I grew up in a small town in the Rocky Mountains of southeastern British Columbia, which is relatively close to Jasper, one of Canada’s most respected adventure destinations.
By close, I mean ‘Canada close’ — a six-hour drive.
By the time I moved away at 20, I’d visited our best-known mountain tourist destination, Banff, more times than I could count. It was really close — only a four hour drive away. Although I’d spent lots of time in and around Banff, I had never made it out the the town’s more remote sister, Jasper to see the famous parkway, Columbia Icefields, and other attractions.
To me, mountains were mountains, and I’d spent nearly every day of my life until the age of 20 living in them. Eventually I moved away to Asia and then started traveling without having spent any substantial time in Jasper (I’d driven through once). Having spent most of my life in the Rockies, I figured I couldn’t be missing out on much.
How different would Jasper’s mountains be?
Very different, as it turned out. But I wouldn’t find out until more than a decade later.
In spring of 2015 I was invited to take part in a blogging campaign put together by Jasper Canadian Rockies.
I’d finally get to know Jasper. It was a visit that was long overdue.
The first two hints came from two of the slogans created as part of the park’s re-branding, which was meant to appeal more to the the type of serious outdoorsperson who appreciates it.
The first was, “Jasper: Adventurers Only.”
The second (and my favorite), “Forget the hairspray, bring the bear spray.”
I began my four day trip driving a rental car from Cranbrook B.C., through Kootenay National Park and Banff National Park, then along the Icefields Parkway into Jasper National Park.
The drive was as epically beautiful as it sounds.
I stopped a few times along the way for photos, but for much of the trip it was too foggy and snowy to take any good photos. Luckily, it cleared up before I arrived at the famous Columbia Icefields. They were as spectacular as I’d been told.
The lead photo of this post was taken there, as was this one.
As I moved north, the Rockies changed. The mountains were different from the towering spines of stone I’d grown up around. These mountains were smoother, like enormous stone waves carved out by creeping glaciers over millennia of erosion.
The majestic and elegant waves of stone and reminded me of photos of I’d seen of rural Iceland and scenes from north of the wall in Game of Thrones.
It was hard to believe they belonged to the same range I’d grown up in. Our mountains at home were steep and jagged. These were broader, fluid, and expansive.
I was surprised, impressed, and humbled.
The Maligne Canyon Ice Walk
I’d never heard of the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk before my visit to Jasper. I was disappointed when I saw it was on my itinerary.
When I was planning the trip with the people from Jasper Tourism we talked about a lot of different activities like ice climbing, fat biking, backcountry skiing, dogsledding, and dark sky stargazing and photography. I love crazy outdoors challenges, so those all activities sounded great to me. The ice walk, on the other hand, sounded like a stroll through the woods
But that’s what I was assigned.
The ice walk was so much more than I expected. By the end of it I was glad that the tourism board had chosen it for me over the other activities.
The ice walk is no ordinary hike. The trail ascends Maligne Canyon, one of Jasper’s most unique geographic features.The canyon follows the meeting of two tectonic plates in the Earth’s crust and extends for miles. The canyon tall and narrow. The walls are nearly vertical and rise up to 150 feet while following the strangely geometric curves of the river.
Below the canyon is an gargantuan maze of subterranean caves into which much of the river’s water drains. In the summer when water levels are high, the canyon contains a fast and powerful river, but in the winter when the flow of water slows and much of it drains into the subterranean caverns leaving a path of ice with a shallow river running beneath it, allowing visitors to hike along the bottom of the canyon. The result is an otherworldly experience.
The river is fed by networks of caves and streams from both sides of the canyon, which freeze in the winter creating massive walls of ice in patterns that one could never imagine without seeing them.
I was no great surprise when our guide informed us that the hike had been designated one of the best in Canada by both National Geographic and the Canadian Government.
Most of the other participants on the hike arrived with the same expectations I did. They expected a mildly interesting, but mostly boring hike. But we were all amazed the experience.
It also helped that our tour was guided by Jasper John. John was a former forestry worker from the area, as well as a photographer, curator of the local library’s photo archive, and a brilliantly colorful character.
John obviously wasn’t working as a tour guide for the money. He knew the geography of the area with with encyclopedic proficiency. He’d learned the wildlife from the days he spent in the wilderness and the geography from decades working in forestry.
As we walked up the canyon John boisterously bellowed old folk songs that brought grins to the faces of all the hikers who’d been expecting a ho-hum stroll in the woods. John explained in great detail how the canyon and subterranean cave system had been formed over several millennia through the slow movement of massive glaciers and infused the troop with his enthusiasm for the subject.
John showed us where movies had been filmed, where Marilyn Monroe had worked on a movie, where aboriginals held sacred ceremonies, and where innocuous fissures in the ice led to underground caves. He even took photos of the brave (and very unclaustrophobic people) willing to climb into the tiny caverns, like the guy below.
That cave was a tunnel about two feet tall and three feet wide, and he wriggled in one end (on the right) and out the other, where I took this photo.
I couldn’t believe he did it. There was no way I was going into that thing.
Near the end of the walk was a series of enormous waterfalls that several groups of ice climbers were climbing. Below the last, and biggest waterfall, was a huge cave. The picture below is a climber on belay taken from inside the cave.
My First Day of Splitboarding
I started skiing when I was three years old, and snowboarding when I was twelve. Snowsports are one in integral part of my life. But on the day I arrived in Jasper, in my thirty three years riding mountains, I had never ventured into the backcountry. That changed on March 8, 2015, when Steve from Rockaboo Mountain Adventures took me out to Hilda Ridge.
It was long overdue.
It was a bluebird day. The snow was good, but the scenery was over the top.
We hiked up Edith Ridge for several hours beneath a majestic peak. About 3 hours of hiking was rewarded with a run that lasted about 40 minutes, including a few breaks. Then we started climbing again.
I wasn’t sure I could do it. My legs quivered with each step.
After another shorter run, we headed back toward the road. The conditions were good, but not amazing. Each run, however, felt precious. They say that you enjoy riding more when you’ve earned your turns.
It’s true. If I’d ridden a lift to ride the variable windcrust and powder slopes, I would have judged the day mediocre. But because I climbed the mountain for those runs, I savoured every turn.
My last day in Jasper was a busy one. I began the day snowboarding at Marmot Basin, which unlike most resorts this year that fell victim to a snow drought, had been graced with a higher than average snowfall. It was a bluebird day, the snow coverage was solid, and the lift lines were nonexistent.
Since it was my last day in Jasper, I didn’t want to spend the whole day on the hill. I’d heard of a few other epic sounding spots that I wanted to photograph before I left.
First, I visited Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake. The pair are only a few minutes drive from downtown Jasper and are a brilliant sight, with the strangely symmetrical Pyramid Mountain seeming to rise out of them.
After that, I had just one last night at my hotel, the Jasper Park Lodge, and then would have to drive home. I wasn’t exactly stoked to be leaving Jasper, but the last night and drive out could have been worse.
Above is the view from the outdoor heated pool at the Jasper Park Lodge
In the morning I hit the road, but also made a few stops along the way to photograph some of the better-known features of the park along the road.
I hadn’t expected much, but these turned out to be some of the most stunning spots — and best photographs — of the trip.
The highlight of the drive out, and the trip, actually, was the obscenely massive ice cave in the Columbia Icefields that I missed when I stopped there on the way in. It was about a 1km walk from the parking lot to get to it, but it was more than worth the effort.
It was like something from another, bigger, more grandiose world.
That’s kind of what Jasper is like, another more grandiose world.