Have you ever wanted to explore a glacier? Climb a mountain? Go for a ride in an off-road monster truck? I must admit, to the chagrin of my better half, I have an attraction to these types of things. Living life from a wheelchair often tempts me to discount these possibilities, but recently we found a way to experience all of this from the comfort of my own wheelchair.
We recently went camping in the mountains of Alberta, Canada, and toured the picturesque town of Jasper. While looking for interesting things to do, we found some brochures. As we get older, we’re increasingly aware of my buddy Murphy (from Murphy’s Law), and have learned to factor his presence into any adventure-seeking. In the brochures we found white-water-rafting … nah … adventure is good but it just seems too dangerous, especially after a recent kayaking adventure had turned into a mega-embarrassing-dunk at a crowded park. Horseback riding … hmmm … seems like a long fall, not gonna do this without an experienced-with-disabilities pro. Glacier tour in a huge six-wheel-drive-buggy? Hey … accessible, stay in your chair, safe … perfect!
We decided to take the tour on our last day of camping, as it was on the way home. It was a warm, sunny September day and the scenery was spectacular through the mountain valleys on our hour’s drive from Jasper to the Icefields Parkway, where the tour began. As we approached the area, the highway became steep and winding. There were deer, elk and even bighorn sheep on the side of the road. We finally reached the top and pulled into a huge parking lot. Looking across the highway we noticed the long, slender whitish thread that winds its way up the valley, then higher we saw the glacier way above that. Even after our long climb, we were nowhere near the top of these mountains. The glacier looked like a waterfall spilling over the mountain range, not very large until you notice how small the Terra Buses look. They are the size of buses but seemed like tiny toys snaking their way up the steep mountain trail.
The Columbia Icefields are located about 400 miles north of the U.S/Canada border between Jasper and Banff and are comprised of six toes. The most accessible and most visited one is the Athabasca Glacier, about four miles long with an accessible tour operated by Brewster Travel Canada. The turnaround point of the tour is on the glacier in a bowl at about 7,500 feet, surrounded on three sides by towering mountains and glaciers that reach 11,000 feet and more.
The air was chilly, and you could sense that nothing could grow on the solid ice that forms from the weight of heavy snowfall and slowly flows down the valley like a slow-motion river. Downhill flow amounts to about 40 feet per year, but the glacier melts back about 70 feet in the summer for a net loss of about 30 feet annually. Since the glacier is about four miles long, it will be around for quite a few years. It has retreated nearly a mile in the last 125 years due to climate warming. Annual snowfall on the glacier at the tour turnaround point is approximately 30 feet, and winter temperatures can reach -50 degrees, without the windchill factored in. You can see that this is a very inhospitable place; hence the tours only operate from April 15 to October 15.
On the Terra Bus
We entered the tour building to purchase tickets. I approached the nice lady behind the desk. “We’d like to take the Glacier Adventure. Are the buses wheelchair-accessible?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “We’ll shuttle you to the buses in an accessible van. We can go right now if you’d like.”
I glanced at my wife, who nodded enthusiastically. We paid our fare, buying four tickets.
“Follow me,” said the lady, leading us into the back office. A young man was sitting behind the desk.
“Hi, I’m the manager. I’ll shuttle you to the top myself. The Terra Buses stay at the top, except for maintenance and stuff. We’ll take a small van up to them.”
The wheelchair-accessible van was a lot like ours, except the lift worked perfectly. I was tied down and off we went up the trail to the Terra Buses, special-built six-wheel-drive, nearly 300 horsepower diesel-powered busses with tires that belong on a monster truck. They weigh 60,000 pounds, cost over $1 million dollars, top out at 12 mph and can climb and descend the 32 percent grade with ease (also like a monster truck). They will go nearly anywhere.
We arrived at the top of the steep winding road within 10 minutes and realized that we were still a long way from the glacier. Looking down, we could see the Parkway and our camper, looking so small. The temperature was noticeably cooler up here. Looking up toward the glacier we could see that the road got even steeper and changed to glare ice. We wondered how these big busses could negotiate that.
A Terra Bus crawled down a steep grade, through a stream, and climbed the steep wall that led to where we were sitting. This thing is one serious off-road unit. The tires were as tall as I am. How was I going to get in?
The driver parked next to the platform where I was waiting. “I’ll lower the lift and get you loaded first,” he said.
He lowered the lift. Wow, I’ve seen some wheelchair lifts, but none that reach this high. Everything went smoothly, just like a van lift only a lot higher, unnerving at first, but the view was great. Soon I was strapped inside, passengers were loaded, and off we went.
The glass ceiling of the Terra Bus allowed a perfect view of the mountain tops that towered above us. We had spectacular scenery visible out all directions as we travelled, even up. The very-knowledgeable and humorous driver did a running commentary of the vehicle, mountains and glacier.
“We are now going down the steepest commercial road, a 32 percent grade. The Terra Bus has a special transmission to handle this … unless you want me to pop it into neutral.”
You could tell he enjoyed teasing us.
“We have nearly 300 horsepower, monster tires, and a top speed of 112 mph! … just testing to see if you folks were listening!” He laughed.
After going down a steep hill, we crossed a stream formed by meltwater from the glacier, then headed up the tough climb to where we could get outside and see the sights from atop the ice. The driver pointed out that the glacier was 1,000 feet thick. When we reached the unloading area, we had climbed to 7,500 feet of altitude.
I unloaded onto the glacier in my chair. It was an amazing blue hue, bumpy but slippery. It was hard to believe that I was in an electric wheelchair sitting on a glacier high in the mountains, looking down the steep slope to where our vehicle was. The manager had personally escorted me right to the top and was having fun trying to push my chair to help me get around. We zoomed over to where a guide was instructing the crowd.
“No wandering off unescorted — there can be deep crevasses just below the surface, so stay with the group,” he warned. In the past, unprepared and unguided tourists have perished on this glacier, so this tour company is extra careful with their guests.
There was no danger of me wandering off. Heck, I could hardly move on the slick surface without a push, and I was content to just soak in the sights anyhow. The view from the icefields was absolutely breathtaking.
Glacier Adventure FAQs
Q. Where are the Columbia Icefields?
Between Banff and Jasper in the province of Alberta, Canada, in the Rocky Mountains, about 400 miles north of Sweetgrass, Mont.
Q. How much does the Glacier tour cost?
Q. How long does the trip take?
About 80 minutes.
Q. How cold is it?
At the bottom it is about 60 degrees. Up on the glacier at 7,500 feet it was about 35 degrees. Dress appropriately. Weather in the mountains is very unpredictable and can change quickly.
Q. Is it safe for wheelchair users?
Yes, you are tied in well during the trip up and down, and are unloaded at a safe place on the glacier. The guide instructs everyone on where to explore, and safety is paramount.
Q. Is there information online?
The website is: www.brewster.ca/rocky-mountains/destinations/columbia-icefield/activities/columbia-icefield-glacier-adventure
Q. Is the staff friendly?
Yes, yes, yes. They made the experience so much fun. From the front desk to the humorous Terra Bus driver, they were great.