Columbia Icefields - February 2003
Day 1. We load the sleds, parked at the Big Bend on the Icefields Parkway, a 7km ski from the Saskatchewan Glacier.
The Columbia Icefields are known to many. We planned to spend a week skiing the icefields in February in the hopes of summiting some of the surrounding peaks: Castleguard, Snow Dome, Kitchener, North Twin, South Twin, Stutfield, and maybe even a winter ascent of Columbia. Our group included Matt Brown, Reid Holmes, Jan McPhee, and I. We left Vancouver on February 15, 2003, and returned on February 21. Check out Reid's extensive photo gallery from the trip and Matt's photos and trip report.
Day 1. Roping up at the foot of the glacier.
The Columbia Icefields are located 180 km northwest of Banff and 108 km southeast of Jasper, just south of the Icefields Parkway. The icefields overlap the boundaries of Banff and Jasper National Parks, the provincial borders of BC and Alberta, as well as the continental divides of Atlantic-Pacific, Pacific-Arctic, Arctic-Atlantic (the three meet on the summit of Snow Dome). The icefields cover 325 km² and are the source of several glaciers including the Athabasca, Saskatchewan, and Columbia Glaciers. Access is about 10 hours by car from Vancouver.
Day 1, lunch. Reid chews on a bagel.
For a detailed view of our route, Reid overlaid our actual GPS track onto the Columbia Icefields map. Green is on the way up. Pink is the return trip.

February 15 - Depart Vancouver (7am) and drive to Rampart Creek Hostel (7pm, 830 km). Jan and Steph ride in Jan's Sundance. Reid learns to drive standard on Matt's Civic. We end the evening with a quick tinkering of Reid's (James') ski bindings: Swiss Army metal file to the rescue.

February 16 - Drive to Big Bend (20km, 1650m). Load sleds. Ski through forest and across moraine to base of Saskatchewan Glacier (7km, 1760m). Ascend to Camp 1 (5km, 2200m). Average temperature: -7°C. Sunset: 6pm MST. Grasshopper pie courtesy of Reid.

Matt: "Hey Steph, what's the temperature?"
Steph (checks thermometer): "-7° Celsius."
Matt (disappointed): "-7°? It said -20° in the brochure!"
Day 2, Camp 2. The blizzard has begun. February 17 - Sunrise: 8am MST. Snow and low visibility. Slow take-down of camp. As we gain elevation, trailbreaking becomes increasingly slow due to the depth of the powder. Navigation is by map, compass, altimeter, and GPS. We dig ourselves a deep wind shelter and set Camp 2 (2750m, 9km) about 5km south of Snow Dome, in the middle of the icefields. Average temperature at Camp 2: -20°C.

February 18 - More snow falling and blowing, still zero visibility. The tents are buried very quickly and require digging out once per hour. We need better wind shelter; Reid plans Project Big Snowcave. After a full day of digging (3 shovels digging for 8 hours = lots of snow moved) we have a huge cave including large bedroom for 4, dining room, storage shelves, and cooking area. The tents come down and camp is moved indoors. After filling the cave with smoke, steam, and fumes, the cooking area is moved closer to the door (vents too small). Reid gets chilled (near hypothermic) but core temps are soon raised with dry clothes, multiple sleeping bags, emergency blanket, and a warm drink. We light candles and enjoy our quiet and wind-protected shelter.

February 19 - 7:30 am: the blizzard continues outside. Temperatures remain around -20°C and visibility remains limited to a dozen metres. We decide to wait another day. If we wake Thursday to clear skies we'll ski Snow Dome, otherwise we'll head out. The day is spent playing cards, reading, cooking, getting Gore-tex on to go to the washroom and taking it all off again to get back into the sleeping bag. Cooking becomes a two-person task with spindrift and wind. Before going to bed we pack and prepare for tomorrow's departure.

February 20 - A big day. The wind is quite strong today and the snow falls more heavily. Temperature is again around -20°C and visibility has not improved. After roping up we leave Camp 2. Breaking trail is difficult. After an hour, we develop a system that works: Matt in the lead breaks trail, Jan follows bearing a pack, Reid follows with a pack and hauling sled #1, followed by Steph hauling sled #2, with one pack over his shoulder and Matt's pack on his sled. This system works quite well to distribute the effort. We retrace our steps with our GPS waypoints taken on the way up, setting a compass bearing to each. After a few hours we reach the top of the Saskatchewan Glacier. As we descend, the powder become less deep, visibility improves, and the temperature becomes warmer. We reach the moraine as the sun is setting and we make it to the edge of the forest before requiring headlamps. We're back at the cars at around 8pm. Of course, neither starts after a week in the cold. We get a boost and eventually make our way back to the Rampart Creek Hostel. By chance, James Floyer walks in. He and his mate Ed kindly share their warm drinks and scotch and most generously feed us dinner.

Matt: "This was not fun."
Day 3. Reid the master architect begins the excavation for our mansion snow cave.
Day 3, Camp 2. Frequent digging out of tents required. February 21 - Jan's car won't start again and the rear right brake line on Matt's car is frozen. We remove all visible snow and ice, drive back and forth on it, hit the wheel with various large metal objects without success. Finally, we remove the wheel and pour several litres of boiling water on the brake line and over the disc. This works and we begin our drive back to Vancouver. Matt visits Dairy Queen for the first time and enjoys a Georgia Mud Fudge Blizzard with an order of poutine.
skiers: 4
days on Columbia Icefields: 5
days in blizzard: 5
peaks seen: 0
peaks climbed: 0
total kilometres skied: 40
average daily temperature: -20
average depth of powder in metres: 1
Mars bars consumed: 32
waiting out the weather in a snow cave: priceless
Day 3, Camp 2. The ventilation holes were insufficient to allow cooking in the adjacent "kitchen". Matt is about one metre from me, made almost invisible by the fumes and steam. We moved the stoves to the door of the cave.
Permits are required for overnight backcountry access in the national parks. A vehicle permit is also required to park. These are available from the parks offices in Rogers Pass, Field, Lake Louise, Banff, and Jasper.

GPS and wands are stronly recommended for travel on the Columbia Icefields.

Day 4. Camp 2. Looking toward the "kitchen" from the "bedroom".
Summits and Icefields: Alpine Ski Tours in the Rockies and Columbia Mountains of Canada. Chic Scott. Rocky Mountain Books. 1999.

Exploring the Columbia Icefields. Druid Mountain Enterprises. 1:50,000, contour interval 40m, 1km grid, original data from Canada NTS sheets 83 C/3 and 83 C/6.

Canada NTS 83 C/3 Columbia Icefields 1:50,000.

Banff National Park. Parks Canada.

Jasper National Park. Parks Canada.


Steph's GPS waypoints

Day 4. Camp 2. Matt and Jan in the "bedroom". Day 5. Our big exodus from Camp 2 in metre-deep powder, zero visibility, high winds, heavy snowfall, and -20° air. Late on Day 5. Back at the Rampart Creek hostel, we run into James and his mate Ed who very kindly cook us dinner and share their bottle of scotch.
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