Where did I go: Columbia Icefield/Athabasca glacier, Canada
When did I go: June 2016
The Columbia Icefield is a huge expanse of ice, located in the Canadian Rockies. It sits astride the Continental Divide and it spans two Canadian provinces – British Columbia and Alberta and two national parks – Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. It is about 325 square km in area, 100m to 365m in depth and receives up to 7m snowfall every year.
Approaching the icefield you get a great view of the Athabasca glacier. There are many glaciers extending from the Columbia icefield, but the Athabasca glacier is the most accessible and the most popular.
The Columbia Icefield Discovery centre is located half way down the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Lake Louise. We stopped here on Day 4 of our Canadian road trip (Read about Day 1, Day 2, Day 3).
The icefield discovery centre offers a number of activities to explore the Columbia icefield – the most popular being the glacier skywalk and the glacier adventure. You can also walk to the Athabasca glacier, which is free. There is also an interactive learning environment, a hotel, restaurant and the obligatory gift shop. Car parking is also available.
We had planned to go on the glacier adventure even before we started the trip. This is a ride on a ice explorer vehicle on to the surface of the Athabasca glacier, followed by a visit to the glacier skywalk. We were not too fussed about going on the skywalk, but there was no ticket option to do only the ice explorer. The glacier adventure and the skywalk ticket costs 85.00 CAD per person. We bought tickets for the glacier adventure and the skywalk and were soon on a coach that would take us to the ice explorer vehicles.
The ice explorers are massive 6-wheel all terrain vehicles, parked up closer to the glacier. And when I say massive, I mean gigantic! Each wheel of the vehicle is over 5 foot high, so you can get an idea of the size of the vehicle.
Soon we had transferred to this beast of a vehicle and were on our way to the Athabasca glacier. Our driver (who doubled up as the tour guide) gave us the best explanation of an icefield I’d ever heard, so I thought to repeat it here: “The icefield is like a large, overflowing lake (filled with snow and ice instead of water) sitting on top of the mountains. Where the lake overflows, the glaciers are formed. Every year, snow falls on the icefield, pressing down the snow that is already there, and pushing out the glaciers a little bit further.”
Soon we were going down hill on a gravelly road, on a very steep incline. 32.5 degrees to be exact. (To put this in perspective, most of the steep hills on normal roads tend to be around 10 to 15 degrees). Our driver assured us the vehicle was perfectly able to cope with such extremes, being equipped with automatic brakes and steering, and to prove this point, she actually took her hands off the steering wheel (and put them on her head) for the last half of the descent. Overall, our driver cum tour guide was very informative as well as being really really funny.
Before long, we were on the Athabasca glacier. You are about a quarter of the way up the glacier and you can see the Columbia icefield up ahead of you. Sunglasses are a good idea here, as the sun reflecting off the all the surrounding ice is very bright.
On the glacier, it was layers and layers of ice (as you would expects). There were also a couple of streams of glacial water streams, with fresh clean water, straight from the source.
I filled our water bottle, but the water was far too cold to dip our toes in. After all, it was only ice minutes ago!
Looking around, you get to see a few more glaciers from the icefield.
When looking down the glacier, it is covered with a very thin layer of brown dust. This is dirt and debris the glacier has picked up along the way, in a process know as super cooling.
After about half an hour on the glacier, and it was soon time to head back.
On the way back we got a good look at the toe of the Athabasca glacier. Unlike the advancing Hubbard glacier, this one is retreating, quite rapidly, at a rate of about 20 meters per year. A glacier is said to be retreating when the rate at which it pushes forward (due to annual snow fall) is less than the rate at which it is melting. The Athabasca glacier at present advances about 15m every year, but retreats 35m due to the warmer temperatures. That’s 20m of retreating. We were told that 170 years ago, the toe of the glacier at the icefield discovery centre. Today it is more than 1km away.
Soon we were out of the ice explorers, and back on the coach, on our way to the glacier skywalk.
The glacier skywalk is a glass-floored observation platform cantilevered more 900 feet above the Sunwapta Valley. It offers visitors panoramic view of he Columbia icefield, many glaciers, the Sunwapta valley and the Sunwapta river, that creates the Sunwapta waterfall we saw earlier in the day.
As I surveyed the valley below, for the first time I really appreciated the consequences of global warming. Without the glaciers, there would be no Sunwapta river, and without the river, the eco-system along the valley would change – and not for the better. Everything we had seen on our drive down the ice field parkway – the waterfalls, the flora, and the fauna will be gone. It was a sobering thought.
The skywalk also has an exhibition about the about the icefield and how the sky walk was built. Here you can seen the stages of the construction process, and samples of the glass and steel holding up the structure.
The Skywalk is made of structural steel, structural glass and wood. It took three years to build, at a cost of 21 million CAD.
Soon, it was time to head back, so we hopped back on the coach to the icefield centre, where we had a quick cup of coffee, and enjoyed the view of the Athabasca glacier one last time, before pushing on with out trip.
Things to know:
- Icefield centre (and the tours) is usually open from May to September. In early and late seasons the time on the glacier is limited to 15 minutes (rather than half an hour).
- The glacier adventure (including skywalk) costs 85 CAD per person. The combined tour takes about 2.5 hours.
- You can do just the skywalk for 32 CAD, but (when we went) there was no option to do just the glacier adventure.
- The walk to the Toe of the Athabasca glacier is free. Its 2 km round trip hike from the icefield centre. (Allow for about 90 minutes).
- The Athabasca glacier ranks at number 268 on the Lonely Plant Ultimate travelist: top 500 places to visit on the planet. The glacier skywalk ranks at number 346.
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