The more remote, more rugged, less touristy, wilder sibling of Banff.
That was our destination Wednesday. With the amount of snow that had fallen yesterday and over night, we opted for a start after sunrise (instead of our typical predawn travel) in order for the Alberta road crews to get the roads to a slightly more passable state.
After another lost key fiasco we scuttled out of the parking lot and onto Highway 1. One lane of the highway had been thoroughly scraped and graveled making progress easy as pie. Hopeful for an easy drive up to Jasper we motored on.
Pit stop at the snow globe of Lake Louise, for the last glimmer of cell signal for a short conference call for work, and a quick walk up to the shore, then back into the Toaster for what was to be quite a stressful journey.
In my mental route planning, the road to Jasper (which was not Highway 1) was a main highway that needed to remain open so that trucks and people could come and go between the two towns, in reality it was a two-lane road that was barely treated for snow and ice that cut through the Columbia Icefields.
An ice field is an expansive area of interconnected glaciers found in a mountain region. The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains of North America. Located in the Canadian Rockies astride the Continental Divide. It is about 125 square miles in area, up to 1,198 feet in depth and receives up to 280 inches of snowfall per year.
Hmmm something I should have researched and considered since it was now November and winter was settling in.
Highway 93 forked away from Trans-Canada 1 and was immediately a sheet of ice covered in a couple inches of snow. To our ‘comfort’ there was a sign at the start of the road that gave a forecast of the current road conditions. Good, Fair, Poor, Impassable. Those were the options, each with a corresponding light. Fair was our status. So with our summer-tired Toaster we entered the icefields.
Roughly 30 minutes in (and 90 from Banff) we passed a sign informing us that the next gas was in Jasper 230 kilometers ahead. We had about half a tank, which at a constant highway speed on clear asphalt would have been easily achievable, but with the current weather and road surface, speeds would not be that high and MPG’s would be lower than needed. Mercifully there was a gas station, but upon investigation we found that all the pumps had been wrapped with yellow tarps (apparently for the winter) leaving us in a bit of a pickle.
At approximately the midpoint of our journey we were equally likely to make it back to Banff as we were to Jasper, with our remaining fuel. We decided to forge ahead (efficiently).
The further we drove the higher we climbed, the higher we climbed the colder it got (the car’s thermometer was reading deep in the double-digit negatives), the colder it got the snowier it got, the snowier it got the icier it got, the icier it got the slower I had to drive, the slower I drove the fewer mpg’s I got, the fewer mpg’s I got the less and less likely we were to make it to Jasper.
I’ve literally never been so stressed in my life. Katie and I rode in silence with the occasional nervous chuckle when the road completely disappeared into the great white landscape.
Sunwapta Pass was yet another obstacle that loomed in the distance. The highest point on our journey. 10.5% grades in the best conditions would have been challenging for the Toaster; with sheet ice and summer tires those grades seemed insurmountable.
With a constant stream of prayer I coaxed the Toaster up and up not daring to let it downshift for fear of losing traction. We began the climb at about 60kph and reached the summit at nearly an idle speed. While I was concerned about the uphill portion of the pass, I was afraid of the downhill. Creeping over the hill like the front car of rollercoaster, I geared the car way down to avoid the brakes at all costs. Easing our way down was less traumatic than I expected. Hugging the mountainside to allow for skid correction before arriving at the unprotected cliffside, we crept down the pass.
Rounding a blind corner on a quite steep section (maybe 7-8% grade), we were greeted by a snowplow sitting broadside in the middle of the road. The driver was attempting to get out of the road and my way but was literally sliding sideways down the slope. With the most gradual pressure I began braking (on asphalt there was enough space to stop twice over but on ice we were likely going to hit him, albeit slowly) Easing into the brake pedal as if I was stepping on a landmine I could feel the ABS about to kick in, meaning that my max deceleration was achieved. Still not slowing down enough, I pressed a millimeter further and the ABS started clicking and clunking away, thankfully the plow had now slid far enough down to reveal a snowy shoulder that I knew would provide enough resistance to stop the Toaster. I adjusted course only because of the Toaster’s stability control, and drove into the shoulder and stopped gently as if running into a pile of pillows.
After the driver was able to stop sliding and get the truck reoriented on the road we continued on.
Another hour and a half of driving through the arctic landscape, and we finally rolled into the sleepy town of Jasper. After brimming the tank and releasing a huge sigh of relief we went inside the gas station/restaurant for some hot food and recuperation.
Our first hiking destination was Athabasca Falls, a waterfall that has cut a short gorge through the limestone. Unfortunately because water levels were relatively low, the normally thundering falls weren’t quite as impressive as they reportedly are in spring and summer. Katie and I made the best of it, enjoying the place mostly to ourselves, as we walked around exploring the different vantage points offered by the multiple overlooks along the trail.
Eventually we decided to move on to the main event of our trip to Jasper, Sunwapta Falls. I had seen this waterfall on a girl’s blog about the best hikes in Banff and Jasper, and was stunned by its beauty.
Pulling into the parking lot I quickly packed up my gear anxious to see these falls that I’ve been drooling over for months.
They were even more impressive than I had expected. Everything was covered in several inches of snow and the island in the middle of the river right at the edge of the falls seemed like something right out of a fantasy novel. It was like I had walked into a snow globe- it was simply breathtaking.
After stretching Katie’s patience with endless minute composition and exposure adjustments, I began to slowly pack up my gear, admittedly a little disappointed to be leaving this magical place so quickly.
Back in the Toaster we braced ourselves for a treacherous drive back to Banff.
With a full tank of gas and the road condition sign now reading ‘Poor’ we entered the icefields. The weather that afternoon was erratic: blue skies and blinding sunshine, then instantly almost darkness due to the thick snow clouds overhead, then virtually whiteout where I could only see a few yards in front of the car, and then back again to blue skies. It was exhausting.
With even more snow on the roads it was impossible to tell where the edge of the road was, leaving me to gradually weave until I found the rumble strips in the center or shoulder. I quite literally was driving by braille.
After many hours and well after dark we crunched our way back into the parking lot at the Beaver Cabins, thankful to have made it back warm and in one piece.
After Katie made dinner I was so completely burnt out from driving in those conditions all day I went to bed at 8:30.