COLD OLD MOUNTAINS
Suzanne Morphet braves a three-day hike across the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies
IN my backpack I have stashed long johns, fleece pants, a couple of sweaters and a raincoat. Even though it is summer, I will be spending 11/ days 2 crossing an icefield of glaciers on a three-day hike into Canada’s Rocky Mountains. But on our first July afternoon on the trail up to Bow Glacier, the sun beats down, making it feel more like the tropics than the temperate zone and causing us to pause often to drink.
A couple coming down the trail stops to tell us that up on the icefield, the heat is even more unbearable, with the sun reflecting off the snow. Their sunburned faces and necks confirm as much. If the heat is getting to us, what is it doing to the glaciers?
Glaciers, of course, are capable of withstanding many years of temperature fluctuations, advancing and retreating depending on the climate. But now that climate is changing in a big way, how much time is left before glaciers are gone for good or are just a sorry remnant of their original stark beauty?
Only Greenland has more glacial ice than Canada, but floes receded rapidly in the 20th century. Some small glaciers have halved in size, while large glaciers have shrunk by about 25 per cent. Some predict there will be no glaciers left in the Canadian Rockies in 100 years.
So it is with a sense of urgency that I have signed up with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures for a traverse across the Wapta Icefield, not far from the tourist towns of Banff and Lake Louise, yet mountain tops away from their sunny summertime hustle and bustle.
Aside from its wilderness, the Wapta Icefield is compelling for another reason. Its glaciers spill down both sides of the Great Divide, the north-south spine that runs from the bottom of South America through the isthmus of Panama and all the way to Alaska.
In Canada, the Rocky Mountains are the Great Divide, separating water that flows north and east to the Beaufort Sea, Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean from water flowing west to the Pacific. Stand on the divide and you could kick snow towards the Arctic or towards the Pacific without taking a step.
About three hours after leaving the car park at Bow Lake we get our first glimpse of the Bow Glacier, the source of the Bow River, which supplies half of Calgary’s drinking water. Compared with a photo I have seen of this glacier taken in the late 1800s, it’s less than spectacular, at least from this viewpoint. Instead of flowing down into the valley, the toe of the glacier is 1.5km higher up, peeking over a mountain ledge and barely visible. The ground it once covered is now scoured rock, barren of soil or vegetation.
That night we crawl into our sleeping bags in Bow Hut, one of a series built by the Alpine Club of Canada, and wonder how impressive the glacier will be when we walk across it. In the morning we strap crampons over our boots and rope together for safety. Our guide, Sean Isaac, known in the mountaineering community as Sean Ice Axe for his outdoor skills, assures us that early summer is a good time to walk on glaciers because the inevitable crevasses are still covered by sturdy snow bridges. Still, he frequently plunges his ice axe into the snow in front of him to test its depth and, I suspect, our nerves.
Anyone who thought the Great Divide had to be a sharp ridge would know otherwise when they see the Wapta Icefield. It’s a vast expanse of gently rising and falling slopes, where glaciers merge, pierced in places by craggy peaks jutting skyward.
Even though the snow on top of the ice is soft, walking up here is child’s play. Indeed, the five of us look a lot like a bunch of preschoolers, roped together behind our leader. After walking across this frozen and quiet landscape for several hours, with only the occasional raven for company, we throw our packs on the snow and sit on top of them to eat lunch.
We have fine views of Mt Saint Nicholas and other nearby peaks. On the snow at our feet we’re surprised to find a ladybird and a spider, both alive.
Something called watermelon algae has turned the snow pink in places but its supposed watermelon scent eludes us. Isaac points out we can determine which way the ice is moving beneath us by the direction of the pink streaks. Glaciers can move up to 1m a day. Given the warm sunshine and spectacular mountain scenery, it’s tempting to just sit here and see if we can feel the ice move beneath us.
When the sun disappears behind clouds and the temperature begins to drop, we press on and soon see the bright blue metal Peyto Hut perched on a rocky bluff in the distance. At some point invisible to us, we have crossed from Bow Glacier to Peyto Glacier.
From Peyto Hut, the views are the most colourful and spectacular yet. There’s slategrey ice, pink-streaked snow, brownish-black mountain tops and, way down in the valley below, the turquoise blue of Peyto Lake.
It’s an artist’s palette. When I visit the outhouse for the first time I discover the windows frame perfect views of the glacier. A loo with a view.
The next morning we wake to rain pelting the windows, then hail. No sooner have we roped up than a thick fog descends. A tripod in the middle of the glacier (for collecting weather data) has disappeared from view. Not a problem, except that it was the point Isaac used to set his compass.
The glacier that seemed so benign yesterday suddenly seems dangerous. We move very slowly towards where Isaac thinks the tripod is, but for a long time we see nothing but each other. Then out of nowhere the tripod emerges beside us.
‘‘ Was that skill or luck?’’ asks Isaac, laughing and breaking the nervous tension.
As the fog lifts, we find ourselves walking on bare ice that’s hundreds of years old. It’s grey and cracked and looks treacherous.
Yet as big and sprawling as it appears, the Peyto Glacier has lost as much as 70 per cent of its volume.
Farther along, we jump across deep crevasses, peer down mill holes drilled by melting ice and listen to water gurgling in the bowels of the glacier as it makes its way noisily to Peyto Lake. When the ice thins and finally peters out, we reluctantly take off our crampons and say goodbye to the glacier as we follow its meltwater to the lake.
But first we need to make our way down an old moraine, the earth and stone deposited by the glacier as it receded in the previous century.
It’s an uneasy reminder that the glaciers here today may well be gone tomorrow. www.yamnuska.com www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/calgary
Cracking time: Mountain guide Sean Isaac straddles a deep crevasse in the Canadian Rockies
The ultimate outhouse: A loo with a lofty view at Peyto Glacier