COLD OLD MOUN­TAINS

Suzanne Morphet braves a three-day hike across the glaciers of the Cana­dian Rock­ies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - THE ICE FLOE TEST -

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

Pic­tures: Suzanne Morphet

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

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