At first glance, Snow Dome appeared exactly as its name implies: a mellow white dome of snow set among jagged mountains. Matt and I spotted its rounded summit as our skis reached the top of Seskatchewan Glacier and we began our journey across the Columbia Icefield. The dome sat an inestimable distance away, beyond mild snow slopes. As we skied toward it, the horizon shifted. The distance somehow became larger and so did the dome. Ribbons of sun pocked snow spiraled out of the surface our skis cut through. The snow was soft and punchy, but firm too in late evening light. We skied with 20 yards and a rope between us. Occasionally, our skis slid over a crack or series of cracks with widths ranging from six inches to 18 inches. Far beneath us, some hundreds of feet at the full depth of the cracks, water was melting. That water is the reason we were there.
The Columbia Icefield, a massive cap of snow and ice straddling the Canadian Rockies in Alberta and BC, is a very special place. Perhaps the most special of all North American ice fields for one primary reason: it supplies water to the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. There’s only one other place like it (the phenomenon is known as a hydrologic apex) on earth, and that one is in Siberia.
Snow Dome is the hydrologic apex of the Columbia Icefield. In other words, the mellow 11,339 foot summit in front of us was feeding three oceans at the very moment we inched our way toward it.
We chose a spot far between cracks to set the tent. We fell asleep to the sounds of a soft breeze rustling the fly, and the glow of a full moon on the icefield. The snow was rock solid when we woke in the morning, and we used a shovel to break up chunks to melt for coffee.
As we skied toward the dome once more, time became elastic. The sun bore down on the snow and reflected up our nostrils. The horizons shifted. Heat mirages steamed off the softening surface. We passed a weather station. Knife ridges and crusty Rocky Mountain peaks rose and spread from every edge of the ice. We were skiing in an alpine ocean.
Our tent had been situated where ice melt heads to the Atlantic. As we neared the Dome, we crossed to where ice melt feeds the Pacific. As we ascended Snow Dome’s flanks, taking care to avoid ice chasms and snow disguised crevasses, we glided over snow that some day will reach the Arctic.
We think of ice melting. We think of oceans rising. We think of floods. We think of destruction. We think of lives lost. What we don’t realize is that ice is simply doing what it inevitably does: melt.