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We got an early start from Jasper, having thrown our stuff haphazardly into the car and eaten breakfast on the road. Still, nearly three hours were required to reach Athabasca Pass. This is probably the most prominent display of the Continental Divide in the Canadian Rockies, but the Divide is different. Waters from one side flow eventually into the Pacific, while those from the other side flow into the Arctic Ocean. Upon learning this, I developed a newfound appreciation for our high latitude, as well as for the first explorers who mapped such places under horrible, not to mention the Indians who habitated for millenia prior!
Somewhat coincidentally (or maybe not), a small finger of the Columbia Icefield stretches down from the heights at Athabasca Pass. This "small" trunk glacier occupies roughly 5-10 square miles! However, the Athabasca Glacier is middling in size compared to its parent, which sits on a high plateau above and is roughly the size of Connecticut. After making a bathroom stop in the surprisingly-empty, brand-new visitors' center, we headed off for the Wilcox Pass trailhead.
Our official goal was to reach Wilcox Pass, roughly 400m above the trailhead. My somewhat secret, unofficial goal was to climb Wilcox Peak, elevation 2700m (9200'). After tying our tent to the top of the rental car to dry, We quickly ascended to the pass, where we were rewarded with idyllic views of Wilcox Peak, Nigel Peak, and the higher peaks, upon whose shoulders the Columbia Icefield rested. Additionally, we were now looking the mighty Athabasca Glacier square in the eye. A sizeable group of Bighorn sheep lazily passed time in paradise, drawing many a curious view (including ours).
I saw cloud activity massing above the icefield to the west, so I was eager to make progress up the peak. We moved quickly up the solid limestone surface, in some instances walking directly up exposed "ladders" of rock which are due to the fact that the rock strata have been upturned. The more resistant strata are exposed as long, linear features, while the less resistant ones are covered in grass. I stopped on the west ridge at around 8500' and took in the views. Over 2000' below us, cars snaked along the highway, next to the braided flow of the Athabasca River, whose floodplain stretched as far as the eye could see, up to the town of Jasper. We now looked down on the Athabasca glacier, and could begin to take in the majesty and scale of the Columbia Icefield. Ice piled as thickly as 500' on the ridges of the peaks, like frosting on a cake. The view around Wilcox Pass was stunning.
Sadly, after eating "lunch", we realized that a storm was soon at hand. A horizontal wall of grey cloud obscured the top of the glacier. We started down at a leisurely pace until I or Kim remembered: the tent!. I glissaded down a snowfield or two before reaching Wilcox Pass. At that point, we were roughly 3 miles from the car, and at the rate that the weather appeared to be deteriorating, we had less than a half hour before the rain began in earnest. I reckoned that we really had one choice: run. So I gave Kim my camera and set off, making good time, running quickly for stretches, but slowing down when I saw other people, lest the sight of a 6'8", 225 lb. man barreling down the trail give some old man a heart attack! I reached the car in roughly 25 minutes, aided by the high quality of the trail. Ironically, the rain started, as if on cue, just as Kim arrived 20 minutes later. Still I enjoyed the invigorating run, because I tend to get bored coming back from a hike on the same trail. Whatever.
Upon returning to the visitors' center for a cold drink, we witnessed an amazing transformation. The place wasn't just busy -- it was crawling with people! I usually feel tall in a crowd, but among 5000 Japanese tourists, I felt like a Sequoia tree among the forests of White Fir. Kim must've looked even stranger -- an obviously Asian woman who stood taller than most of men. On our first visit to this place, I had taken a wrong turn into the bus parking lot, and I remarked that the 100+ bus parking spaces had to be overkill. Not so! Apparently, the standard Japanese "grand tour" passes through here, probably on the way to Jasper. No wonder there was no vacancy in the hotels.
The tourists hardly have to leave the comfort of a gasoline-powered vehicle. They step almost directly from a bus to specialized six-wheeled vehicles which then drive directly onto the glacier. I wonder if they hear a word of spoken English on their entire tour! But then again, I would find Japan an intimidating place if I was forced to speak Japanese. We did come across a Japanese couple on our hike to Burstall Pass the following day. Poor people. They'd probably been scared to their wits by people telling them to watch our for bears. We came up fast behind them from the forest, and I was making barking-like noises which carried for a mile. The lady turned around and almost turned white when she saw how big I was. What struck me, though, was their noble attempt to speak some English to me. Very courageous.
One thing I noticed in Banff was that
some shops made no bones about catering to the Japanese
tourists. The signs were in Japanese -- only Japanese --
and likewise, all employees were Japanese. I think that
you'd be hard-pressed to find such a sight in the U.S.,
due to pride, stupidity, prosperity, or some combination
of the three. Oddly, I found Canadians to be far more
nationalistic than the average American. I wonder if
Joe Q. Canada carries the same silent resentment against
the Japanese that he seems to harbor for Americans...
Department of Geophysics