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Is it Time to End the Athabasca Glacier Bus Tour?

Three people died in July after one of the coaches rolled over

“It really is time we all lobby Parks to stop this craziness,” said Piolets d’Or recipient and Canadian mountaineer Ian Welsted in response to the news that a tour bus rolled over on the Athabasca Glacier on two weeks ago.

The bus was on a steep road leading to the glacier when something caused it to roll. Three people died and 14 were critically injured of the 27 on board.

Accidents happen, yes, but even beyond this tragedy and likely preventable bus rollover, locals and environmentalists have been against the tours for decades.

If you’re unfamiliar with the operation, here’s a quick low down: you pay money to sit in a bus with big wheels that carries you up ancient moraines and onto a vanishing glacier where you get out, take a photo and then get trucked back to your vehicle.

Jasper locals Bill Ruddy and Tom McCready started offering the first tours onto the Athabasca Glacier in the 1950s. By 1961, the newly paved Icefields Parkway officially opened. In 1969, Brewster took over operating the snowmobile tours on the Athabasca Glacier. The tours are now operated by the company Pursuit.

Personally, I hate coming out of the Columbia Icefield to the scene of buses driving up unstable moraines and onto the glacier. After climbing the North Twin, Mount Columbia and other peaks, I’ve always returned to the car via the Athabasca Glacier and big rigs trucking tourists; it crushes the beauty of the final moments of big climbs.

A geotechnical engineer told me this week that it’s nearly impossible to stabilize glacial moraines, like the ones the buses use to access the receding ice sheet.

“Take the hike, not the bus,” has long been a sentiment of locals. The hike to the toe of the glacier takes you up a long, slightly steep trail and it’s far more rewarding than the bus. There are signs indicating where the glacier ended in 1948, 1982, 2000 and others. It’s awesome.

Gelden Huysdi from South Africa, said of the tour: “The bus trip an absolute waste of time and money. Mass herding onto buses for a five-minute trip to glacier and then 20 minutes on small fenced off area on the glacier which was a safety hazard – no crampons and it was very icy in parts. Driver ‘joked’ that not their problem if you slip. Must have been at least five trucks on the glacier, surely this is not good for the environment.”

Yeah, it’s not.

I’m all for access opportunities to the backcountry and high places for people who can’t reach them under their own ability, such as gondolas and driving tours, but we need to protect our delicate spaces; especially those in National Parks.

It’s been another tragic year in the local mountains, with a number of serious accidents that have resulted in death or critical injuries. Whether you’re a skier, climber, biker, paddler or hiker, know these mountains have many deadly hazards and that we’re all at risk when we head out. Play safe.