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.)