When looking over a map of Canada’s Glacier National Park, the Great Glacier Trail instantly caught my attention. The trail was ranked a ‘moderate’ by their system, and was a measly 6.4 km round trip. Of course, it said right there in the description it no longer accesses the Illecillewaet Glacier as it did when it was constructed in the 1890s. I figured that the trail would at least get me pretty close to a glacier, though, and indeed an internet search returned many photos of people next to the ice of the Illecillewaet Glacier, via the Great Glacier Trail. No one really noted how much further they had to hike after the trail ended to get to the glacier, but a number of people appeared to have seen it up close, so how hard could it be?
|Illecillewaet Glacier (left) as seen from the campground road.|
Glacier National Park, Canada is acknowledged as the birthplace of mountaineering in North America. 1888 saw the first technical recreational climb in the Selkirk Mountains, later the home of Glacier National Park. The climb was completed by two British mountaineers - Rev. William Spotswood Green and Rev. Henry Swanzy. Starting in 1899 the park boasted two Swiss mountain guides offering safe travel up mountains and glaciers. The Glacier House, accessible only by train at the time, sat where the Illecillewaet Campground now exists and offered guests tremendous views of the surrounding peaks and the "Great Glacier" as the Illecillewaet was named at the time. In those days, a short trail lead awestruck visitors right to the edge of the tremendous glacier towering above. Those brave enough ventured out onto the ice and the high mountain peaks above.
Warming climate over the last 100 years has changed the area greatly. In fact, there is no point anywhere along the 3.2km Great Glacier Trail that you can even see the glacier that the trail was named for. Hiking around switchback after switchback, suddenly there was this sign post in the middle of the path that said "End of Trail." That was it, it just stopped. There was no viewpoint or information, just a post halfway up a slope in the middle of the mountain.
From the trail's end, the gentle grassy slope soon became a steep, rocky scramble with no definitive direction. It quickly became obvious that the 3.2 km trail had been the easy part, getting Lizzie and I only about half way to the glacier itself. Scree fields prolonged our fight upward and steep, mossy rocks presented an even less appealing alternative. Finally, we came over a rise to see the glorious white of the glacier glistening in the sun. Several pools filled depressions carved into the rock by the glacier over thousands of years, now exposed for the first time since before the last ice age.
The area below the glacier presented many signs of wear from the giant glacier of the past. Much of the rock had been scraped and plucked by the moving ice as gravity had forced it downhill over hundreds of years.
|Channel scraped into bedrock by the moving glacier, exposed after severe melting|
The edge of the ice was fractured and broken by rapid melting with several blocks of ice having broken free, now resting on their own tens or hundreds of feet from the rest of the ice. A number of small caves and tunnels appeared under the ice as we walked along the edge of the glacier. These types of features are common near the edge of the ice where water flows out from underneath the glacier.
|Tunnel under the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier|
|Lizzie coming up the lower glacier - the highway below Roger's Pass can be seen below|
We filled our bottles with freshly melting glacier water before starting back down in the shadow of a looming storm cloud.
|Fresh water straight from the glacier|
|weaving our way between shallow crevasses on the way back down|
Illecillewaet Glacier Stats, as of 2016My First Visit:16 September, 2016
Type: Alpine Glacier
Location: Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada
Source:Illecillewaet Névé, Mount Sir Donald vicinity
Access: ~7km (one way) hiking starting with the Great Glacier Trail, good route finding skills recommended after that.