How to Get Up Close to a Glacier

The optimum way to get up close to a glacier is the Columbia Icefield Adventure tour.

The Columbia Icefield Adventure offers guests the experience of walking on glacial ice. Photograph by Shannon Martin.

[Note: The Columbia Icefield is currently closed.]

Even those who haven’t read any Jon Krakauer know instinctively that glaciers are not to be taken lightly. The very word sends a cold shiver down the backs of seasoned mountaineers and street-level civilians alike. Terrible and beautiful, enthroned among craggy peaks and riddled with deep and deadly crevasses, glaciers are our merciless alpine overlords.

Although intrepid alpine adventurers might live for the thrill of exploring such a fearsome natural phenomenon, for the rest of the normies, the optimum way to get up close to a glacier is the Columbia Icefield Adventure tour.

The Columbia Icefield is situated along the Icefields Parkway, the highway that joins Banff and Jasper National Parks, just past the halfway point on the Jasper side. Comprised of multiple glaciers, the Icefield has long been an attraction for Park tourists, who arrive by the busload during the summer months to be ferried up onto the Athabasca Glacier (a welcome mat of sorts for the Icefield) via Ice Explorer buses fitted with gargantuan snow tires.

Now part of the portfolio of the international experiential travel company Pursuit, the Icefield Adventure, which operates mid-April to mid-October, continues to draw busloads, even as the Athabasca has experienced significant recession. Return guests who last visited several decades ago are uniformly shocked by the expanse of moraine — gravelly banks formed by glacial movement — that now separates the ice sheet and the Parkway.

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is an architectural marvel jutting out over the Sunwapta Valley. Photograph by Mike Seehagel.

While you can certainly join the hordes on one of the standard tours during the daytime, a far better way to get up on the Athabasca is to book the Glacier View Experience, a private evening tour packaged with an overnight stay at the Glacier View Lodge. Since being bought by Pursuit, the formerly unremarkable hotel has undergone an all-out renovation into a minimalist alpine-modern stunner with decor elements inspired by glacial motifs. Along with the accommodation and private tour, Glacier View Experience guests get a three-course dinner at the in-house Altitude restaurant and buffet breakfast the next morning, followed by a visit to the nearby Columbia Icefield Skywalk, an architecturally impressive glass-floored viewing deck along the Parkway jutting out over the Sunwapta Valley 900 feet below.

The Glacier View Experience kicks off with a charcuterie and sparkling-wine welcome reception in the Moraine Lounge, where a huge wall of windows provides exceptional views of the main attraction. The tour embarks as the sky begins to show hints of sunset, bathing the surrounding peaks with the palest pink glow as you meander the ice sheet and sip hot chocolate or cider.

True, getting bused to a glacier visible from a highway after being served charcuterie is not exactly hard-core mountaineering. But there’s still a visceral thrill to getting so close to an ancient and ever-changing force of nature. As an Albertan, standing on this moving, living, breathing sheet of ice moves something inside you. To a glacier, you may be about a significant as a piece of moraine, and yet, you feel drawn to protect it.

The Moraine Lounge at the Glacier View Lodge on the Icefields Parkway. Photograph courtesy of Pursuit Collection.

 

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Avenue’s writers and editors are occasionally invited to experience dining or adventure activities as a guest. Neither complementary experiences nor advertising are required for coverage in Avenue. Neither companies that advertise nor those that provide other incentives are promised editorial coverage, nor do they have the opportunity to review or approve stories before publication.

This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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