Aug 23

Day 7 – Columbia Icefield

by in Glacier-Banff-Jasper

Sunday, August 23: 61 miles/ 3,362 ft. elevation gain / Cumulative gain 19,404′

We left this morning at the scheduled start time of 8:30. Somehow it had gotten pushed back to 9 without our knowledge. What the heck, we’ll just get in some early morning miles. It was freezing cold again especially since the first 6 miles were mostly in the shadows of the mountains to either side of us. It was dry and clear, though. We had the advantages of riding before anyone else was on the road and of seeing the rising sun lighting the cliffs on the sides of the road. It was kind of dramatic.

DSC02857We rolled steadily along until we got to the 14 mile mark, Weeping Wall. This huge cliff has small streams of water working down its face and was the first rest stop of the day. We got a snack and some water, then headed out.

Almost immediately we hit the main climb of the day. It was 7-10% grade which is pretty steep. There was nothing to do but gear down and ride up. We peeled off our extra layers quickly and as we did so we were passed by the fast singles of our group. We’d be passed by many more before we reached the top.

Straight ahead we could see where the road switched back above us. We decided to make that our first goal. Steadily we closed in, then we turned to the left to get to the switchback. Unhappily, it also involved losing some altitude before we started climbing again. STEEP! SLOW! And now the road was narrow with lots of vehicles going both directions.

DSC02870We pulled into our overlook after 45 minutes of riding and looked back down the valley. What a climb! Too bad it just kept going up from there. We still felt strong and confident. The scenery was a lot more rocky on this stretch.

We didn’t realize we were over the top until we were. A drop that could have just been a short respite from climbing turned into a deep descent. Woo hoo! Sheila slipped on her wind jacket as we rolled, but I opted to skip mine in favor of getting to the next SAG stop at Columbia Icefield as quickly as possible. I got pretty chilly as we suddenly saw great snowy peaks rise up on the left.

S2-summit-switchbackThe icefield is a large expanse of snow and ice which fills a plateau. Generally glaciers form at the edge of the field and, indeed, we could see the Athabaskan Glacier coming down from Columbia. Even though the sun shone brightly, it was very cold. We snacked, then rode over to the visitor’s center to use the facilities. That’s when Sheila had a moment.

2015-08-23 12.03.09

There must have been at least 25 tour buses in the parking lot. The center was gigantic and absolutely packed with people from all over the world. Different languages flying everywhere. People, people, people. Sheila went in to find the bathroom and almost immediately came out saying she couldn’t stand the crush. She was really shaken. It was like suddenly being in Disneyland. I bravely scouted out the locations of the washrooms and reported back to her. The second exposure went much more smoothly. We chatted with some Aussies about the bike and our trip, then hightailed it out.

Riding past the glacier the winds were so stiff we had to lean into them sideways to stay upright. Then they’d shift and we’d have to recover and brace for the next change. All this while rolling around 35-40 mph. A stiff climb slowed us again which was good because the RCMP were pulling over speeders due to the large numbers of tourists wandering around. It also allowed us to stop easily at a gorgeous waterfall near the top of the pass.

Eventually, though, we were out of the crowds and just rolling down along the river. Another day ending in a long descent. It was a boon. With the river on one side and waterfalls and cascades on the other, it was also pretty.

The only problem was the shoulder turned into a very rough piece of road. Every 8-10′ there was a crack perpendicular to our line of descent. We call roads like that “returning to Wisconsin” after the roads we hit on our cross country tour. Whenever there was no traffic, we got on the left side of the white line where it was smooth. When cars appeared, we went back to Wisconsin.

We ended the day at Sunwapta Falls at the Rocky Mountain Lodge. Sheila stumbled on a computer there and tried to fix some client problems that had popped up while we waited for our room. After we were cleaned up we hiked to the falls.

There are actually two sets of falls. The upper ones force the river to go through a 10′ wide chute in the granite. The noise was amazing, as was the force of the churning water. Sheila opted to return before we got to the second set of falls which were much like the first, narrow chasms filled with hard-charging water. It’s hard to believe the rocks are able to stand up to it.

We’d made dinner reservations as soon as we got there and still had to eat at 7:30. But we made them for four so our friends Mike and Chris could eat before 9. They had bike trouble and came in pretty late. It was a nice meal with a tasty dessert. Our waiter told us about the northern lights he’d seen last night, so I decided I’d wake at 1:15 to look for them. I did. They didn’t show. I went back to sleep. Nothing to see here, ma’am.

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