the Athabasca Glacier

It took a thirty minutes drive by coach from the Discovery Center to the Athabasca Glacier. The glacier is one of the many ice tongues in the Columbia Icefield, and has a total area of about 30 square kilometers, and the ice is up to 365 meters deep on the ice field— about the height of the Empire State Building! Owing to its accessibility a wide variety of glaciological studies and research has been possible on the glacier. It was amazing to be sanding right in the middle of this 10,000 year-old ice sheet. Seeing the glacier up close was humbling, so much better then only viewing it all the from the Discovery Center.

Also visible from the Discovery Center is the Snow Dome, a gently sloping peak covered with ice and snow (the average snowfall in the Columbia Icefield is seven meters). Interestingly, the Snow Dome is the 'hydrographic apex' of the North American continent as its peak is the intersection of the Great Continental Divide and the Arctic Divide. The melt water from the ice field drains into the Pacific, Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. That's why the ice field is called as the "mother of all rivers." The Snow Dome Mountain is one of two hydrological apexes of North America. The other apex is Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park in Montana, USA

When we disembarked from the Ice Explorer, we had about twenty-five minutes to walk around and explore the glacier. It was crucial that everyone stayed within the demarcated area because it’s not safe to wander off on the glacier, as there could be hundreds of crevasses. The ice may appear to be still, but it is in continuous motion, creeping forward at the rate of several centimeters per day. The ice in the Athabasca Glacier takes 150 years to flow from the Icefield to the glacier’s toe! Isn't nature incredible! Looking across the glacier, we saw an Ice Explorer descending the hill. The monster size bus looked liked a miniature toy in the foreground of the imposing mountains.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as cold as I had imagined on the glacier, the mid-morning sunshine was warm enough on this particular July morning. We had read beforehand that if you bring a water bottle you could fill it up and drink straight from the glacier. Streams of melt water flow through groves on the glacier. As I walked towards the stream, I noticed how the color was a vivid icy blue in some places. Under the bright sunlight the water sparkled and tasted so fresh, simply rejuvenating.

Normally, I'd imagine one would be expected to have certain amount of mountaineering or hiking skills, and fitness level to be able to reach a glacier. In fact, there is also an option to walk to the glacier —the Columbia Icefield Walks— the shortest walk is about 3-4 hours. This tour has made it so easy to have this incredible experience by literally transporting us onto the glacier in a custom built vehicle. Although, my wallet feels a lot lighter after this mini glacier adventure, it’s absolutely worth it. Definitely an once-in-a-lifetime excursion!

Next, on to the second part of the tour we arrived at the Skywalk, located nearby the Discovery Center, by coach. The Glacier Sky Walk is a kilometer long glass-bottom walkway along the edge of a cliff looking over the Sunwapta Canyon. Although impressive, at first look it seemed rather plain, like it needed a fresh coat of paint. Apparently, it was done so intentionally. Inspired by the natural environment and designed to mirror the natural landscape, the Skywalk is built into bedrock using glass, wood and Corten steel, which oxidizes without rust damage. The structure was designed to have almost no impact on the surrounding environment, it does not require the use of paint or other toxins for upkeep and runs on solar energy.

A 400-meter-long cliff-edge walkway leading up to the glass platform includes multi-sensory interactive experiences centered on the ecosystem of Columbia's Icefields region. Jutting 35 meters out the side of a cliff, the transparent horseshoe observation walkway hangs 280 meters (918 ft) above the canyon.

It got a bit crowded on the Skywalk, as families were posing for pictures, some even sitting or squatting to get a picture of the glass-floor walkway. We found a free spot to enjoy the view around us, and beneath our feet... the transparent floor is very cool! We were lucky to have had clear skies on the day we visited, the views were simply spectacular— snow capped mountains, the beautiful valley, cascading waterfalls and stunning mountain and glacial vistas— a great way to wrap up the Columbia Icefield tour.

Location: Columbia Icefield Tour, Canada

Photos: Maanasi & Sri

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