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Columbia Icefield (Columbia Icefields)
Parent Area: Park Ranges
 

Area: 850 sq km. Location: The Columbia Icefield lies to the west of the Banff-Jasper highway, about half way from Lake Louise to Jasper. It straddles the continental divide. Includes: King Edward and Triad. Excludes peaks like Alberta, which are said to be in the Winston Churchill Range. Terrain: The Columbia Icefield contains the triple point of the three great drainages of Western Canada - on the west, the Columbia River flows to the Pacific, on the north, the Athabasca River flows to the Arctic Ocean, and to the South the North Saskatchewan River flows to Hudson's Bay, part of the Atlantic Ocean. The Columbia Icefield is the largest of the icefields on the continental divide, and contains many of the highest peaks. It is often in whiteout conditions, the old saying is that if there is a cloud in the sky, it's whited out over Columbia. It is a land where the rain rarely ever falls, since precipitation is usually snow. In spite of the high frequency of whiteouts, the actual snowfall is somewhat less than on icefields in the Coast Range. This, combined with higher winds, leads to significantly more danger from lightly covered crevasses, which have claimed more than one life from unroped skiers. It is advisable to be roped most of the time on the Columbia Icefields.

The shortest and commonest route up onto the icefield is via the Athabasca Glacier. However, the Athabasca Glacier has considerable crevasse danger or danger from ice above, and for this reason, many parties favor the longer Saskatchewan Glacier approach. See the articles on Mount Columbia for details of each route. It can also be approached via a long hike from the Castleguard River and glaciers. History: The first recorded trip which skirted the Columbia Icefields area was the Wilcox expedition in 1896, while looking for the previously reported 17,000 foot peaks Mt Brown and Mt Hooker. At that time no maps existed north of Bow Pass. Seeking a route to the Athabasca River from the south, their route took them past the Saskatchewan Glacier and to the foot of Mount Athabasca, which was attempted by Mr Barrett. However, they only made it part way up Mount Athabasca, and thus did not see the expanse of the great icefield to the west. This was the first recorded crossing from the Saskatchewan to the Athabasca River headwaters.

Mount Athabasca itself was first climbed two years later by Wooley and Collie, the highest ascent in the Rockies up to that time. It took their party 19 days to get into the area. From the summit, they saw the Columbia Icefield and Mount Columbia for the first time. It was "bigger than anything in Switzerland". The next day they made an attempt on Columbia, but failed due to soft snow. Collie returned again in 1901, interestingly enough, this time from Bush River to the West and through Thompson Pass to the Alexandria River. However this expedition also failed to climb Columbia. Finally Collie and Woolley returned in 1902, heading for Mount Columbia. However, upon reaching the Freshfield creek, Outram and Kaufman rode into their camp and announced they had reached the summmit of Columbia, by way of Thompson Pass, using the careful mapping and reporting done by Collie's previous expeditions.

The access to the Columbia Icefield remained an epic approach march until the first road was built in the 1930s. The route of this road was then later revised into the current paved Banff-Jasper highway, or "Icefields Parkway" as it is called. ("The Canadian Rockies - Early Travels and Explorations" by Esther Fraser contains a detailed account of most of the expeditions into this area.)

Top Trips
Success on Mount Columbia Eric Coulthard
Mount Columbia via West Face Rich Gebert
An Ascent of the South Face of Mount Saskatchewan Rick Collier
Castleguard Mountain and the Mysterious Hand of Fate David Wasserman
Mount Bryce - Northeast Col Approach in August 2006 Tom Wolfe
Mount Bryce North Face Tom Wolfe
Bryce Northeast Ridge Rich Gebert
Mount Saskatechewan via SW ridge Eric Coulthard
A Spring Ascent of South Twin Peak Vern Dewit
Bike and hike to the headwaters of the Athabasca River Dieter Kepper
More Trips

Top Photos
East Face of Columbia from East of the Trench Steph Durocher
Athabasca Sunset Glow Stephen Skog
Mount Bryce - North Aspect Justin Brown
Mount Bryce from the Summit of Castleguard David Wasserman
North Face of North Twin from Woolley Shoulder David Wasserman
Mount Columbia From Near Snow Dome Philip Mees
View West of Mount Columbia (Labelled) Eric Coulthard
Mount Saskatchewan - Northwest Aspect Justin Brown
Mount Saskatchewan and Castleguard Mountain Eric Coulthard
Wilcox Pass - View from South Justin Brown
More Photos


Paper Maps
Columbia Icefield Gem Trek 1:75000 200'