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The Melting Majesty of the Athabasca Glacier

In my travels, I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards glaciers. If there’s an activity on or near a glacier, I’m there. I don’t know if it’s because the icy, harsh environment is so different from the one I am so used to (having spent most of my life living in the sub-tropical climates of Houston, TX, and Brisbane, Australia) or whether it’s because I know that if I put it off, I may never get to see that glacier again.

Athabasca Glacier from the Icefields Interpretive Centre

My first real glimpse of the Athabasca Glacier. Can you pick out the five dots that are actually terra buses?

For instance, take Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s West Coast. When I visited in 2008, using axes to climb up walls of ice and later flying low over its many crevasses in a helicopter, it was still advancing year-on-year. Six years later, I get sad every time I see a new photo of the glacier pop up on Facebook or Instagram. It has receded over 500m in that time and is no longer even visible on the floor of the valley that it used to cover. It’s still there for now, but it’s no longer safe to walk up the terminal face as we did, so the ice climbing tour as I experienced it is now impossible.

Franz Josef GlacierFranz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier as I saw it in March 2008, and the same glacier as Florian Bugiel on Flickr saw it in January 2014.

So, when I first discussed the idea of driving the Icefields Parkway with my parents, I hoped that the situation for its namesake icefields was not so dire that they were no longer accessible. Luckily, all of the glaciers — from the Crowfoot Glacier in the south to the Ghost Glacier in the north — were still hanging on, even if they were noticeably smaller than in my parents’ photos of the same region from 1981.

The largest of all the icefields of the Icefields Parkway (and in fact, the largest in all the Canadian Rockies) is the Columbia Icefield, which straddles the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks. Because of its location on a high plateau between Mount Columbia and Mount Athabasca, it is able to collect a massive amount of snow every year — in some places, it gets almost 7m per year! This massive amount of precipitation has solidified into a solid cover of snow and ice that sometimes exceeds 350m deep. That’s a lot of ice!

Athabasca Panorama

Looking in the direction of the Columbia Icefield from the Athabasca Glacier.

While the main area of the icefield can only be reached by experienced climbers — who also take on Snow Dome, the highest point in the icefield whose waters flow into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans — some of its glacial outflows are a lot more accessible. The Athabasca Glacier is one of these outflows and is epically large in its own right. According to Earth Sciences Canada, a snowflake that lands in the névé at the top of the glacier takes a whopping 150-200 years to make it to the terminal face and melt into the river below. Given the glacier is only 6.2km long, that’s what I call taking the long way around.

While it is an option to hike the glacier (like I have done previously at Fox Glacier), I knew that my parents being there meant that wasn’t an option. Luckily, there was another option for those that don’t have an entire day to spare — or whose fitness isn’t quite what it used to be — and it’s quite a unique one. Enter Glacier Explorers’  massive terra buses (or “Ice Explorers”).

Terra Bus

One of the many Ice Explorers climbing up the large hill off the glacier.

These Ice Explorers are special vehicles that are only in operation in two places in the world: the Athabasca Glacier and McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As you may have guessed from those two places, it operates best on ice, with its massive 25 ton body being held up by the largest tyres you will ever see. Each of these tyres is kept at the low pressure of 30psi to provide extra traction on the slippery ice and snow.

Inside the Terra Bus

What it was like sitting in one of the buses.

So how exactly did we find ourselves on one of these terra buses, creeping out onto the glacier at a top speed of 11mph? Well, we joined the hordes of other tourists that descended on the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, which sits just inside the southern border of Jasper National Park on the Icefields Parkway. A quick ten-minute bus ride took us to the terra bus station, which had been built into the moraine that was ground up by the glacier at some point in the distant past.

Splashing Through a Puddle

Splashing through a puddle on our way up onto the glacier.

Here, we loaded into the terra bus itself, which was much airier than the initial bus given its wrap-around windows that let us see out of the roof as well. After the bus driver gave us the usual spiel about it being his first time driving a bus so we had to be very lenient on him, we were off.

As we began our descent down an incredibly steep hill of slippery rocks, he told us about how this hill had gotten steeper and steeper as the glacier shrunk away before their eyes. It’s a very imperfect science, dealing with glaciers, and this showed just how much; not only do they have to check on a daily basis whether their path onto the glacier is still safe (and not filled with crevasses), but they have to check the stability of the bus station itself and move it around from time to time.

Ice Highway

The ice highway with plenty of tracks left behind by terra buses.

Slowly but surely, the terra bus pushed its way onto the glacier. I was happy to see that all the buses left behind were their tyre tracks; while not quite the equivalent of only leaving footprints, it was about as close as you can get when operating heavy machinery. I’d been worried before the trip about the effect of driving so many buses out onto the glacier each day, but it really did seem like as much care as possible was being taken to ensure that tyre tracks and footprints were all that were left.

Terra Bus Parked

Our terra bus in the ‘parking lot.’

When we finally arrived at the parking area — a large flat area deemed safe enough to turn around in — we all unloaded off the bus for our 20 minutes free time walking around the glacier. Here, a huge crowd of people from the other two buses on the glacier awaited, so it wasn’t exactly the most quiet or private of experiences. Still, my parents and I managed to find our own bit of glacier where we could pick up our own small pieces of ice and taste the fresh — but earthy — glacial water.

On the Athabasca Glacier

A wider view, looking down past the buses towards the Icefields Parkway.

There was a strict area where we could walk around that was mainly limited to the carpark. Beyond this were obvious fissures in the ice, and with so many people wandering around, it would be impossible to ensure people’s safety if they were all walking around in the broken ice. Still, most people on the tour seemed to completely ignore the blue cones and wandered as far as they could. I saw people hanging over the edge of small ice cliffs, dangling their hands into the water below, and others jumping between hills of ice without regard for what would happen if their feet slipped on landing. I guess that’s the danger of taking so many people with such little safety training out there, but at least the guides corralled them and moved them on before anyone got hurt.

I won’t act like I was any better than those people because I, too, went beyond the blue cones. Rather than trying to turn acrobatics, though, I walked onto the closest ice hill so I could get a clearer view of something that fascinated me: a river, complete with rapids, rushing across the glacier.

The Rapids of a Melting Glacier

Rapids rushing across the glacier…because there was too much meltwater under the glacier already.

My eyes weren’t deceiving me, and as I got closer, the aquamarine colour showed just how deep that river of water was. It was later explained to me by a park ranger what the sad truth of that river tumbling through the ice was. On most glaciers, there is melt during the summer — that’s to be expected. But under the Athabasca Glacier, there is now so much meltwater rushing down to the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers below that there just isn’t any more room for it. Thus, the water runs across the top of the ice instead, creating rivers like this one.

It was a hauntingly beautiful sight, but it was also a tragic and heartbreaking one. Here was evidence of the glacier melting away before my very eyes. I knew then that the people visiting the glacier — even if they number in the thousands per day — weren’t an issue and that the problems facing this glacier are much larger than that. In fact, I thought it was good that people, no matter what their abilities or fitness levels, were able to see this on a firsthand basis.

Through the Moraine

Looking down towards the terminal face as it stood in early August 2013.

The Athabasca Glacier, like nearly every other glacier in the world, is melting away at a shocking pace. I’m glad I went when I did, because who knows…if I visit again in 30 years time with my own children, will there be a glacier left to see? 

Have you seen or climbed on a glacier? What was your experience?

Ice Explorer buses are operated by Brewster and depart the Glacier Discovery Centre every 15-30mins daily. Tours cost $50pp and last for 80 minutes. The Discovery Centre is located about 2hrs drive from Lake Louise and about 1.5hrs drive from Jasper on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93).

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