COLUMBIA ICEFIELD

Location:  Alberta / British Columbia, Canada
52.146 N     117.308 W
Sections
The Columbia Icefield
Glaciers and the Last Ice Age
Columbia Icefield History and Exploration
Mountains of the Columbia Icefield
Climbing Routes in the Columbia Icefield
The Columbia Icefield Trailheads
Climbing Season in the Columbia Icefield
Conditions and Weather in the Columbia Icefield
Red Tape, Fees and Legalese in Jasper National Park
Camping Near or in the Columbia Icefield
Hazard Warning for the Columbia Icefield
The Icefield Parkway
The Columbia Icefield Centre
Topographic Maps
Columbia Icefield Photo Gallery
Columbia Icefield Acknowledgements and Credits
page one
The Columbia Icefield

Guarded by 11 of the Canadian Rockies’ 22 highest peaks and located at an average elevation of 3,000 m (9,840 ft.), the Columbia Icefield is sustained by about 10 metres (33 feet) of snowfall annually; snow that accumulates in every month of the year. In places the ice is 900 metres (2,952 feet) thick. Its highest point is the round summit of the mountain called Snow Dome. This is a hydrological apex of North America, one of only two points on the continent from which rivers drain into three oceans – the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The other such apex in North America is Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park, Montana. Another such hydrological apex of this magnitude in the world is in Siberia.

Ice flowing away from the Snow Dome down the Athabasca Glacier eventually ends up in the Arctic Ocean, via the Sunwapta, Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers. Ice flowing to the southeast, down the Saskatchewan Glacier, ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, travelling via the North Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan and Nelson Rivers into Hudson Bay, considered part of the Atlantic Ocean. And ice flowing west and southwest is headed to the Pacific Ocean, via Bryce Creek and the Bush and Columbia Rivers. The Columbia Icefield is the most important source of clean fresh water in North America.

Photo by Adam's Gallery
Columbia Icefield Statistics

Highest Point
Mt. Columbia
(3747m / 12293 ft.)
Hydrological Apex
Summit of Snow Dome
(3456m / 11339 ft.)
Country
Canada
Provinces         
Alberta (71%)
British Columbia (29%)   
Area        
325 sq km  /  125 sq mi
Glaciers and the Last Ice Age

Origin of the Columbia Icefield
There are many theories regarding the Ice Age. Some scientists believe the last Ice Age ended approximately 10,000 years ago, while others believe the earth is in an interglacial pause. The earth's climate is experiencing a warming trend, which may be partially the result of the infamous Greenhouse Effect. As climate warms, glaciers retreat higher up the mountains. They occasionally find a point at which they reach an equilibrium with the climate; however, glaciers are usually alternating from a state of recession to expansion, depending on the climate of the area. Steep, cold, north-facing slopes will continue to harbour glaciers for a long time.

Up to 35,000 years ago a sheet of ice up to 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) deep covered all but the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The ice scoured the land, destroying all vegetation as it crept slowly forward. In the mountains, these rivers of ice carved hollows, known as cirques, into the slopes of the higher peaks. They rounded off lower peaks and reamed out valleys from their preglacier V shape to a trademark, postglacial U shape. The retreat of this ice sheet, beginning around 12,000 years ago, also radically altered the landscape, creating new terrain. Rock and debris that had been picked up by the ice on its march forward melted out during the retreat, creating high ridges known as lateral and terminal moraines. Many of these moraines blocked natural drainages, resulting in the formation of lakes. Today, the only remnants of this ice age in North America are the scattered icefields along the Continental Divide.

Left photo by Adam's Gallery
                                                      Three separate views of the Athabasca Glacier    
Covering an area of 325 square kilometers (125 square miles), the Columbia Icefield is the largest glacial remnant of the last Ice Age in the Rocky Mountains. The ice at the toe of the glacier is estimated to have formed 150 years ago. Fifteen thousand years ago, it was part of an ice sheet that stretched from the foothills of the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, covering Canada’s western edge and leaving only the tips of the highest mountains above the ice cap. In the past 12,000 years, periods of global warming (in addition to man's increased emissions of carbon dioxide) have greatly reduced the area and prominence of the ice, but the earth’s astronomical cycle is tending toward lower temperatures, and climatologists now predict that another glacial advance seems inevitable, in spite of the onset of the phenomena called global warming.

Photos by Brad Harrison
         Left: The West and South Faces of Mt. Columbia;  Right:  Mt. Columbia and the Columbia Glacier     
About 700 years ago, having shrunk to a fraction of its former size, the Athabasca Glacier began once again to expand. During the long, cold, snowy winters and brief, cool summers of a period climatologists call the Little Ice Age, it pushed forward down the present-day Sunwapta Valley, mowing down a forest of spruce and fir that had grown up during an earlier period of relative warmth. A remnant of the forest between the Athabasca and Dome glaciers still stands today. According to tests some of the gnarled Engelmann spruce trees between the two icefields are between 680 and 720 years old.

By 1840, the Athabasca Glacier stretched far down the Sunwapta River Valley Over near the V-shaped remnant forest, there are lateral moraines; sharp-edged ridges of till and fallen rock that have collected on the sides of the glaciers. The Athabasca Glacier’s lateral moraines now stand far above the ice surface, evidence of how much melting has occurred in recent decades. The recessional moraines serve as markers or signposts of the retreat of the glacier. Parks Canada has placed markers in areas around the present-day Columbia Icefield Centre which indicate the distance the glacier has retreated in the last decades.

The modern-day Athabasca Glacier once blocked early explorers from entering the Sunwapta Valley, forcing them to look for a route around what is now known as Mt. Wilcox, through Wilcox Pass, in order that they might reach the headwaters of the Athabasca River further north. Nowadays, the glacier is a popular tourist attraction. A good part of the glacier's popularity is due to its remarkable accessibility via the Icefield Parkway, which winds its way along the Continental Divide and passes the glacier. This is the only glacier in North America located just a short walk from a parking lot. The Athabasca Glacier, like the Dome and Stutfield glaciers also seen along the parkway, are just outlets of the Columbia Icefield.
Columbia Icefield Glaciers

         Athabasca Glacier
        Castleguard Glacier
          Columbia Glacier
             Dome Glacier
            Stutfield Glacier
       Saskatchewan Glacier
Andromeda Icefall
Dome Glacier
The Columbia Icefield - History and Exploration

Discovery
The first known explorers to discover this area were Walter Wilcox, Robert Barrett, and two guides who accompanied them. In 1896 they approached the Athabasca Glacier and Mt. Athabasca from the southeast, and found their path to the headwaters of the Athabasca River blocked by the glacier. The purpose of their expedition had primarily been to find the Athabasca River by way of Bow Pass and the North Saskatchewan River. They made an attempt to climb Mt. Athabasca but were unsuccessful.

Exploration
The Columbia Icefield was named by the explorer and climber, J. Norman Collie during his 1898 expedition to the icefield area, when he made the first ascent of Mt. Athabasca with Herman Woolley. They became the first men to view the Columbia Icefield beyond the headwall of the Athabasca Glacier. The expedition's primary purpose had actually been to find the legendary peaks, Mt. Brown and Mt. Hooker. The following day they made an attempt to cross the Columbia Icefield to climb Mt. Columbia, but were overwhelmed by the immense size of the icefield and instead made the first ascent of Snow Dome.
                              Mt. Athabasca, the first major peak to be climbed in the Columbia Icefield              
While on the narrow summit of Mt. Athabasca, Collie and Wooley had the privilege of seeing not only the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies, but also seven of the major peaks located in the icefield as well. They named them North and South Twin, Mt. Columbia, Bryce, Andromeda, Kitchener and Snow Dome. Collie would ultimately name thirty-one peaks in the northern Rockies and Columbia Icefield. This discovery was the result of nineteen days of travel and searching on horseback and on foot, starting from Lake Louise. The discovery of the icefield was the most important event in Canadian mountain exploration history and travels in the northern Rockies, which began almost two hundred years ago in 1807. In 1903 Collie and a member of his 1898 and 1900 expeditions to the Canadian Rockies north of Lake Louise, Hugh Stutfield, collaborated and co-authored the classic chronicle of Canadian mountaineering, Climbs and Exploration in the Canadian Rockies.

Photos by Dow Williams
          Left:  Snow Dome from high on Mt. Athabasca;  Right:  Mt. Athabasca from the Icefield Parkway    
Collie realized the importance of the discovery he had made, and later wrote after the first ascent that "The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, un-named, and unclimbed peaks. From its vast expanse of snows, the Saskatchewan Glacier takes its rise, and it also supplies the headwaters of the Athabasca; while far away to the west, bending over in those unknown valleys glowing with evening light, the level snows stretched, to finally melt and flow down more than one channel into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean."

In 1901 Jean Habel reached the headwaters of the Athabasca River. In doing so he also became the first person to see the North Face of Mt. Columbia. Bad weather prevented him from making an attempt on the mountain although it is unlikely that he would have attempted to climb the North Face, in view of the progression of mountaineering in the Rockies at that time. The North Face would await a first ascent until 1970. The first ascent of Mt. Columbia was made by James Outram and his guide, Christian Kaufmann in 1902 by way of the East Face. They approached Mt. Columbia from the Columbia Icefield via the Athabasca Glacier, the now-standard route taken by modern-day mountaineers and skiers approaching the peak.
     Left:  Mt. Andromeda North Bowl;  Right:  The toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier seen from Mt. Athabasca  
Mountains of the Columbia Icefield

All fifteen major peaks in the Columbia Icefield have been climbed. Some, such as Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda, are popular climbing peaks with a variety of snow, ice and glacier climbs of varying difficulty. Attracting adventurers from all over North America and other parts of the world, classic climbs such as the North Face of Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda's Skyladder are on many alpine climbers' tick list of big ice walls. Peaks like Mt. Columbia, the highest mountain in the Columbia Icefield, and Snow Dome are mainly backcountry ski ascents, but also feature grade V and VI alpine ice climbing that requires the ultimate commitment from serious climbers undertaking the routes. Mt. Columbia's East Face is a snow and glacier climb requiring a long ski approach, and many failed attempts on it end with the participants skiing to the summits of nearby Snow Dome and Mt. Kitchener.
Also, right across the Icefield Parkway from the Athabasca Glacier at the edge of the Columbia Icefield are two smaller mountains, Mt. Wilcox and Nigel Peak, which both have scrambling routes for climbers looking for something less demanding than the big mountains of the icefield. Below is a list of the fifteen major peaks of the icefield, their headwaters, geographical locations, first ascents and a brief description of each.
The Major Columbia Icefield Peaks

Mountain

Elevation

First Ascent

Location and Description

Mt. Columbia 3747m 12293' James Outram
C. Kaufmann 1902
Latitude 52.15 N / Longitude 117.45 W. Mt. Columbia is located on the Continental Divide at the head of the Athabasca River Valley, southwest of Columbia Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta / BC border. Major headwaters are the Columbia and Athabasca rivers. Mt. Columbia is the highest mountain in Alberta and the Columbia Icefield. Named by J. Norman Collie,1898.
North Twin3733m 12274'W.S. Ladd
J. Thorington
Conrad Kain 1923
Latitude 52.225 N / Longitude 117.433 W. North Twin is located in the upper Athabasca River Valley adjacent to the northeastern part of the Columbia Icefield. Jasper National Park, .Alberta. Its major headwater is the Athabasca River. It is the highest summit in the Twins group on the northern edge of the Columbia Icefield. It was named by J. Norman Collie and Hugh M. Stutfield in 1898.
Twins Tower3627m 11900'George Lowe
Chris Jones
Latitude 52.229 N / Longitude 117.448 W. Twins Tower is located in the Upper Athabasca River Valley, Jasper National Park, Alberta. Its major headwater is Athabasca River. North and South Twin are actually one massif. Twins Tower is the north summit of North Twin. The first ascent of Twins Tower was the hardest alpine route done in North America up to that time.
South Twin3581m 11749'F.V. Field
W. Harris
E. Feuz, Jr. 1924
Latitude 52.204 N / Longitude 117.433 W. South Twin is located in the upper Athabasca River Valley in Jasper National Park, at the northeast edge of the Columbia Icefield. Its major headwater is the Athabasca River. It was named by Hugh Stutfield and J. Norman Collie. Like North Twin , this peak is mainly a ski ascent as few climbers are committed enough to make attempts on its northern side.
Mt. Bryce3507m 11506'James Outram
C. Kaufmann 1902
Latitude 52.05 N / Longitude 117.316 W. Mt. Bryce is located 3 km west of Thompson Pass near Bryce Creek, in the Bush River Valley of Jasper National Park. Its major headwater is the Columbia River. Mt. Bryce was named by J. Norman Collie in 1898, along with others he named after seeing them from the top of Mt. Athabasca. Its steep North Face and sharp-edged summit ridge are serious mountaineering routes
Mt. Athabasca3491m 11453'J. N. Collie
H. Woolley 1898
Latitude 52.176 N / Longitude 117.216 W. The Mt. Athabasca - Mt. Andromeda massif is located between the Athabasca and Saskatchewan glaciers near the upper Sunwapta River. It straddles the border of Jasper and Banff National Parks and its headwaters are the North Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers. It is close to the Icefield Parkway and is a popular climbing peak, as well as a popular tourist stop.
Mt. Kitchener3490m 11450'Alfred Ostheimer
Hans Fuhrer 1927
Latitude 52.216 N / Longitude 117.333 W. Mt. Kitchener is located in the Sunwapta River Valley of Jasper National Park. The headwater of Mt. Kitchener is the Athabasca River. The Dome Glacier is at the foot of its steep North Face. It is a part of the panorama of high, glaciated mountains that travellers see while driving the Icefield Parkway, along the Continental Divide. There are hard alpine routes on its North Face.
Mt. King Edward3490m 11451'Conrad Kain
H. Palmer
J. Hickson 1924
Latitude 52.15 N / Longitude 117.516 W. Mt. King Edward is located at the head of the Athabasca River Valley in Jasper National Park, on the Continental Divide along the boundary of British Columbia and Alberta. Its headwaters are the Columbia and Athabasca rivers. Mt. King Edward was named in 1906. It is 5 km west of Mt. Columbia and is one of the most remote peaks in the Columbia Icefield.
Snow Dome3456m 11339'J. N. Collie
H. Woolley
H. Stutfield 1898
Latitude 52.183 N / Longitude 117.333 W. Snow Dome, the hydrological apex of North America, is located on the Continental Divide at the British Columbia and Alberta boundary. Snow Dome lies in Jasper and Banff National Parks, and its headwaters are the Saskatchewan, Columbia and Athabasca rivers. Its south and west slopes are ski ascents, and its North Face has some hard alpine routes.
Mt. Andromeda3450m 11319'J. Hainsworth
J. Lehmann
M. Strumia 1930
Latitude 52.176 N / Longitude 117.234 W. Mt. Andromeda is part of the Mt. Athabasca-Mt. Andromeda massif and is located between the Saskatchewan and Athabasca glaciers, on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National Parks. Its headwaters are the Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers, and it is part of the group of high glaciated peaks around the popular Athabasca Glacier.
Stutfield Peak3450m 11319'Hans Fuhrer
Alfred Ostheimer 1927
Latitude 52.233 N / Longitude 117.40 W. Stutfield Peak, first named by J. Norman Collie, is located at the north edge of the Columbia Icefield at the head of Habel Creek in Jasper National Park. Its headwater is the Athabasca River. Stutfield Peak forms part of the Continental Divide. Its icefall and heavy layer of seracs around its top rim form a classic view of a high glaciated Canadian mountain.
Castleguard Mountain3090m 10138'Interprovincial Boundary Commission 1919Latitude 52.116 N / Longitude 117.25 W. Castleguard Mountain is located in Banff National Park at the headwaters of the Castleguard River at the southwestern edge of the Columbia Icefield. Its major headwater is the Saskatchewan River. Castleguard Mountain is a remote peak that is climbed less often than some of the popular favorites like Mt. Athabasca, Snow Dome, Mt. Andromeda and Mt. Columbia.
Omega Peak3060m 10040'(1) P. Benson
A. Maki
(2)H. Microys
MRosenberger
Latitude 52.133 N / Longitude 117.583 W. Omega Peak is located in Jasper National Park, on the Alberta-British Columbia border,1.5km west of Triad Peak. It sits on the Continental Divide near the edge of the Columbia Icefield The major headwaters of Omega Peak are the Athabasca and Columbia Rivers. Two first ascents of "Boundary Peak" were made on the same day in 1975 (Northwest Ridge, East Ridge)
Triad Peak3048m 10000'E. Cromwell
F. S. North
J. Thorington 1936
Latitude 52.166 N / Longitude 117.55 W. Triad Peak is located on the Continental Divide at the head of the Athabasca River Valley in Jasper National Park. The major headwaters of Triad Peak are the Athabasca and Columbia Rivers. This peak is found at the Alberta-British Columbia border. The first ascent was a non-technical climb up the southwest snow slopes, begun with a difficult climb over a moat.
Watchman Peak3009m 9872'Interprovincial Boundary Commission 1918Latitude 52.033 N / Longitude 117.233 W. Watchman Peak is located on the Continental Divide at the headwaters of the Castleguard River in Banff National Park. It is the south buttress of Thompson Pass, right on the Alberta-British Columbia border. The major headwaters of Watchman Peak are the Saskatchewan and Columbia rivers. James Outram named the peak in 1902.

Photos by Alan Kane
         Left:  Twins Tower;  Center:  South Twin and Mt. Columbia;  Right:  South Twin from North Twin       
Climbing Routes in the Columbia Icefield

There are unlimited possiblities for climbing in the Columbia Icefield. Several mountains in the icefield have well-established routes and see frequent visitors every year, such as Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda. Snow Dome is a popular and non-technical ski ascent, often completed when an attempt on Mt. Columbia or other icefield ski ascents on backcountry routes fail. Other peaks such as Castleguard Mountain, Mt. Bryce, Mt. Kitchener as well as North and South Twin can all be accessed from the Athabasca Glacier and are popular backcountry destinations. For the serious mountaineer seeking world-class alpine ice hard routes, the range has it all, with seldom-climbed lines such as the Andromeda Strain on Mt. Andromeda, Grand Central Couloir and Rights of Passage on Mt. Kitchener, and Slipstream on Snow Dome. The potential for new routes on icefield peaks remains virtually untapped.

The Eiger of the Canadian Rockies
Perhaps the best kept secret in the Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Icefield is the existence of one of the most desperate hard alpine routes in the world, the North Face of North Twin. Only three ascents of this remote, icy, five-thousand-foot vertical limestone wall have been made in over thirty years. Indeed, only a handful of attempts have been registered. The successful ascents have all been made by the foremost hard men of the climbing world. The North Face of North Twin doesn't get the press coverage of a mountain like the Eiger, but many true devotees and players in the world of hard climbing agree that when the face was first climbed in 1974 it was the hardest alpine route to have been climbed in the world at that time.

The route was first climbed by Chris Jones and George Lowe in 1974, using spartan gear considered primitive by today's standards. The second ascent, and first climb of the North Pillar, was made by Barry Blanchard and Dave Cheesemond in 1985. And in April, 2004, Steve House and Marko Prezelj made the third and most recent climb of the North Face, using the Lowe-Jones route, with a variation on the first half.

The North Face of North Twin
One member of the successful 1985 climb of North Twin, Barry Blanchard, when interviewed by the American Alpine Journal (June 14, 2002, Vol.44) about the first ascent of the face by Chris Jones and George Lowe in 1974, had this to say about the North Face of North Twin:
"It is, hands down, the hardest face in the range. Five thousand feet of sheer, black and north-facing limestone, steeper than the Eiger, one and a half times as high as El Cap, a great dark cape of a peak. Hundred foot seracs calve thunderously and with violence from it's belly, wisps of water hang from its brow like icicles tacked to a ship's prow, and rockfall-darkened icefields foot its soaring pillars. Then there is the loose and falling rock....at times it makes the Eiger look like a kiddies' sandbox. Climbers are familiar with almost every crack on El Cap, yet after thirty years of attempts solely two routes have been established up the shadowland of North Twin; mystery unmarred, aura enhanced by each and every one of the vanquished......I'll suggest that, in 1974, the route that George and Chris opened on the North Face of North Twin was the hardest alpine route in the world."

The rest of Blanchard's comments described what can only be described as a heroic, life-and-death ascent. Steve House and Marko Prezelj, summed up the event in a trip report of their successful climb on April 5-7, 2004. The third ascent was also deemed important enough to be the subject of a report by Climbing magazine. While these ascents of the North Face of North Twin were astounding, however, the credit for the first ascent of Twins Tower goes to Fritz Weissner, one of the pioneer climbers of North America.

Photo by Marko Prezelj
                                Steve House on the North Face of North Twin on the third ascent  
                                                          COLUMBIA ICEFIELD continues on page two