THE SNOW DOME
The French word of the day is “touristes”, which translates to tourists in English. As in “Andy and Christy decided to act like touristes for an afternoon near the Columbia Icefield.”
We were greeted with bright sunshine and blue skies the next morning. Conditions looked perfect for a visit to the Icefields Center and a hike to Wilcox Pass. In celebration, we feasted on a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes. Unfortunately, the store we had stopped at the day before was out of blueberries, so we had been forced to buy the chocolate chips instead. Did you hear that Mom? We had chocolate and dough for breakfast. And syrup.
After a leisurely start we drove 90 minutes south to the Icefields Center. The Icefields Center is an extremely popular tourist destination, featuring a visitor’s center, a campground, trails, and snow-coach tours on the Athabasca Glacier. We bypassed the tourist attractions since we wanted to reach Wilcox Pass in time for lunch. The small trailhead parking area was already full when we arrived, so we improvised a spot (along with many others) and hit the trail.
We followed the path through an impressive forest of 400 year-old spruce and fir trees. The hike in the trees was short-lived. It wasn’t long before we reached treeline and were greeted with mind-bending views across the valley to Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, the Athabasca Glacier, and The Snow Dome. We continued the hike on a gentle climb through grassy meadows. If Julie Andrews had started singing “The Sound of Music” in my head, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
We reached the crest of Wilcox Pass, which is really just a long alpine meadow flanked by Wilcox Peak and Nigel Peak. We found some rocks to sit on where we could eat lunch and admire the view. After eating, I went exploring. Christy felt that no amount of effort could improve upon our current location, and decided to stay behind.
Initially I explored southwest. My plan was to climb the ridge running south from Wilcox Peak to obtain an even better view of the peaks and glaciers across the valley. I hadn’t gone far when I spotted a half-dozen bighorn sheep lounging on the ridge ahead of me. When I saw them, I couldn’t shake the disconcerting realization that they had seen me long before I had spotted them. I changed course slightly to avoid disturbing them, and climbed to the crest of the ridge. At the top I was rewarded with what I had been looking for – a completely unobstructed view of Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, the Athabasca Glacier, and The Snow Dome. The icy bulk of Mount Athabasca is one of the most impressive mountains I’ve ever seen. In a way, The Snow Dome is equally scenic. It’s well named, as what must be several hundred feet of snow crown its summit.
I returned to Christy’s napping place to report the bighorn sheep sighting before setting off again. My original goal was an intriguing lake northwest of Nigel Peak. I followed the trail northwest, but quickly realized I would have trouble reaching the lake. The entire Wilcox Pass area is like a giant sponge, and I had made the mistake of wearing running shoes instead of boots. Any sort of off-trail exploration across the alpine valley would leave me soaked. Despite the sunny skies, it was very windy and chilly, and I wasn’t very interested in getting wet. Ultimately I decided to stay on the trail. I continued to the northwest for another mile or more before the trail began its descent back to the Icefields Parkway at Tangle Creek. If I had planned ahead, I would’ve had Christy pick me up there. Instead, I had to turn back and return the way I had come.
This turned out to be a good thing. The hike out had been great, but going back I was headed directly towards Mount Andromeda and Mount Athabasca. Every step of the hike back was a delight as I walked towards those impressive peaks. If you decide to do the Wilcox Pass hike as a one-way adventure with a car shuttle, make sure to start at Tangle Creek. That way, you’ll be walking towards the best scenery all day.
I returned to our lunch spot, and found that the increasing wind had driven Christy back to the trailhead. I hurried after her, and found her at the car. From there, we decided to be tourists for the rest of the afternoon. We drove back down to the visitor’s center, where we explored the exhibits and briefly considered taking a snow-coach tour. We were torn between whether it would be interesting, or just plain cheesy. The idea of getting out on the glacier itself was appealing, but the snow-coaches only go about halfway up the glacier. I wanted to see the Icefields from the top. The Athabasca Glacier begins at the edge of the Columbia Icefield, which is 126 square miles of uninterrupted snow and ice surrounded by rugged mountains. I wanted to see that, but a snow-coach tour wouldn’t have given us that view. We looked into the possibility of a guided glacier hike as well, but it seemed unlikely that those trips would get us to the top of the icefield, either. In the end, we decided to save that adventure for another trip.
We did want to sample the glacier though, so we drove across the road to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. It’s a longer drive these days than it used to be, because the glacier has receded considerably over the years. We parked, and walked a short distance to the foot of the glacier. Due to crevasses, much of the glacier is unsafe to walk on without the proper gear and experience. However, when we were there the park had roped off a section of the glacier that was deemed safe. This was better than nothing, so we put on our ice cleats and walked a hundred yards or so up the face of the glacier.
It had been windy and chilly up on Wilcox Pass, but this was like walking into a meat locker. We were completely surrounded by snow and ice, and the wind blowing down off the Columbia Icefield was frigid despite the sunny day. We walked to the edge of the boundary and took in the view. Ahead of us, the long tongue of bluish ice spilled down between the peaks of Mount Andromeda and The Snow Dome. This was pretty cool, but it was also pretty damn cold. It wasn’t long before we were hustling back down the glacier towards the warmth of the car.
We drove back to Jasper, but stopped at Sunwapta Falls on the way. We walked to the upper falls together, before I continued on my own to the lower falls. Both of the waterfalls were nice, but the lower falls were much quieter. Not many people make the extra journey to see the lower falls.
On the way back to camp, Christy noticed that the snow on Mt. Fryatt made an interesting pattern. As we drove down the Icefields Parkway, it looked like there was a giant “3” on the side of the mountain. Clearly this was a sign. Earnhardt lives!
Continue reading about our adventures in Jasper as I dayhike to the Bald Hills above Maligne Lake.
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