Usually a road trip from one destination to the next involves miles of pretty scenery, perhaps a lucky sighting of some wildlife, and for many (except me) a nice nap – I have never perfected that skill, sadly.
This was true as we made our way to Jasper. The scenery was extraordinary, as the 142 miles of Icefield Parkway, the highway that winds along the Continental Divide goes through soaring Rocky Mountains peaks, icefields, lush forests, waterfalls and sweeping valleys. It also, as its name implies is dotted with more than 100 ancient glaciers. We were about to get up close and personal with one of them, located in the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in North America’s Rockies. It is about 125 sq miles in area, 328 to 1,198 ft in depth and receives up to 280 inches of snowfall per year. The Columbia Icefield feeds six major glaciers:
The Columbia Icefield was formed during the Great Glaciation (238,000 to 126,000 BCE). The initial advancement of the ice field ended sometime between 73,000 to 62,000 BCE, around the time Homo Sapiens began to appear on the earth. The last major period of advance occurred during the “Little Ice Age,” which lasted from about 1200 AD to 1900 AD. Athabasca Glacier, where we were headed began receding in 1840 and through the present day. It has already lost over a mile of it length since that time.
Athabasca Glacier still covers 2 1/2 square miles or about 1,500 acres and it is between 270 and 1,000 feet deep. The top of the glacier is at a 8,900-foot elevation. Our goal was to get to a stable portion of the glacier at about 7000 feet. More background on this in my WTDGAP post later in this series.
This is how we we were going to get there…
As you can see these vehicles are enormous and powerful. They have to be, for the climb to 7000 feet is on a narrow sliver of road, at a 35 degree incline (decline on the way down) with no railings – not for the faint of heart. The driver/guide instructed us to make sure our seatbelts were fastened securely and there would be no conversing until we reached the plateau. This was no walk in the park to be sure.
Here are a few long views of the glacier and you can see the route towards the climb to the plateau along the left edge of the glacier.
Once we reached the plateau safely we were allowed out on the ice to walk within a safety zone that did not have any treacherous crevasses or waist deep holes of glacier water – that’s what we were told (only kidding – it was “safe”). Here is a photo proving my presence:
The views at 7,000 feet were pretty amazing (these photos are a combo of mine and my friend Lenore’s due to a bug downloading our camera memory cards to my laptop, which mixed them all up).
That water in above photo, beyond the lip of the glacier has only recently appeared and it is growing quickly.- here is another viewpoint on the way back down:
Someday it will be a new lake.
Along another edge of the walking boundary, Lenore planted the Canadian flag which I think it is fitting ending to this post.
PS. It is sometimes hard to convey in words the actual danger of some of the activities one encounters on a journey. As explained above, the road up to the Athabasca Glacier was at a steep incline and very narrow. The guide instructed us to sit very still and not to talk to him until we safely arrived at our destination. However there have been mishaps here – as illustrated in this article:
A friend in Canada sent this to me – fortunately it came AFTER my trip!