Our first day in the Rockies was packed with things to do: we had mountain tops to visit, lakes to see, and a good chunk of the Trans-Canada Highway to drive. Of all the things we had planned, one item on our itinerary had me particularly excited — taking Brewster Travel‘s Glacier Adventure in the Columbia Icefield.
Located about halfway between the towns of Jasper and Banff on the Columbia Icefield Parkway is the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefield Interpretive Centre. I had my first experience of the glacier back in October 2012. The Centre was closed for the season, so aside from two other people, my travel mates and our tour guide were the only other tourists there. We were limited by how far up we could safely go, so we enjoyed ourselves and the view by hiking and playing in the snow (you can read up on that previous trip with Moose Travel Network here).
It’s amazing how much of a difference a month can make when it comes to seasons in the mountains. Not only was there no snow during our visit in September, but we didn’t even need winter jackets or boots. There was a bit of wind that day though, so we sought shelter in the Interpretive Centre while we waited for our tour to begin.
There are two stages you have to go through to get to the Athabasca Glacier. First, you take a coach bus from the Interpretive Centre, across the highway, to where the snow coaches are kept at the base of Mount Athabasca. Then, you board a snow coach to finish the trek to the glacier itself. These snow coaches are massive passenger buses, equipped with six, low pressure tires that stand nearly as tall as me.
With a curb weight of nearly 25 tonnes and a maximum speed of 40 kilometres per hour, these vehicles are slow beasts built to do some heavy-duty work. To get to the glacier they also have to drive down the steepest unpaved commercial road in North America — with a 32% grade (about a 17 degree angle), it almost feels like you’re on a very slow-moving rollercoaster.
Once we arrived at the glacier, we were given some free time to look around and explore. I must note that there is a clearly defined area for tourists to remain within, however. As glaciers are prone to crevasses and underwater rivers, it is imperative for you to stay where it’s known to be safe. You wouldn’t want your dream trip to come to a terrible end! With this in mind, I still tip-toed around the allowed area (I’m a bit of a chicken). Gary, on the other hand, roamed like a mountaineer. He even collected some glacial water for us to drink.
I also learned that glacial ice doesn’t melt as quickly as regular ice when he decided to put some down the back of my sweater. It stayed with me during our entire visit.
I’ve said this before about the glacier and its surrounding mountains, but I’ll say it again — they are very humbling. Taking the snow coach to a plateau even higher than I was able to reach on my previous visit made me appreciate the scenery even more.
Now I can say I’ve stood on a glacier, and it makes you feel like you’re at the top of the world.