The Columbia Icefield

Driving the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is lauded as the world’s most scenic road. It’s not hard to see why. This is anything but the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon.

Flanked on either side by mountains – some bare, some snow capped, some glistening under the weight of a glacier – and by an unfathomable number of conifers, every mile of road seems to open up yet another picture postcard perfect view. At the same time, the Athabasca River, and its neighbouring turquoise lakes, flows alongside the road.

Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway

We took to the Icefields Parkway as it links Jasper to Lake Louise, and then onto Banff (via the Trans-Canada Highway) in the south. For a short portion of the journey out of Jasper, you can drive the old road, the 93a, which is what we did. The 93a has its disadvantages – it’s closed in the winter months and is hemmed in by trees close to the road, so you can’t see the scenery. It has advantages though – as it’s quieter and the vegetation is closer to the road there are increased chances of seeing wildlife. Unfortunately, we only saw a deer – you can see those in England! However, it also provides access to the Marmot Basin if you are skiing, and to Mount Edith Cavell, which is where we went.

Once parked, it is a short walk to as close to the base of Mount Edith Cavell as you are allowed to go. High up on the mountain is the Angel Glacier, so named because the main body of the glacier has two wings that spread out. Also on the mountain is the Ghost Glacier. A block of ice, the equivalent to over 1,400 city buses, fell off the glacier in 2012, and plummeted into the pond at the base of the mountain. This created a mini-tsunami, that wiped out part of the valley and the car park below! Whilst there, we could see the area taken out was visibly different to the surrounding landscape. We liked how the pond at the bottom of the mountain, which the ice from the glacier fell into, looks like something from the Arctic or Antarctica, with mini icebergs floating in it!

Mount Edith Cavell
The imposing figure of Mount Edith Cavell, with Cavell Lake in the foreground.  One of the ‘wings’ of the Angel Glacier is visible – poking out from behind the adjacent mountain

 

Mount Edith Cavell and Angel Glacier
Mount Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier. The thick white band on the left of the mountain is Ghost Glacier, the ice of which plummeted into the pond at the base of the mountain. The mini icebergs can be seen in the pond, as well as its banks of ice.  The barren landscape, the result of the mini-tsunami, can be seen to the right of the pond

We then headed further south, and where the 93a rejoins the Icefields Parkway, we stopped at the Athabasca Falls. Now, having been to the Niagara Falls, it is going to be difficult for any subsequent waterfalls to match that! However, the Athabasca Falls were still impressive. Later on, we also briefly stopped off at the Sunwapta Falls, where we watched an adrenalin-junkie bird, not much different to a UK blackbird, dive into the water near the top of the falls, and then somehow reappear without being swept over the edge!

Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls

Our final stop on the Icefields Parkway was at the Columbia Icefield. The Icefield is home to several glaciers, and the rivers which originate from here, feed the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

The Columbia Icefield
The Columbia Icefield

Three options were available to us at the Columbia Icefield. First up was a to walk out on a glass semi-circular glass platform over the valley (similar to the attraction in the Grand Canyon), but just like the Grand Canyon platform, we decided that this was not worth it, especially as it did not appear to look directly over a glacier! The second option was a trip on an out-of-proportion bus onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier. At $50 each, we also decided to give this is a miss, feeling that it was a bit pricey for a bus journey to just walk on some ice.

Bus tours on the glacier
We decided against an expensive trip onto the surface of the glacier

The third option was to walk up to the ‘toe’ of the Athabasca Glacier. On the drive and walk up to the glacier, you pass markers that show how far the glacier has retreated since the 1840s. As the glacier retreats, it leaves behind a pile of debris, and so even as recently as the 1982 marker, you can’t actually see the glacier. The rate at which the glacier has melted and retreated is scary.

1982 glacier marker
The toe of the glacier was here in 1982!
Glacier scrap marks
The Athabasca Glacier has scratched the base rock as it has advanced and retreated

Whilst we have seen glaciers before, such as in Switzerland, standing in the direct firing line of one was cool – in both senses of the word, especially, as cold winds blew straight off it into our faces!

Glacier cold wind
Emma braves the cold wind blowing down the glacier!
Athabasca Glacier
Standing face to face with the Athabasca Glacier – the sun reflecting off the surface of the glacier was blinding

You aren’t allowed to go up to the glacier though for your own safety. At its foot is an icy river of melt water, while hidden crevasses lurk underground. The warning signs don’t hold back either, telling you that if you do go beyond the barriers and fall into a crevasse then you are likely to die of hypothermia before you are rescued, and that if you are in any doubt, the last three rescue attempts have been unsuccessful!

So after an action packed day, we finished up on the Icefields Parkway (whilst resisting many other scenic spots on the way!), and headed down to Banff to continue our Rockies adventure!

Stewart

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