by Nicole Kobie
It may sound the treacherous stuff of explorers’ tales, but bucket listers need not take an ice-climbing course first. The guided ice walk begins at the “toe” of the Athabasca glacier, in the parking lot across the highway from the main interpretive centre, so your adventure can start by happily avoiding the fight to park at the busy tourist hub.
The first task is to suit up. The guides have a selection of boots, coats and warm clothing for those who are ill prepared for summer ice – or haven’t a clue what that requires sartorially, but hiking boots, warm jacket, hat, gloves and sunglasses are all worth wearing. Everyone is handed rubber and metal cleats that stretch over the bottom of boots for better grip on the ice.
Kitted out, the walk threads through the gravel mounds along the edge of the parking lot, with signs marking where the glacier used to end; the ice retreats by a dozen or so feet naturally each year, though it has accelerated in recent times, our guide told us.
To step onto the ice, adventurers face their first challenge: crossing a fast-flowing, ice-cold river. Thankfully, there’s a slower spot with a few carefully arranged rocks to hop across. Take a few wobbly steps and suddenly you’re standing on a glacier.
Down at the glacier’s toe, it’s not the perfect white ice most imagine, but dirty brown, crunchy snow. Mini rivers of meltwater cut into the surface, revealing that underneath the filthy crust lies perfect white, clear and then deep blue ice.
The trek continues up the face, where the snow becomes cleaner, the rivers widen, and our guide points to gaping crevasses, made by the frozen giant below us slowly shifting. Water pools in deep blue caves; leaning over the edge one by one, our guide carefully clings to each of us by the elbow, telling us exactly where to plant our feet as we peer down – he, of course, hasn’t lost a walker yet, but happily trampling around in the warm sunshine it’s easy to forget how treacherous a glacier can be.
The ice shifts constantly, opening up new rivers, circular holes called moulins, and weak spots in the top snow, which the guides carefully track. Ours points out scientific materials – okay, a broken metal pole – marking how high the ice used to be piled at this time of year. He jokes that there’s no danger of losing his job yet, with much more frozen water left to flowing down from the Columbia Icefield above the Athabasca Glacier, but there’s no question to him that the ice is diminishing.
But for the moment, the ice still feels epic, a frozen, beautiful walk to remember forever, but despite the power of the adventure, it’s a fairly easy one to accomplish. The metal treads on our boots mean walking is easy and the sunshine keeps the temperature warm despite standing on hundreds of feet of ice – this adventurous trek is like an easy stroll in a snowy but sunny meadow, making the buses trundling up the dirt road in the distance seem an even more unnecessary alternative.
That said, there’s an upside to the Brewster bus: they drop visitors off closer to the top of the 6km glacier, so you’ll get a better view of the icefalls, the snow and ice slowly shifting down from the Columbia Icefields onto the glacier. But if you work the schedule right, there’s no reason you can’t do both – after pootling around on the ice all morning, an afternoon rest on the bus will be well deserved.
We took an afternoon hike, but there’s also an option for just the morning or a full day, six-hour trek taking in more of the glacier. Ice walks run from the end of May until the beginning of October. For more details, visit icewalks.com