You can’t ride along a famous road that takes you through 100 glaciers and not take some time to see one of them in a bit more detail, and so we’d checked into a lodge for a couple of nights to give us an opportunity to tick off walking on a glacier from our bucket list. On our way to Jasper the previous day we stopped at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre to buy tickets for the glacier experience, an expensive but well reviewed experience that would take us right up onto the Athabasca Glacier.
Sitting on a garden chair on a glacier high in the Canadian Rockies. As you do.
We got up early to ride back down the Icefields Parkway, it was about an hour to the Discovery Centre, which has a huge parking lot, hotel, a couple of cafes, shop and some amazing views. It was very cold, I think this is the first time I’ve seen the temperature flash on my bike to indicate it could be icy – it was just two degrees Celcius and we both shivered as we rode along. We’re a long way from the Arizona desert here! Naturally when we arrived at the centre we made for the café and had some tea to warm our fingers and bellies, before making our way to the bus for our experience.
The Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefield.
Walking on a Glacier
We were going to walk on the Athabasca Glacier, which is part of the Columbia Icefield. It used to stretch right down to where the visitor’s centre is now – a physical demonstration of how much ice is melting and not being replaced. One gentleman we chatted to remembers visiting here in the 80s and pointed out where the ice was back then.
The Brewster Ice Explorer. Our ticket to the glacier.
Even it was dwarfed by the mountains.
The experience, run by Brewster, started with a short bus ride up towards the glacier, before we swapped to one of the Ice Explorer vehicles for the rest of the journey. The massive purpose built gnarly looking buses had huge tyres and high ground clearance, with special gear boxes that meant they could travel at very steep inclines (but at very low speed). Being in one of these was an experience in itself; it took us about 20 minutes to get to the glacier, along a dirty gravel and ice covered road that I’d struggle to walk along without proper ice shoes and a rope or cable.
A glacier, slowly moving, slowly melting.
We were one of the first tours of the day which meant we had the glacier to ourselves when we arrived; we were ushered off the bus, told where we were and weren’t allowed to go, and left to enjoy the ice for about half an hour. It was cold walking on a glacier, as expected, and really quite surreal. The ice was not smooth and was very thin in places so we had to watch our footing as we walked around; there were holes here and there full of water and it was easy to put your foot through the ice if you stepped in the wrong place. There were also a couple of streams flowing with ice melt; naturally I wanted to try some, it was very clean tasting if that is a thing – I wasn’t sick from it so it must have been okay!
Drinking ice melt.
We took plenty of photographs and wandered as far as we were allowed (maybe a little further, but don’t tell anyone). Half an hour didn’t seem like long at first but it was plenty of time bearing in mind we were not dressed for ice hiking. It is possible to book a ice hike or ice climb here, maybe that’s something for next time so we can experience more of the glacier. I was surprised how dirty the ice was in places, but was informed by our guide that it wasn’t dirt or grime, but rather was rock sediment picked up as the glacier moves (and as the water flows). It is difficult to know whether we should visit such places to learn about them, or whether we should just leave them alone. I’m in the experience and educate camp; being there has certainly opened my eyes to some of the realities of nature and our planet, an important lesson.
The Athabasca Glacier. Dirty in places from rock sediment.
The highest mountain we could see from up on the glacier has a pretty special feature; it is one of the only places in the world where there is a triple continental divide – snow that falls at the top, or ice that melts, can flow into one of three different oceans depending on which way down the mountain it ends up going. Water in the rivers we could see goes either north to the Arctic Ocean, east to North Atlantic Ocean (via Hudson Bay), and south and west to the Pacific Ocean.
The Canadian Rocky Mountains along the Icefields Parkway.
As for wildlife up here, there isn’t much to speak of this high in the mountains, but we did see some woolly marmots on the way to the glacier. Not quite as cute as the yellow-bellied marmots we saw in the American Rockies, but close!
When our time was up, which was just as another couple of the special glacier-going busses arrived, we headed back down in our purpose-built truck to the bus station bit and then from there down to the Skywalk.
The Glacier Skywalk jutting out of the cliff.
Standing on the Glacier Skywalk.
Included in our glacier experience ticket, the Skywalk is a glass bottomed bridge / viewing platform that juts out from the mountain so you can see down into the valley and up onto the mountains. While we wouldn’t have paid to do that on its own, the skywalk did provide some really stunning views and there was lots of information about the geology and wildlife of the area so we learnt a lot about where we were. We listened to a short presentation on the sheep and goats that live on the mountainside, possibly the most hardcore sheep in the world, and to stories about the different birds of prey that hunt here.
View from the Glacier Skywalk.
One cool fact I learnt during the day was that the ‘thin blankets’ of snow you can see topping the mountains are actually around 100 feet deep… and the snow is actually solid ice.
The Columbia Icefields… 100 feet of snow and ice.
The whole experience lasted until lunch time, so around three hours in total, and was well worth the time and money. It was not cheap (around £50 each) but was a safe and interesting way to get up onto the glacier and learn about the mountains. It is suitable for everyone, and I would definitely recommend making time for this if you are in the area. The guides were very knowledgeable and friendly, and I am absolutely privileged to say I have walked on a glacier.
After riding the hour back up the Icefields Parkway – such an enjoyable ride – we headed to the Jasper in the much warmer 20 degrees Celsius of the afternoon sun. Having fallen in love with the Canadian Rockies we both wanted to see more, and so we decided to head up onto the mountain near the town via the Jasper Skytram.
Trail at the top of the Jasper Skytram. Doesn’t look like much, but it’s serious hiking!
This gondola takes you up 1,000 metres to 2,277 metres above sea level, and gives you access to some completely stunning views. It was an excellent day to make the trip, although hazy on the horizon meaning our photos aren’t brilliant, there was no low cloud, meaning Ross Mountain was in view – apparently that’s quite rare because it is often hazy on the horizon or that particular summit is in cloud. There is a hiking trail once you reach the top which we started but didn’t quite make it to the top; the altitude and our attire didn’t help us there but we did enjoy our short hike and the views it gave us.
The view from the top of the Jasper Skytram. No filter on those lakes!