15 Jul Breaking the Ice: Where, How and Why to Experience the World’s Glaciers
Glaciers are alive. That fact is immediately apparent when you’re close enough. If you stand atop a glacier, or float next to it, and close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear them speak: Whether it’s the low, deep creaking as massive sheets of ice move and settle, or the muffled gurgling as melting ice forms rivulets and streams underneath, this ancient ice has a language of its own.
Where to Visit Glaciers
Glaciers have long fired up human imagination with their inaccessibility and dangerous beauty. Some of their more famous locations — the ice sheets of Antarctica, the glacier-studded Andes, and the hundreds of glaciers seen in Alaska’s fjords and sounds — might seem inaccessible and distant, but adventuring among glaciers is certainly attainable, especially if you go with a known and trusted travel company.
Glaciers exist all over the world: in Alaskan and Canadian territories of North America, in the Scandinavian countries of Europe, along the mountain ranges of Asia and South America, and even looking down upon the plains of Africa. With a plethora of places to choose from, it can be easier to decide where to experience glaciers by first choosing how.
How to Visit Glaciers: by Land
The easiest way to see glaciers is when driving through mountainous landscapes. In places like Canada, Alaska, New Zealand, Norway and Greenland, you’ll be able to see and access glaciers right from the highway. One incredibly scenic drive is the famed Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada, connecting Banff and Jasper National Parks. You can drive all the way to the foot of the Athabasca glacier along the Icefields Parkway, where the park service has set up a wooden walkway right next to the glacier for visitors to admire its stark beauty up close. Standing beside the massive glacier, you’ll be able to see and touch the ice-cold, crystal-clear glacier melt gushing out from underneath and collecting in pools nearby, especially during the summer months.
If standing in front of a massive glacier isn’t humbling enough, you can catch a ride to the top of the glacier, where you can get off and walk on its surface. Ice Explorers — specially designed vehicles capable of being driven atop glaciers — transport visitors from the base of Athabasca to the surface, where people can walk around, and take in the mountain vistas and thick layers of ice. Perhaps you’ll notice, as I did while strolling on Athabasca, how pristine everything is. Maybe you’ll peek into shallow crevasses from a safe distance as I did, and see untouched crystal shards radiating that iridescent blue of glacial ice.
For those who want to earn their right to step onto a glacier, hiking is the perfect option. Backroads Active Travel runs a walking and hiking tour focused on exploring the natural beauty of Glacier National Park in the US and Waterton National Park in Canada. The poetic sounding Plain of Six Glaciers is another must-do hike in the Canadian Rockies, and Backroads also offers a journey through Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks.
On the trail to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, I walked alongside glaciers which changed from blinding white to mesmerizing turquoise, where densely packed ice reflects the blue in the color spectrum. There were plenty of moments to take in the scenery, as when I stood at a vantage point to admire the play of light on the cerulean, crevasse-strewn surface of Exit Glacier. My heart skipped a beat when I spotted a person on the glacier, no bigger than a tiny stick figure in the distance, skipping their way bravely across the glacier’s precarious surface. For the true explorer, a technical climb on a glacier is the ultimate experience.
Such an intimate encounter with the ice requires a lot of technical equipment: crampons, ropes, ice axes and climbing harnesses. With a trusted outfitter and guide, however, even amateurs can master technical climbs. NOLS offers guided mountaineering trips to the North Cascades in Washington and the peaks of the Andes in Patagonia. Off The Beaten Path, meanwhile, offers a different taste of Patagonia when exploring the Los Glaciares National Park.
Another way to experience glaciers: summit Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to see its snow-capped peak. Unfortunately, you’ll be racing the clock: The entire northern ice field has lost more than 140 million cubic feet of ice over the past 13 years and is expected to completely disappear by 2030. One of Hemingway’s most famous works is The Snows of Kilimanjaro and it’s heartbreaking to think that one day only his words will remain to remind us of what used to be. To see for yourself before it’s all gone, design a custom trip with Bushtracks Expeditions that includes a guided trek to Kilimanjaro’s summit.
How to Visit Glaciers: by Water
For the athletic and adventurous, there are water activities that’ll take you really close to glaciers and icebergs. Kayaking is especially popular in Antarctica, New Zealand and Alaska. Outfitted in a drysuit and armed with hand-warmers and an oar, I set out on my own kayaking tour to explore icebergs at the foot of Bear Glacier in Seward, Alaska. The shapes of the floating icebergs around me felt like Nature’s own art museum. Snug on my kayak near Bear Glacier, I admired the tranquility of an otherworldly landscape. All around me, azure skies met blue water as fantastically carved figures of ice sculptures rose on the horizon, their shapes shifting and changing as they melted in the summer sun, bit by bit.
For such activities, it’s important to go with outfits and guides that know the area and have experience navigating the waters. Even though it was summer, temperatures were below freezing — and if my kayak were to overturn, I’d have quickly succumbed to hypothermia without a guide to pull me out, or hope that I had the presence of mind to swim to the nearest shore. If wilderness savvy is what you’re searching for, NOLS offers instructive trips with backpacking and sea kayaking in Alaska.
And, you can literally internalize glaciers by drinking glacier water. While cruising amongst glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, our crew pulled small icebergs from the bay and cleaned the glacial ice before breaking it into chunks. They used these ice chunks in our drinks and cocktails. I took a sip with mixed emotions: The ice had at some point belonged to a glacier that had likely calved due to warming temperatures. It seemed inevitable but tragic that glaciers were melting, calving and retreating all around the world.
How to Visit Glaciers: by Air
For those who prefer the adrenaline rush of flying, flightseeing is a popular option to get a bird’s-eye view of glaciers. Flightseeing involves flying in a helicopter or a small plane over or around a glacier and sometimes includes landing on top of its snow-capped peak. I had my own flightseeing adventure from Talkeetna, the gateway to Denali National Park in Alaska: The weather was crisp, clear, and cloudless, and Denali rose on the horizon as if a powder dusted mountain in a daydream. To get your own flight-induced goosebumps, hop on a heli hiking glacier tour in Iceland with Lindblad Expeditions.
If you want to fly really high, you can skydive over glaciers. In New Zealand’s South Island, home to Fox and Franz glaciers, skydiving includes jaw-dropping views of surrounding ice fields, glaciers, mountain peaks, and even the ocean when in free fall.
Why to Visit Glaciers
Today’s glaciers have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. They inspire awe with their magnificence and raw power, transforming the landscape permanently, carving out deep valleys between mountains like a knife cutting through butter. But with today’s warming climate, their vulnerability is becoming more evident with every passing day. Alaska’s glaciers, for instance, are losing 75 billion tons of ice every year. Many of today’s retreating glaciers might disappear entirely by 2030.
So if you’ve ever wanted to experience glaciers, the time is now, when you still have the opportunity to tap into their majesty and history. There may be dozens of ways for you and me to experience glaciers today, but the children of tomorrow may only learn about glaciers through a photograph, a video, or a virtual recreation.
Don’t we wish for future generations to be able to marvel at these glorious reminders of an ancient age when dinosaurs and mastodons used to roam? Wouldn’t we want them to experience the allure of massive, unexplored sheets of ice, to venture out to hear the ice speak, to witness the source that has shaped the mountains and oceans around us?
A visit to a glacier-studded national park, a transcendent kayaking experience in Antarctica, or a flight to the top of a snow-capped mountain each serve as reminders of the timeless magnificence of glaciers. If enough people experience the grandeur of glacier-carved valleys, aquamarine glacial lakes and ice-sheathed mountain ranges, maybe we’ll all be more inspired to protect these natural landscapes for posterity.