Last August, a group of friends and I had the chance to stand on top of the Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible outcropping of the Columbia Icefield in Alberta.
First of all, we got to ride one of these things. At 55,000 lbs. the Ice Explorer was the closest I have ever been to riding in a tank.
Apparently, there are only a handful of these in the world, and all but one of them serve the Glacier Adventure tour we were on. The last one is apparently being used as a research vehicle and is stationed in Antarctica. Neat.
After arriving on top of the glacier, we were allowed out of the Ice Explorer for about 15 minutes. It wasn’t a whole lot of time, but enough to appreciate the magnitude of the ice.
Standing on top of the glacier, I found it hard to believe that the Athabasca Glacier extended nearly 1,000 ft below us at points. There really was a LOT of ice. As intimidating as it was, it was still no where near as large or as magnificent as it once had been in the past.
The Athabasca Glacier has been receding at a rate of about 16 ft/year and has lost about half of its volume over the past 125 years. I’m glad we went and saw it when we did.
The second half of the tour was even more “tourist-y” than the glacial excursion. We rode the Ice Explorer back up to the bus stop, and hitched a ride back to what was called the “Glacier Skywalk.”
The walk from the bus stop was made more enjoyable by a complimentary audio tour. I wandered down the walkway listening to the local history, interesting facts about the indigenous wildlife and even some tidbits about plate tectonics. Eventually we all made our way to the skywalk.
The big sell here was that the floor of the Glacier Skywalk was made of glass. That and, if you jumped hard enough, the entire walkway would wobble just enough to freak out the other tourists. (The bus driver said that this behavior was OK, and even encouraged.)
We even took the time to stage a photo that I’m sure has never been attempted before:
I’m not sure a print of this will go on my wall, but it gets the point across rather well. We were, in fact, an inch or two of glass away from a 980 ft drop.
Overall, it was definitely a worthwhile venture, and I urge anyone visiting Alberta to make their way up to the toes of the Columbia Icefield. You just never know how many more generations will be able to enjoy it as we did.