The Columbia Icefield


 


[Mount Columbia (L) is the highest peak on the Columbia Icefield at 12,293 feet tall. King Edward just right of Columbia and South Twin and North Twin peaks at far right.]


The Columbia Icefield is a huge and barren desert of snow, ice and rock straddling the Continental Divide to the west and the Banff / Jasper National Park boundaries at their north and southern ends respectively. It is the largest icefield in the Rockies. It is large, intimidating and dangerous. Compared to the Wapta Icefield it is on another scale altogether. There are 8 major glaciers including the Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield, Saskatchewan, Wales and one more that I can't find for some reason.


I remember reading Dave Stephen's many epic tales from his (mis)adventures on the various summits of the Columbia Icefield. Dave had a theory that sitting in a tent in a whiteout blizzard was preferable to being at home for the weekend and he proved his dedication to this belief very often. As I sat at my computer reading his many adventures in this wild land of extremes I doubted my own tenacity and ability to ever explore it for myself. It seemed too big, too remote, too cold and too dangerous. Little did I know that only a decade later, I'd be almost finished every single peak jutting out from this landscape of cold beauty. One thing that Dave's trip reports made me resolve, was to wait for good weather and not be afraid to cancel or plan trips to this area last minute. Any clouds on the icefield usually mean blizzard conditions at 10,500 feet - that lesson only needs to be learned once and you get it.


My first experience on the Columbia Icefield taught me many valuable lessons regarding the different aspects of winter mountaineering in this harsh environment. I was joined by So Nakagawa and Ferenc Jasco over a stretch of beautiful weather in February 2012 for an ill-fated attempt at the very largest of the icefield peaks and its namesake, Mount Columbia. Never mind the highest peak on the icefield, Mount Columbia is the highest peak in the Alberta Rockies and second highest in the entire range. Suffice it to say that we didn't succeed in our attempt, but we didn't die either. This is a bit of a miracle in itself... ;)


There are some fairly technical snow climbs on the Wapta Icefield, but the Columbia peaks are almost all over 11,000 feet high and have bigger consequences and more planning required in their ascents. I remember when my friends first started exploring the Columbia Icefield around the mid-2000's after starting with the Wapta glaciers. There was a feeling of invincibility in the air as I read their trip reports with some envy (I wasn't at this level yet myself). Then a pretty serious crevasse incident happened and many folks stopped frequenting the dangerous Athabasca headwall approach. There are some very technically easy peaks on the Columbia Icefield, but the lesson here is that there is almost no practical way to get to them without exposing yourself to significant objective hazards in the form of unforgiving crevasses, avalanche slopes and random serac fall. It's the price everyone has to pay in order to experience some of the most incredible mountains in the Alberta Rockies.


I've had my own share of 'interesting' experiences on the icefield, including a case of HAPE and a subsequent heli-rescue, and a pretty serious crevasse incident high up on South Twin Peak. It took me three attempts and countless hours and effort to finally bag Mount King Edward in the fall of 2017. I have to say that overall, I've been very lucky (so far) in my pursuit of the Columbia Icefield peaks. I have very few official ones left, the two summits of Mount Bryce being the highest and most recognized ones. It was with a mix of elation and regret that I skied down the Athabasca headwall back in April 2016 after completing Mount Andromeda - the last peak I needed to access via that route. I think of this wild and beautiful place often while sitting in my office tower in Calgary and I feel incredibly privileged that I have had so many wonderful memories from it.
 
Titlesort descending Date Summit (ft) Summit (m) Distance (km) Gain (m)
Androlumbia, Mount (Little Andromeda) 04.19.2015 10,925 3,330 20.0 1,350
Andromeda, Mount 04.17.2016 11,319 3,450 24.0 1,650
Athabasca, Mount 04.08.2015 11,454 3,491 14.0 1,500
Boundary Peak 08.20.2011 9,420 2,871 8.0 880
Castleguard Mountain 04.08.2012 10,138 3,090 35.0 1,500
Columbia Ice Fields - Winter Camping Trip 02.04.2012 11,000 62.0 2,500
Columbia, Mount 04.18.2015 12,294 3,747 41.0 2,000
Cromwell, Mount 05.07.2015 10,958 3,340
King Edward, Mount 08.27.2017 11,329 3,453 30.0 2,500
Kitchener, Mount 05.05.2013 11,500 3,505 40.0 1,900
North Twin Peak 05.12.2012 12,238 3,730 42.0
Snow Dome 05.05.2013 11,339 3,456 40.0 1,900
South Twin Peak 05.07.2015 11,749 3,581 46.0 1,700
South Twin Peak - Unsuccessful Attempt 05.04.2014 11,749 3,581
Stutfield Peak 05.11.2012 11,319 3,450 45.0
Stutfield Peak (NE2) 05.11.2012 11,099 3,383 45.0
Twins Tower 05.12.2012 11,900 3,627
West Twin 05.03.2013 11,024 3,360 45.0