Climb into Athabasca Glacier leads to discoveries

Will Gadd has climbed mountains and ice columns around the world, but his latest adventure saw him tackle something completely different.

Canmore climber Will Gadd says they found insects flying around, despite the –30 C temperatures

Ice climber Will Gadd manoeuvres underneath the ice of the Athabasca Glacier. (John Price Photography)

Will Gadd has climbed mountains and ice columns around the world, but his latest adventure saw him tackle something completely different.

The Canmore ice climber and a team of scientists from the University of Alberta and the Canada Science and Technology Museums, along with a film crew from Discovery Canada, made their way inside the Athabasca Glacier.

"The idea was to get underneath... and have a look around from a different perspective," he told The Homestretch this week.

"And we did it, it was a really interesting trip."

Found about halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper, the Athabasca is the most visited glacier in North America, said Gadd, who was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2015.

"Relatively speaking it's only a few kilometres off the road and they have the Brewster snow coaches that go up and down the glacier. It's an attraction," he said.

"It's also a source of a lot of water in the area and a pretty important place."

Regular visitors will have noticed big changes to the glacier over the last few decades, which precipitated the climb, said Gadd. The group was hoping to measure the receding from within the ice.

"It's receded a few kilometres back up the valley now and is much smaller," he said.

"So we wanted to learn a little bit more about what was going on underneath the surface."

The plan was simple at first – hike up to the glacier, find a hole large enough and climb in.

Will Gadd, centre, and a team of scientists spent three days exploring the Athabasca Glacier. (Jason Armstrong)

But it took a little more work than that.

"We thought we would just march up the glacier in winter, find one of these holes and go down it," he said.

"But we kind of radically underestimated the blowing snow and we had to do like when you were a kid and you'd dig snow caves in your backyard, but this was vertical for about 10 metres and the whole team took turns digging our way through this giant snow plug."

Adding to the difficulty was the fact the temperature was sitting about –30 C when they made the three-day trip earlier this month.

Once they made their way inside the glacier, it was like stepping into a different world.

"When we popped into this passage, this blue, beautiful passage, it was 1 C," he said.

"It was absolutely stunning to go from this barren world where it was brutally cold like it was last week, then all of a sudden it feels balmy, we had a 30 degree swing."

The movement of the ice added to the intrigue, said Gadd, and danger.

Will Gadd climbs into the Athabasca Glacier. (John Price Photography)

"It was really quiet except occasionally the ice would make these amazing gonging, settling noises, which were a little unsettling when we were down there," he said.

"I think we were all surprised by how beautiful it was."

The team accompanying Gadd — including people from the University of Alberta and the National Science and Technology Museum, along with a camera crew from the Discovery Channel — made some potentially important discoveries.

"The last thing you'd expect to find in a glacier, at –30 C, would be a flying insect," he said.

"But these were flying around quite happily. The other thing we found, which isn't a hazard to our health as far as we know, but it's very, very unusual and may not have been seen under the glacier surface ever before are these things called biofilms."

Martin Sharp from the University of Alberta examines biofilms inside the Athabasca Glacier. (John Price Photography)

Biofilms are a group of organism where the cells stick together then stick to a surface.

Gadd said they are now hoping to return to the glacier next year to study the biofilms more in depth.

"Once we get approval from Parks Canada, of course," he said. "To try and gain some more knowledge about how things are living under the ice when it's –30 C at the surface. This just makes very little sense from any biological perspective."

​With files from The Homestretch​