Exploring Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier

Clients can trek out to see the ice.

By: By Janice Mucalov

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Scroll down for information on Athabasca Glacier Icewalks.

The Details

Brewster Sightseeing Excursions and Attractions

The Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience tours in Brewster’s ice explorers operate from April to October and depart every 15 to 30 minutes. Guided scenic walks are offered between May and September.

Brewster Vacations Canada

Package tours can be booked bundling the glacier experience, accommodations and a scenic bus ride between Lake Louise and Jasper. Commission is a minimum of 10 percent.

Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks

For a more in-depth experience walking on top of the icy glacier, Athabasca Glacier IceWalks offers two tours with trained glacier guides. Equipment such as crampons (spikes for your boots) is provided.

The most popular three- to four-hour “Ice Cubed” trip explores the lower one-and-a-half miles of the Athabasca Glacier and offers stunning views of glacial features and the ice-carved landscape. It’s suitable for all ages, including fit children and grandparents. “IceWalk Deluxe” is a relatively strenuous six-hour trip up the whole glacier. You get to look into crevasses, gawk at towering seracs of ice and climb the lowest of three icefalls.

Athabasca Glacier IceWalks

Commission: 10 percent

The massive tongue of ice looks different when standing on it than when peering up at it from the visitor center below. Glacial silt winds like veins through the moonscape of snow and aqua blue ice, carved with monstrous cracks and fissures. You must heed the warnings of your guide — wander beyond the safe zone, and you could plunge down a hidden crevasse to an icy death (several hapless tourists have been killed on the glacier). Occasionally, you hear the ominous rumble of avalanches in the distance.

But there is beauty here. Dip your bottle into the ice holes and rivulets of melting water, and you can scoop up the cleanest, freshest water you are ever likely to drink. One of Alberta’s most exhilarating experiences is visiting the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield on the edge of Banff and Jasper National Parks. On a 90-minute journey, you travel out to the middle of the glacier in a specially designed “ice explorer” and walk out on ice formed from snow falling as far back as 400 years ago. 

The Athabasca Glacier is one of the most visited in North America.// © 2010 Brewster Inc.

The Athabasca Glacier is one of the most visited in North America.// © 2010 Brewster Inc.

The Columbia Icefield is located on the scenic Icefield Parkway. Snow-capped mountain peaks, turquoise lakes, tumbling waterfalls and more than 100 glaciers are all seen on the highway, which connects the Lake Louise and Jasper townsites. Just getting to the Columbia Icefield is worth the trip alone.

At the Columbia Icefield visitor center, staffed by Parks Canada, a self-guided exhibit explains how glaciers move and details the importance of icefields in climate research. Because of a warming climate, the Athabasca Glacier has lost half of its volume and retreated more than a mile. Looking outside, visitors will notice that the landscape around the sides and foot of the glacier is one of boulders and dirt where the shrinking glacier has left behind rock debris.

Then, it’s time to join the tour. A motorcoach takes visitors across the highway and up a dirt road through the moraine area. At a transfer station, clients board a Brewster Ice Explorer vehicle. Equipped with low-pressure tires that measure five feet high and with large panoramic windows, it can transport 56 passengers. It slowly grinds up the glacier as a guide points out interesting geological formations.

The ride stops in the middle of the glacier, where people get out. There, the ice is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall. Your guide shows you where you can safely walk within the perimeter of blue cones, which is checked daily. A few orange cones are likely to be scattered about, too. These mark ankle-deep holes of frigid water — good to miss if you want to avoid wet, cold feet.

You have about 15 minutes out on the ice to take photos, throw snowballs and ponder the awesome relic around you from the last ice age. By the time you clamber back into the ice explorer, you easily understand why the Athabasca Glacier is North America’s most visited glacier.

Back in the warmth of the visitor center — which curiously boasts the largest number of women’s toilet stalls in North America (64) — there’s a cafe and restaurant. The third floor also has the Glacier View Inn with 32 guestrooms, most with two queen beds and a loft, if you want to stay the night to hear the glacier crack and see it move as well as view it in the early morning and evening light.

New for 2010, guided scenic walks are also being offered along the Forefield Trail. The two-hour walks cross a barren landscape of rock and boulders exposed by glacial melt to the toe of the glacier. Along the way, you see visible evidence of the glacier’s path and learn how plants survive in such a harsh environment.

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