So I booked tickets for the Columbia Icefield Adventure with the Pursuit Company on the Monday for a bus drive up to the Athabasca Glacier and a stroll on the new (opened in 2014) glass-sided and -bottomed Skyway platform ($270.90 for three tickets). We set off from Calgary at 6:45 a.m. in the rain for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre on Highway 93 for the 11:15 kick-off.
We filed onto a blue bus that set off promptly with the driver giving a rapid and largely incomprehensible talk, pointing out a variety of things. Driving up a narrow gravel road beside the Athabasca Glacier, we reached the exchange point and transferred to a red bus with massive tires – yes, the same kind of behemoth that was in the news in April 2020 following a deadly 50-metre ice slide and tumble down a moraine ending on its back. These buses now have seatbelts. The case is still sub judice.
Our new driver climbed aboard and introduced himself as Ryan from Nova Scotia. With some relief, we saw he was an amiable, sober, ruddy faced, intelligent young man who spoke clearly and amusingly, informing us of his four years experience driving these mechanical leviathans.
Then the usual guide question: “Where y’all from?”
“Anyone from Australia – Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy,” said Ryan.
“Oic, Oic, Oic,” came the expected reply from the back of the bus.
After carefully – no, fastidiously – fastening seatbelts, we were off, Ryan pointing out two glaciers to the left side of the Athabasca Glacier: the Andromeda Glacier and the A2 Glacier. The bus went comfortably at the speed of a harvesting farm tractor. Ryan told us that the Athabasca Glacier expanded till around 1840 and after that has receded steadily. I didn’t know glaciers expanded after the last Ice Age … ever – but they did.
“At this rate, the Athabasca Glacier will be gone in 80 years,” said Ryan.
Somebody asked what the difference was between icefields and glaciers.
“The Columbia Icefield is a composite term comprising at least six different glaciers,” said our guide. Wow! The guide’s correct use of the word “comprise” told us we had a well-educated person driving.
We ground slowly down the snow road, then up and onto the middle of the glacier. “Watch your step – there are ice-holes.”
We plodded over the packed snow, ice and slush, side-stepping puddles of ice-melt towards a cutely tattered Canadian flag planted in the snow. At the flag, the usual photos were taken. After 30 minutes glacier scrunching, we returned to the red bus.
“Anybody drink the glacier melt?” says Ryan. “Yeah,” from some voices.
“Sorree, should’ve warned you …” Some gasps and consternation. “Just kiddin’ – as long as you didn’t drink any of the yellow stuff.”
Back at the exchange, we boarded another blue bus to take us to the Skywalk with me starting to feel a tinge of anxiety. The new driver whose name I missed explained the solidity of the platform structure. They’d never lost anybody. But with mild to moderate acro-anxiety that’s not really the point – the reaction is completely irrational. You know there’s no real risk unless you deliberately climb over the side. Hundreds, no, thousands of people have traversed the Skywalk. Like many other neuroses, your logical, rational brain desperately tries to control the rebellious anxiety pathways. Maybe there’s a mad killer waiting there to wrestle you over the side and down into the Columbia Valley 1,000 feet below – a ten-second fall? Maybe a rumble of an earthquake in the mountainside will loosen the anchors?
“We’re passing the ‘shooting gallery’ now,” says the driver. Hundreds of huge chunks of rock lie on the grassy field beside the roadway. These regularly tumble down the mountainside and sometimes reach the road and hit vehicles. There was a tragedy on Highway 1 near Golden, BC in March this year when a rock crashed onto a passing Jeep. We all watch the mountainside.
We disembark and walk along to the kiosk entrance in beautiful sunshine, no wind, get our tickets scanned and we’re in. There are several stalls – a young woman showing a variety of wildlife footprints – the bear’s massive print easy to remember. Another stall of fecal scat – the bear’s scat is voluminous like bent German sausages; the deer’s is a pile of pellets. Another demo stall on climate change – maybe an appropriate post-political job for Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Climate Change and climate activist who scaled the exterior of the Toronto CN Tower. Where is he when we need him? He could do a daily demo climb on the cliff face here.
The Skywalk looms up along the walled path which itself is hanging over the mountainside. A little more anxiety bubbles up even without the see-through glass bottom. At the entrance to the dreaded glass loop, a uniformed woman explains the engineering feat – the three layers of bullet-proof glass, the huge anchor pins, and the weight and wind dampers.
“The metal looks rusty, but it’s a special metal that doesn’t rust.” Oh, yeah? They have to keep painting Scotland’s Forth Bridge to prevent rust.
A rubber mat to shake the snow off our shoes so we don’t slip, and we’re off. Cousin Jenny also has a mild case of acrophobia. She steps off first. You see, I need her to do that so that I can help if she has a problem. I grasp the inside railing. Don’t look down. Cousin J is in front of me. “Just keep going Jenny. Don’t stop.”
We pass normal people taking photos and selfies, leaning backwards over the outer railing to get a wider scan. I glance down through the glass to the valley bottom a thousand feet below. “Excuse me,” I bark at another normal person in my way who is nonchalantly leaning on the inner railing. And round we go. And reach solid ground. Cousin Mo, a normal person, has been strolling back and forth taking photos of us neurotics (but then she’s had experience – she’s been on the Arizona Grand Canyon Skywalk.)
“Why don’t you go round again for desensitization?” she says, but I’m thinking not to push luck too far and decline, though later I regret it. It would have been therapeutic to stroll round multiple times. But I fear by now this foible is sclerosed solid into the brain and is incurable.