- Cryosphere refers to any portion of the Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, snow cover, frozen rivers, lakes, and permafrost. The Cryosphere is closely linked to the Hydrosphere and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and our everyday lives.
- I've chosen the name because Cryosphere encompasses a wide range of ice around the world. This blog is meant to chronicle not all glaciers, but those that I experience and photograph in my travels. My vision is to visit and write about as many glaciers and other ice forms as possible while I pursue knowledge and share experiences of a beautiful world of ice. I hope you enjoy the photographs and follow along as I go!

21 August 2016

02. Athabasca Glacier

The Columbia Icefield, at 325 square kilometers and between 90 and 350 meters thick, is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. Wet winds form the Pacific cross interior British Columbia to bring over 7 meters of snow every year to the high mountain peaks surrounding the Columbia Icefield. Six major glaciers get their start in the icefield, and meltwater drains to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. Poised near the highway between Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Athabasca Glacier, one of the six tongues of glacier ice stemming from the icefield, has become the most visited glacier in North America.

When I first laid eyes on the Athabasca, it was the closest I had yet come to stepping onto a glacier. I was bound for Alaska in the summer of 2015, where I would eventually end up working as a photographer on the Matanuska Glacier. The remote Columbia Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada rewards drivers with views of many glaciers along the route. Towering peaks high above the valley hold hanging glaciers on their steep cliffs and pristine mountain lakes glisten a beautiful turquoise in the summer sun.

Along the Icefields Parkway, Crowfoot Glacier hangs above paddlers on Bow lake

The Icefields Discovery Center, 185km North of Banff and still 103km from Jasper, offers travelers a rest stop with absolutely spectacular views of the Athabasca Glacier and surrounding 3,500 meter peaks. The 6km long Athabasca Glacier, easily seen from picnic tables on the deck, is only about 2km from the Discovery Center. In the early 1900's, the glacier would have been much closer. Having receded 1.5km in the last 125 years, the glacier has lost an estimated half of it's total mass in that time. A relatively easy hiking trail awaits for those that want a closer look, or giant glacier-adapted coaches await to shuttle tourists onto the glacier 56 people at a time. As with any glacier, travel onto the ice without proper equipment and experience, or a guide, is unwise and unsafe.

Toe of the Athabasca from the short viewing trail.
On my first visit, I was intensely curious, but knew little about glacier travel to risk going alone. Also there was a river between me and the ice. The coaches, while neat, dumping people off onto a smoothed out section of the glacier didn't sound like my style of travel. Plus I needed to save money for Alaska.

After checking out the Discovery center, I wandered out in the rain near the base of the glacier. As it turns out, you can see some cool stuff without getting near the ice.

Self portrait across the river from the Athabasca Glacier

Fast-forward to the end of the summer and I was heading back South from Alaska to Colorado. I passed through the Icefields Parkway again and stopped by. This time, I knew something about glaciers, but still didn't own a pair of crampons of my own, and I had been fighting a stomach bug all the way from Alaska. I was still interested in checking out the glacier more closely, but the information desk seemed unimpressed or unconvinced that I knew what I was doing and offered no tips on access to the glacier, aside from the crowded motor coach.

Finally, on the third visit while my girlfriend, Lizzie, and I traveled back to MICA this summer, we would get onto the glacier. Or, rather, into the glacier...

Lizzie and I in an Athabasca ice cave, Spring 2016
We had heard rumors of ice caves on the Athabasca, so we made it a goal to get onto the glacier and search for the fabled ice caves. Now we had plenty of gear and experience on ice, though now the game had changed. The glacier was still covered in snow! Snow adds an entirely new element of danger to glacier travel, as crevasses and other massive holes are invisible to travelers under the cover of snow. I knew from visiting the year before and from online photos that the very toe of the glacier tended to be free of large crevasses, but it wouldn't be worth risking traveling up very far to find any cool features like walls to climb or say, ice caves.  Lizzie suggested that this glacier would have to wait until our return trip in the Fall, but I at least wanted to get more information before moving on.

I wasn't in the mood to put up with the usual crap that information centers provide to keep people from wandering off the path, so I made it clear to the guy behind the counter at the Icefields Discovery Center right away that we were both glacier guides and were well versed in glacier travel (may have left out the fact that neither of us knew a damn thing about snow-covered glaciers). Luckily, the Parks Canada employee on the other side of the counter seemed grateful to speak to someone who knew what they were doing, and offered tips on accessing the ice safely. For the same reasons they don't like to hand out this information, I will keep it out of this post. If you are interested in glacier travel either learn the skills required to do it safely, or go with a guide.

Our hike out to see the toe of the glacier was without the majority of our gear, because even with the helpful information from the Center, we weren't sure we would risk traveling on the glacier this time until we checked out the condition of it more closely. However, a lightweight scouting trip was just what we needed to stumble upon the location of the ice cave, and let us know that it would actually be possible to get to. I was ecstatic at the possibility of going inside an ice cave of the glacier. Lizzie, much less so, it turned out. I wasn't sure she would go inside but ultimately, she too, wanted to check it out. Stability of the ice is always a concern when anything is overhead, especially in unknown areas. However, being early spring when temperatures were only beginning to rise, this seemed as good a time as any we would have - winter would be ideal with everything frozen and unlikely to move at all. We discovered the ground inside still to be frozen - great sign for an ice cave - and it only went back 30 meters or so. I set up the tripod and speedlights for some photos in the dark cave before we quickly made our way back out. The ice inside was unbelievable. This cave had been carved by water moving under the glacier, the way most ice caves are formed, and any air bubbles in the ice had long since been squeezed out by the massive pressure of the thick ice above. Since it was toward the bottom of the glacier, no sun had touched this ice since it formed, and it was as clear as glass. Filtered sunlight broke in through the wall near the entrance, filtered by ice to a gorgeous crystal blue. The back of the cave received no light but from our headlamps.

Lizzie exiting the ice cave
The feeling of being inside such an incredibly unique environment is really something inspiring, and I am lucky to have experienced it. Many people seek out such places ad few ever get to see them in person. I am also grateful for my wonderful girlfriend Lizzie and her patience, and for her always looking out for me.

Athabasca Glacier Statistics:

My First Visit: 24 July 2015 (not on the ice)
First Time on the Glacier: 02 May 2106
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Source: Columbia Icefield on the border of British Columbia and Alberta
Length: 6 km
Width: 1 km
Flow: Several centimeters/day
Status: Rapidly retreating, 10-20 meters/year currently
Access: Massive 56 person coach, or short hike to viewing area. Walking access onto the glacier is limited for anyone not experienced in glacier travel and with proper equipment. Nominal Day Use fee to Parks Canada for access to the Icefields Parkway.

Further Resources:

www.canadianrockies.net Parkway and Glacier Facts

Geovista Brochure on the Athabasca Glacier

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