Saturday, 12 July 2008

Athabasca Glacier Travel - Addendum to Changes of Time Part 2

While trying to keep my previous post short and manageable I left out the bit on glacier travel on the Athabasca Glacier. Charles Gramlich commented: "I've never seen a glacier up close, of course." It was time to confront my fears.


My mother, a grade school teacher, was keen on going on a vehicle made to travel over glaciers so she could get a good view of what the terrain looked like. I was doubtful, only going because she said it would be a good education for me and that it was safe. My observant eyes took in the neatly packed emergency equipment in the rear of the vehicle: first aid kit, folded blankets, numerous rope bundles, ice picks, hammers, boots with nails on the bottom, and walkie talkies.

[2-1962] Once up on the glacier we went past deep slits in the ice and stopped near a larger crevasse so our group could get out and look at the "blue ice". My mother was fascinated at the sight while I stayed inside the vehicle where I felt relatively safe. My imagination was running rampant over the horrors of watching some idiot who might fall into a crevasse (some are 150-365 metres deep to the bedrock). I had asked one of the guides if anyone had fallen in and he said not while he had worked there, but there had been "accidents" when the travel service first began. I still recall the "look" my mother had given me...I had been chastised before about making queries on subjects that might frighten other people. My brothers were perfectionists in that skill, they did it to me all the time.

When I took the glacier trip the top just looked icy and snow covered in places. My footwear (saddleshoes) did not handle the slippery conditions well which is another reason I stayed in the vehicle. We had to come back early from the excursion due to rumbling in the ice pack caused by the ice splitting some distance away. My mother had not seemed to notice how worried the guides looked, but I had. We went back over a different route than coming onto the glacier, as a great fissure had appeared.

[3] The dirty stuff on top is partially the pollution from over time. These cracks are called "millwells", a dangerous feature of the glacier. Snow accumulates on crevasses and on warm days the meltwater trickls to the bottom and down through the glacier to the toe. A heavier snowfall will cover these millwills and falling into frigid millwells can result in hypothermia very quickly and fatalities have occurred. Emergency teams are sometimes called upon to rescue unwary hikers and climbers.

Below this photo shows the vast improvement over the glacier vehicle I rode in during the early 60s.

[4] These are the specialized Brewster Snow Coaches, two other models which are used in Antarctica. The Brewsters began offering tours of the glacier back in the 1880s, conducting the first excursions with pack horses. When I rented horses in Banff, I always went to the Brewster outfit as they had the best horses and knew how to care for them.

[5] The Parks Canada Service and Brewster International have collaborated in a joint effort to bring visitors an experience of a 5 km round trip on solid 400 year old ice up to 1200 feet thick. At a prepared location on the ice pack the visitors are allowed out of the buses to walk around and experience the area. For more information on the Columbia Icefields for your ultimate experience go to

There you are, Charles, a trip onto a huge glacier just waiting for you.

Research:, Parks Canada
Photo Credit: [1][2] w reed,[3]-storm light,[4]-Plant Adventure, [5]-fishfix.


Charles Gramlich said...

Wow. I had heard but hadn't really been able to "see" the cracked detail of the surface of a glacier. Those wells would be deadly with a little snow over them for sure. Thanks. Beautiful pics.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow. I knew the top of a glacier was cracked and rivered but it's great to see actual pictures. That well like hole would be horribly dangerous with a little snow cover. Thanks for posting these. Great shots.

Holly Kennedy said...

Thanks for popping by my blog. As a fellow Canadian, I was tickled to see this post about the glacier. I've been there many times and it always manages to take my breath away. Amazing, isn't it?

Have a great summer.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, glad you liked the photos. You might want to use glaciers in one of your future stories.

Holly, welcome. Yes the Columbia Icefields are one of the wonders of the world.

BernardL said...

I enjoyed the tour, Barbara. and your rendition of visiting with your Mom. When the guides exchange worried looks, it's time to get worried. :)

Barbara Martin said...

Bernard, observation comes from watching older brothers getting into mischief while appearing uninterested.

sarah corbett morgan said...

Loved the glacier vehicle from the 1950s. That is quite the photo with its one foot in the abyss. I enjoyed the tour and felt deliciously refreshed after reading it all.

Chervil said...

Ah - these images stir up long forgotten memories. I went to that glacier (I have only ever been to one) in the early 1990s. Great photos!