Glacier Hunting

A couple of weeks ago, Anna and I went out to the mountains for a quick getaway. I’d read up on some good hikes, and I wanted to take Anna on a beautiful hike that I’d been on quite a few years ago. We drove out to Jasper and down the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefield. Just past the Centre is the Wilcox Creek Campground, where we stayed that night. We did our first hike up to Wilcox Pass. This is an amazing area, although I think it would be prettier in summer or early fall. By going this late in the year we did avoid most of the tourists—you win some, you lose some.

From the trail you have a great view of the Athabasca Glacier. You can also see glimpses of the Columbia Icefield as it flows over the mountains. Looking down on the icefield from a distance, you can see many colors and textures. I wanted to know what these textures would turn into as you moved closer. So the next day I decided to go to the foot of the glacier and see what I could see. I did the little walk from the parking area up the hill and what did I see? A big roped-off area more than a 100m away from the glacier. I considered my options. I could cross the rope and disobey the signs (like I saw one couple do), reinforcing to the 30 others tourists that they could ignore the park wardens as well. Or I could pay for us to go on the official walk/ride. Or I could try another glacier. I know there are many other glaciers in the parks that I can go see. They all take a bit more effort, but they also offer a lot more solitude.

(We went up Parker Ridge—the hike I had done a few years ago—that afternoon, and you get a beautiful view of the Saskatchewan Glacier and more of the Icefield from there as well).

Upon arriving home, I started researching. There are a lot of accessible glaciers, it turns out. The one that looked most interesting to me was the Saskatchewan Glacier, which we had seen from Parker Ridge. I figured out the route (it’s not really an official trail, although it is travelled quite often) and set off the next weekend to see a glacier. I started fairly early in the morning, hiked up the hill through thick forest, and then crossed the long stretch up the glacial plain. This is the hard part —you’re not gaining any altitude, but there are loose scattered stones of every size, no trail, and you have to be careful where you step. The many moraines (ridges of glacial debris) mean a lot of hiking up a few feet to hike down a few feet. And it’s an 18km hike.

Eventually you get to the glacier. It’s spectacular. There is the roar of rushing water from the melting glacier. There are towers of ice stretching high above you. Cold winds blow off the glacier, which made me glad for my winter attire. There are stretches of fine rock dust and cement-like mud that got into everything. I should also mention right now—BE VERY CAREFUL IF YOU GET CLOSE TO A GLACIER—people die on glaciers, mostly falling into crevasses and millwells. Falling chunks of ice and dislodged boulders are another frequent hazard.

I did not go up on the glacier, even though I had crampons along, because I haven’t done much mountaineering. I did step in quicksand close to the glacier and almost lost a boot. And I got to see some pretty cool stuff. Some day I want to go up on a glacier with an experienced guide to see more and to learn how to safely traverse glaciers. But for now I’m happy to have seen this one up close and personal.