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Conquering Columbia

The Columbia Icefield: A glacial journey Add to ...

Let us begin with two facts that anyone who wishes to ski up onto the Columbia Icefield, halfway between Banff and Jasper, might want to remember.

1. At 300 square kilometres, the Columbia Icefield is the largest glacier in North America outside Alaska – so big that it creates its own weather systems.

2. The weather is almost always in a bad mood.

In the 1920s, Byron Harmon, Canada's first photographic chronicler of the Rocky Mountains, hooked up with Lewis Freeman, an American travel writer and filmmaker, to make the trip.

They wanted to photograph Mount Columbia, which at 3,747 metres (12,294 feet) is Alberta's highest peak and sits in the corner of the ice field like a pasha on a throne. They employed two guides, a string of pack horses, a radio, a typewriter, 8,000 feet of movie film and a flock of carrier pigeons, in case they found trouble.

They took 70 days to travel 800 kilometres.

On their very last day on top of the world, their food spent, the clouds finally cleared for the first time for 40 minutes – just long enough for Harmon to snap his pictures of the great peak. At the time, Freeman remarked that it might be the first patch of clear sky in those parts for several years.

Needless to say, even now that a highway runs within eight kilometres of the toes of the glacier, these facts raise a question: Why would otherwise rational human beings strap on skis and climb even 15 km on foot, in winter, carrying all their gear and provisions, up to the foggy, frozen hell of the Columbia glacier? And even if they did, why would they want to do it at the age of 56?

I asked myself the same question many times before we embarked. I can say this: There is no single sane answer. On the other hand, if you don't try, you end up regretting it.

Attempts 1, 2 and 3

In our defence – and by “our,” I mean my own, and that of Allan Kling, a lawyer-turned-landscape designer from Toronto; John Mitchell, a retired oilman in Edmonton; and William Randall, a rancher from Argentina, all of whom have been skiing together in the high mountains every year for 25 years – this was our fourth attempt.

The first time we tried to broach the Columbia, we were in our 30s.

It’s good to be in your 30s! We approached the Columbia by ski plane from the west, landed on the Clemenceau Glacier, ascended the Apex Glacier and a few others, and planned to climb a chimney in a cliff band into the Rocky Mountain Trench, whence we could ramp up onto the Columbia itself.

This had been done a couple of times before in the preceding hundred years. But bad weather fogged us in for three days, and travelling over a glacier in a whiteout with dwindling food is not recommended. A helicopter eventually plucked us off to safety.

Life is simpler up there, even in a whiteout that stops you cold.... Everything you do feels necessary.

The second time we went in from the east, up the big, fat, safe but very long tongue of the Saskatchewan Glacier.

We didn’t see the sun for two days, and I had a brand-new month-old baby daughter at home, with the result that I freaked out after a day’s travel, and began to see the outline of growling spirit bears in abstract patches of rock and snow on the sides of the mountains that loom over the lower valley of the Saskatchewan. Marijuana may have been involved.

In any event, I decided I had to stay alive for a few years to get the baby on her feet, and so I turned back.

The Columbia can do such things, and led me to formulate Brown’s First Rule of Glacier Travel: Do not go ski mountaineering with anyone who has a child under a year old at home.

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