It’s not every day you get to walk on a Glacier! I’d planned really well for this trip, even bringing thermals because I knew that the glacier would be cold, and I really struggle with the cold! I’d love to say that my preparations left me toasty warm whilst on the glacier……but stupidly I was tricked into a false state of security due to the hot weather when we left Jasper. This meant that my thermals stayed firmly in the cabin whilst I froze!
As we headed out towards the glacier, the temperature dropped steadily and we all counted down the numbers on the dashboard display with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. The change in landscape was stark – from the green grass and trees of Jasper to the increasingly snow-topped mountains of the Icefields Parkway. The scenery was simply stunning.
Unbelievably, as we pulled into the parking lot for the glacier trip, it actually started to snow! I was first out of the car and it was absolutely freezing! It was hard to believe we had gone through such a temperature change during the drive up! Hoods up and heads down, we ran over to the main visitors centre to try and get warm. The gift shop was full to bursting of other travellers trying to do the same thing and it was chaos! Having not anticipated the number of people visiting the centre, we had quite a wait a while until we actually started our trip out on to the glacier.
What to take when you are walking the glacier:
- A book /IPod – it gets busy at the ticket booth for the glacier & getting there early is a must. We arrived at 12.30pm and our ticket time was 4.45pm so there was a lot of waiting around. Alternatively, you can book your slot in advance which is highly recommended.
- Bring some food / drink for whilst you are waiting. It will save you lots of money (the restaurant is fairly expensive) and a flask of something hot will warm you up on the ice.
- Waterproof coat – it was snowing when we were up on the glacier and my huge waterproof hood came in handy for staying dry and keeping my ears warm. Of course, you might have beautiful sunshine whilst you are up there but it will still be fairly cold!
- Base layers – as I mentioned, I left mine in my case as it was sunny when we left Jasper. By the time we hit the glacier, I was freezing and wishing for a good pair of thermals. I was kicking myself for the rest of the day for leaving them back in the cabin.
- Gloves – goes without saying, when you get cold, fingers and toes are the first to feel it!
- Sturdy boots – walking boots if you have them, paired with thick socks. I had Vibram soles and was still feeling like I could slide over at any point.
- Nerves of steel – the Ice Explorer used to transfer you from the road to the glacier takes some fairly steep hills (45 degree angle at some points) and for someone who isn’t keen on edges, it’s pretty scary!
- An empty water bottle – so you can drink some of the glacier water – on the day we went, there was a smoky tinge to the water due to a recent forest fire.
- Sunglasses – although it can be cold, if the sun is out, your eyes will thank you for some relief from the glare of the snow!
- A camera! The views are stunning and you won’t want to miss them!
The only way on to the glacier is via the Ice Explorers, operated by Brewster. These are huge machines and whilst they are designed for all terrain, it was still pretty scary to be moving down to the glacier at 45% angles! Sharp drops, rubble and rising snow drifts rolled past the windows, my stomach lurching each time the Ice Explorer tilted or rocked. The Explorer works on engine braking, rather than using its actual brakes down the steep slopes. The driver (a guy from Wales who seemed like a knowledgable, friendly dude) told us all to buckle up, laughing as we all reached for the non-existent seat belts.
Stepping out on to the ice was amazing. The wind and snow was biting and it was instantly hard to catch my breath. Although the area on the glacier designated for visitors was fairly small and the time spent out on the ice was short, it was absolutely incredible. The sheer size and scale of the mountains, coupled with the intense weather made me realise just how harsh and unforgiving this type of landscape is. Encouraged by the guide, we filled our water bottles with the glacier water, tasting the smoke from a nearby forest fire and wandered around the surface of the glacier, snapping pictures with shaky, cold hands.
The visit to the glacier is topped off with a ‘Skywalk’ experience – a walkway suspended over a 918 foot drop with a glass floor. I’d been on something similar at the Grand Canyon but it didn’t stop the ground spinning dizzily away as we made our loop of the structure. Valleys and canyons below us, we focused on the waterfalls in the distance, being fed by the glacier above.
Although most of the day was spent feeling freezing cold, wet and uncomfortable – not to mention fairly scared (me and heights don’t mix), it was completely worth it. There are few places that truly make us realise how much we are at mercy of the elements. Sure, some people do get to go on expeditions and explore the places we only see in pictures, but Athabasca Glacier is one of those places that allows us mere mortals to feel like we are right there with them, grasping adventure by the scruff of the neck and doing something that truly is a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.
Have you visited the glacier? Share your experience in the comments!