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Canada’s Icefields Parkway: 250 Kilometers of Solitude
Photos by Ted Alvarez and Rob Smith

Canada’s Icefields Parkway: 250 Kilometers of Solitude

We awoke to cold, gray clouds suffusing the sky outside our window, rendering the sun a dull, pale orb through the patina. On the edges of the clouds to the Northwest, we saw crystalline fringes pulling away to fall into the valley of our destination. That meant snow, which was bad news.

We jumped in the car and took a few final photos, hoping to beat the snow and squeeze a little success out of a potential washout. But after a few minutes the sun began a daylong struggle for dominance, pouring out welcome yellow light on the Parkway. Just a few miles beyond the Lodge, we began to see glaciers from the Waputik Icefield spill over the peaks to the west. Of the largest, one was cradled in a couloir and appeared to be near a hundred feet thick, while the other looked as if it had been poured over the top of a ragged peak like a slushie and flash-frozen in place. Both of them were bright aquamarine — like toothpaste–and they glowed from underneath a wrap of snow. These ancient Ice-Age remnants seemed eerily alive, sitting heavy on their ledges in barren terrain during a dead season; they had survived even as their brethren receded and disappeared. Even with my hands on the wheel, I couldn’t look away.

Rob and I stared slack-jawed as the peaks grew more and more impressive. The sheer prominence of most peaks was astounding; I marveled at one particular peak crowding the horizon and wondered aloud what its proper name might be. “You wanna know what mountain that is?” Rob replied. “I’ll tell ya what mountain it is: Mount F***ing Awesome. Write that down.”

After miles of leaning with my forehead pressed into the windshield to take in views, we finally arrived at the trailhead near the Saskatchewan River Crossing suggested by the Tomyn couple. During the summer, Saskatchewan River Crossing contains one of two service facilities, but the gas stations and shopping centers across the street remain closed and look abandoned. The creepy, ghost-town ambience actually gave me a charge, so we loaded our packs and trekked off into the woods. True to the couple’s word, our hiking boots barely made prints on the hard packed snow of the trail, and we quickly blazed into the pines and firs.

Through a few dips and courses into the river valley, I noticed a makeshift path through a patch of scrubby pine carpeting a rise. I clambered through and up to bald spot where the trees cleared, providing an unobstructed view of the entire valley. A deep green sea of fir tops spread out before me, and the western peaks beyond rose like immobile, hulking armored tortoises. I sat down for a moment and watched the trees sway, basking in my utter solitude — my small sense of self and place amid the glaciers. Then I took a deep breath, sniffed the wind, and yelled for Rob to join me.

Icefield of Dreams

Despite my elation at what I officially named Point Solitude (Canadian government ruling pending), the pièce de résistance, the namesake of the Parkway, remained ahead of us. The Columbia Icefields were just beyond the border into Jasper National Park, and as we approached, even I ran out of superlatives (but not expletives) to describe the sheer scale and drama associated with those passes and crags. The scope increased exponentially with each mile, er, kilometer, and Rob and I started to get hoarse from attempting to top our last “WHOAH” in volume. Near the Icefield, where snowdrifts crept into double digits and the mountains tore like black knives from beneath, I think we both decided that stunned silence might be the most appropriate and practical response.

Once we faced the expanse of the Columbia Icefield, though, we were truly quieted. The leading edge of the Icefields, an icy tongue called the Athabasca Glacier, lolled out between two sentry peaks. Though moving only centimeters a day, the Athabasca looked poised to crawl out of its bedrock and swallow both the road and the closed visitor center across. The glacier had swept the valley clean of any vegetation, leaving cratered moraines littered with smooth rocks; add a constant, fierce wind blowing snow and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to place yourself on another planet. We had to get out there. (See the glacier for yourself. Click here for the video. Note: You’ll need Windows Media Player.)

Given the obvious crevasse and wind dangers, we couldn’t venture out onto the glacier itself, but I could march right up to the lip. This proved a difficult task, anyway: the subzero temperatures and furious gales forced you to march at a 45-degree angle over desperately uneven terrain, and even the snow-blown moraines concealed pockets of deep snow. Several times I tentatively probed sections of ice with my feet and deemed it solid, only to step forward and end up crotch-deep and flopped over. While I proceeded ever closer to the lip of the Athabasca, Rob waved from the parking lot and took pictures. I think I saw him double over with laughter a few times, only to have the wind immediately right him. Serves him.

When I finally went as far as I could safely traverse, I took a few celebratory photos and shouted noiselessly into the wind. Even bundled appropriately, my digits began to numb and the wind tore at my face. I took a last view of the terrible Athabasca, and then said “screw you” to the cold and booked for the car. This was the blessing and the beauty of the Columbia Icefield in the winter: one can come and get the full Arctic treatment, with the cold, the solitude, the pain and the struggle with the elements, and when you’re done pretending to be Hilary or Amundsen, you can retreat to the comforts of your vehicle a scant couple hundred yards away. Also, it’s a wonderful acid test to see whether you’ve truly got the stomach to pursue a recreational interest in prolonged mountain suffering or if you should stick to The Discovery Channel instead.

If I ever do make that fantasy trip to the Karakoram, I think Rob will just laugh at my folly and pop in a copy of Touching the Void.

The Finish Line

From the Columbia Icefields, the Parkway descended quickly into Jasper National Park, which inexplicably had completely dry and clear roads. Overall, the park seemed much better maintained than Banff, and the character was markedly different — though no less beautiful. The Banff section of the Icefields Parkway wound its way through the heart of the mountain passes, offering intimate, neck-breaking views of peaks right along the highway; after the initial descent, the highway section in Jasper tore out into the middle of the river valley, providing expansive, long-distance vistas of the flanking ranges and peaks like Mount Edith Cavell and Mount Fryatt.

In the middle of the descent, we stopped at a couple pit toilets. There were a few cars parked in the small lot, but no trailheads or signs of visitors. It was only when I emerged from the bathroom that I noticed a repetitive tik-tik-tik sound echoing from behind me. Across the highway, a small group of ice climbers silently notched their way up the frozen plumes of Stanley Falls, one of several huge waterfalls along the parkway. Listening closely, one could still hear and, in spots, even see the water still flowing under the sheets and columns of ice. Though slightly unnerving to watch, I decided that upon my return winter visit, I’d have to tackle the falls.

But for now, my main concern became the completion of the Icefields Parkway itself. We’d approached late afternoon, and still had 50 or so miles before we reached the end at Jasper. I would’ve driven over old women and children to get there — I wasn’t going to come this far and not see the whole damn thing. Rob, however, spends over half the year on the road with his two bands, and naturally he was getting antsy to head back for OKC and his impossibly patient saint-of-a-wife, Jennie. “Dude, I think we should turn around pretty soon,” he suggested. His tone was friendly and passive, but his eyes said, “If you cost me an extra day, I’ll put a Pro-Mark where the sun don’t shine.”

I made a bargain to turn around, bar none, at 3:30. As the deadline drew close, I did the only thing one can do in my position: I put the pedal to the friggin’ metal. We pulled in to Jasper at 3:30, took a two-minute break, and turned right around to cross the parkway for the second time. Far from being tedious, this final drive had me counting the days until I get to navigate the Icefields Parkway in winter for the third & fourth time.

On our return trip, the backs of the peaks and ridges we’d seen before were cast in a bright peach Alpenglow, lending the Parkway a whole new ambience. We climbed with the sun, squeezing every last bit of light out of the day to get second-helping eyefuls of the immense glaciers we’d seen already. The mountains faded to dark violet on cue three hours later, just as we pulled off the Parkway into Lake Louise to leave the shadowed colossi behind. “Right on time,” said Rob, staring into the rearview mirror.

If you go:

Crowds shouldn’t pick up until June or so, and winter conditions can persist just as long, so plan accordingly. Facilities don’t open until summer, so make sure to get gas and supplies before entering the Icefields Parkway.

It’s wise to book at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge ahead of time, as they are the only indoor lodging option on the Parkway in winter. For more info and reservations, go to http://num-ti-jah.com/

For more information on the Icefields Parkway, go to: http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/visit/visit14_e.asp

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part installment. Click here for part one.

About Ted Alvarez