GLACIER NATIONAL PARK is part of the Selkirk and Columbia mountains, but on the ground little sets it apart from the magnificence of the Rockies national parks to the east. To a great extent it’s the domain of ice, rain and snow; the weather is so atrocious that locals like to quip that it rains or snows four days out of every three, and you can probably expect a soaking three days out of five. Despite this, the park is a big draw for climbers and, to a slightly lesser extent, hikers. As the name suggests, glaciers – 430 of them – dominate, with fourteen percent of the park permanently blanketed with ice or snow. Scientists have identified scores of new glaciers forming on the sites of previously melted ice sheets in the park – a highly uncommon phenomenon. The main ice sheet, the still-growing Illecillewaet Neve, is easily seen from the Trans-Canada Hwy or from the park visitor centre.
The park’s highest point, Mount Dawson, is 3399m tall – and historically it and its neighbours have presented as much of a barrier as their Rocky Mountain cousins. Aboriginal peoples and then railwaymen shunned the rugged region for centuries until the discovery of Rogers Pass (1321m) in 1881 by Major A.B. Rogers, chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Despite the railway’s best efforts, its pounding by repeated avalanches eventually forced the company to bore a tunnel under the pass, but the 1962 completion of the Trans-Canada Hwy along the pass once again made the area accessible. This time huge snowsheds were built, backed by the world’s largest avalanche-control system. Experts monitor the slopes year-round, and at dangerous times they call in the army, who blast howitzers into the mountains to dislodge potential slips.