Slowly but keenly, H.S. Radha takes in the intriguing expanse and the significance of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies

We couldn’t make it to the last tour to the glacier (which was at 4 p.m.), thanks to a missed turn off Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies putting us on course to Vancouver instead of the Athabasca Visitor Centre. When I, the lazy navigator in the backseat, realised that the map showed Kicking Horse Pass (which we had just passed) on the Trans Canadian Highway to Vancouver, I knew I was going to hear an earful from the chauffeur — my old friend, and guide on this trip.

A U-turn, lots of recrimination and an hour later, we were on the right track — the Icefields Parkway. After 100-odd km of great views of jagged mountains and frozen lakes, we parked at the Icefields Visitor Centre, only to be told we had missed the last bus by 20 min.

As we dejectedly drove off towards Jasper, gazing at the glacier, we spotted the ant-like Ice Explorer on the wide landscape, making its way to the glacier. My 13-year-old announced: “The Eiffel Tower can be buried in the Athabasca Glacier.” Trivial no doubt, but it did convey the magnificence of the glacier we were not going to visit.

Can’t miss it!

After sinking into the comfort of the sofa of our hotel in Jasper and pouring a hot cuppa, the chauffeur-cum-friend decided the drive back to the Columbia Icefields was a must. How could we miss the glacier, one of the most visited sites in North America? It was also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

The following day saw us boarding the first bus out to the glacier. William, our driver-guide pointed at short conifers and asked us how old those trees might be. Imagine our surprise when we heard they were 300 years old! The cold wind from across the glacier, froze the sap leaving the trees a window of four to six weeks a year to grow. As we went further, he pointed at other short conifers and surprised us even further saying those were 800 years old! These just had a narrow window of two to three weeks in a year to grow. The harshness of the terrain was sinking in.

We stopped at an open area and boarded the Ice Explorer — a monster of a vehicle. Made in Alberta, there are just 23 of these a-million-Canadian-dollar vehicles — 22 to explore the Columbia Icefields and one that ferries personnel in the Antarctic. It is an all-wheel drive with large wheels with low pressure to improve traction on the ice. Dan, our new driver-guide, warned us to hold on and changed gears to go at top speed — 18 km an hour!

Ages ago, Western Canada’s mountains were covered with a thick ice mass. What is left today is the largest icefield surrounded by high peaks. The moisture-laden Pacific winds precipitate down as snow. About 23 ft of snow falls in these parts every year. As more snow falls than can melt, the weight of the snow over time turns it into compacted ice and this flows over the high plateau through the gaps between mountains. There are six such outlet glaciers from this icefield and we were headed to one — the Athabasca glacier.

The Columbia Icefield is the centre of water distribution in North America. The snow-melt from here flows thousands of km via glaciers, rivers and lakes before flowing into the Pacific, Atlantic and the Arctic oceans.

We saw a lot of loose grey rock and fine flour-like debris called moraine. As the glacier flows from the icefield, it melts and releases the debris or moraine it holds.

Our Ice Explorer halted and we had 20 min to look around and take pictures.

The Columbia Icefield Centre opens to visitors in April and closes for the severe winter. We were there in the first week of its opening, and there was snow all around. I was glad I had my dark glasses on, for the intense glare from the reflecting snow was hard to handle. At many places we stood on frozen water. Apparently, some of the ice we were standing on was from the last Ice Age!

So, this was the glacier 300 mt deep in parts. I bent down and wiped clean the recent snow. Underneath was blue ice. Blue? Even the glacier between the mountains looked blue. Dan explained that over time, the weight of the layers of ice had pushed out the air bubbles from inside the ice, giving the compacted ice the brilliant blue colour.

Warmer planet

The glacier moved a few cm a day — a glacial pace. With the planet getting warmer, it wasn’t snowing as much as before but melting more every summer. The moraine was not all from an advancing glacier, it was also from a retreating glacier. Yes, the melting glacier has been doing so for the last 150 years, and has retreated more than 1.5 km. Scientists think the glaciers might last another 50 to 100 years at this pace of retreat.

The magnificent glacier put things in perspective — we are a small cog in a large wheel of life on this planet.