Ancient Ice

Glacier Adventure & Glacier Skywalk

“The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”

~J. Norman Collie – First European (with Herman Wooley) to discover the Columbia Icefield from the summit of Mount Athabasca in 1898

Set foot on ancient glacial ice in the Canadian Rockies and check glacier exploration off your bucket list. The Columbia Icefield is nestled at the heart of the Icefields Parkway and straddles the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks. It is the largest icefield south of the Arctic Circle, encompassing some 325-square-kilometres. One of its main tongues, the Athabasca Glacier, is estimated to be 13,000 years old and holds the distinction of being the most visited glacier in all of North America due to its proximity to the highway. Glaciers are inherently dangerous places. Specialized training, technical mountaineering skills, and proper gear are all essential for safely traversing their icy surfaces. Thankfully with the help of Brewster Travel Canada you can now explore the Athabasca Glacier without the need for lengthy training sessions or expensive gear.

Columbia Icefield
A panormaic shot of the Athabasca Glacier. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Columbia Icefield
Glacier Selfie! Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Glaciers are the prolonged accumulation of snow that, over a number of years, is compressed into solid ice. In the case of the Columbia Icefield its depth ranges from 100 to 365 metres, making it exceptionally thick. Glaciers are unique in that they’re constantly moving, but at a very slow rate. Think of the Columbia Icefield as a large frozen lake and its glaciers (it feeds eight major ones) are like large slow-moving rivers of ice. The rocky debris that you see surrounding glaciers are called moraines. Terminal moraines are located at the foot of the glacier and indicate its maximum advancement while lateral moraines accumulate along its edges.

Columbia Icefield
The specially-designed Ice Explorer that was used to transport us onto the glacier. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Columbia Icefield
I used this glacial melt-water to fill my water bottle. It was ice cold and very refreshing! Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

To access the glacier reserve your seat on one of Brewster’s massive Ice Explorers. These highly-specialized vehicles are designed for all-terrain travel, making them the perfect option for transporting visitors onto the surface of the glacier. Each Ice Explorer costs $1.3-million-dollars and there are only 23 in operation around the globe; 22 of which are used at the Columbia Icefield (the 23rd is at a research station in Antarctica). With a top speed of 18 kilometres-per-hour your pace will be glacial at best, but that gives you plenty of time to absorb the rugged mountain landscape that surrounds you. Upon your arrival you’ll be given approximately 30 minutes to explore the glacier within the designated area. Please don’t venture beyond the barriers as hidden dangers, such as crevasses, are present and falling into one could prove deadly. The surface of the glacier can be upwards of 15 degrees-Celcius cooler than the Icefield Discovery Centre so be prepared for chilly temperatures and inclement weather even during the warmest months. Don’t forget an empty water bottle so you can fill it with glacial melt-water; it doesn’t get much fresher than that! Bringing the entire experience together were the guides. They proved to be a wealth of information and were eager to share facts and stats about glaciers and the powerful impact they have on the surrounding environment.

Columbia Icefield
The Glacier Skywalk as viewed from the Discovery Trail. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

After departing the glacier you will leave terra firma and walk where eagles soar along the Glacier Skywalk. Brewster’s newest attraction (it was built in spring 2014) is a glass-bottomed observation deck overlooking the magnificent Sunwapta Valley. The Skywalk is perched on the edge of a 280-metre cliff so your first steps into the abyss may be timid, but that feeling will soon pass as the breathtaking scenery unfolds before you. If the Skywalk is the grand finale, the lead-up is just as impressive. A one-kilometre self-guided interpretive walk along the Discovery Trail where you will observe fossils, wildlife, and waterfalls sets the tone for the entire experience. Here you are not limited by the hands of the clock, so take your time and immerse yourself in the beauty of the natural world that is all around you.

Columbia Icefield
The Discover Trail runs along the top of the cliff with the Sunwapta Valley below. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Due to climate change the Athabasca Glacier is receding at an alarming pace, having lost half its volume over the past 125 years. Don’t wait too long to visit as I fear its days as a tourist attraction are numbered. By venturing onto the Glacier Skywalk you’ll have joined just a handful of people on the planet to have experienced this attraction. Since it was built only three years ago the number of people to peer through the glass floor is still quite minimal. If you’re looking for a new adventure or just want to deepen your connection with the Rocky Mountains look no further than the Columbia Icefield and its captivating attractions. Keep in mind you can pair the Glacier Adventure with the Glacier Skywalk for a day filled with unforgettable experiences and memories to last a lifetime.

Columbia Icefield
A panoramic shot of the Glacier Skywalk and surrounding peaks. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

To learn more about the Glacier Adventure or any of the other Rockies Attractions please visit the Brewster Travel Canada website or you can purchase the Ultimate Explorer Pass that provides admission to four of Brewster’s top attractions. You can also connect with Brewster on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and Vimeo) and don’t forget to share all your Glacier Adventure photos using the hashtag #GlacierAdventure and/or #GlacierSkywalk. To learn about my Banff Lake Cruise outing please read, The Mighty Minnewanka.

*featured image (top) is the Athabasca Glacier as viewed from the Icefield Discover Centre. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Tyler Dixon
About Tyler Dixon 67 Articles

Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness-
based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.