“Picture it this way: we’re essentially opening up a small town."
That's how Greg McIntyre, General Manager of the Columbia Icefield describes the season opening.
"We have our own roads, our own power, own water supply and facilities that support 208 staff to live on site as well as facilities that help us to see thousands of guests a day! In the fall, we shut down the town," Greg says. "And then, half a year later, we’re here to open it back up again.”
This isn’t the first season-opening rodeo for Antoine Chasse, Senior Operations Manager at the Columbia Icefield. He first joined the team in 2012, and returned to be part of the grand opening of the Columbia Icefield Skywalk in 2014. Antoine re-joined the Columbia Icefield team again in 2018 after working at the Banff Gondola for Pursuit’s Banff Jasper Collection.
“When I first arrived at the Icefield, it was hard to believe that I would get to live and work here,” Antoine says. “Having left and come back, it’s still as awe-inspiring. At Pursuit, we talk about how we wake up to greet glaciers. We literally do that here. Waking up and looking up at Mount Athabasca and the glaciers every morning—it’s a great way to start the day.”
Since mid-March, Greg, Antoine and the team at the Columbia Icefield have been getting ready to make these glacial views accessible to team members and visitors from around the world. They shared a couple of the monumental tasks on their opening to-do list.
The first task is clearing out the hundreds of cubic tons of snow that have accumulated around the road up to the Athabasca Glacier, the Columbia Icefield Skywalk, the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and staff accommodations. The Dig-Out crew has been working full time to clear access to our buildings and to the glacier itself.
All winter long, katabatic winds have been blowing snow down the glacier and on to the surrounding area. The Dig-Out is a month-long process that requires support from the whole team.
“This year, around the Centre we have drifts of up to 5 metres (16.5ft) and more than 8 metres (26 ft) as we make our way out onto the glacier,” says Senior Operations Manager, Antoine Chasse.
The team uses commercial equipment including a loader, grader and snow blower that Antoine describes as capable of “eating several tons of snow per hour.” Even so, it’s a full-time job.
The Columbia Icefield operations are essentially off the grid. All systems and infrastructure are completely self-sufficient. From power generation to water and waste water, the team starts fresh every year.
“Getting the power on requires a lot more than just flipping a switch,” says Antoine. The team works with on-site mechanics and local partners to make all systems go. After a few days of maintenance and safety checks, the generators are now up and running.
Next up are the water and wastewater systems. Water supply for the Columbia Icefield operations comes from the spring-fed Ripple Lake, across from the Glacier Discovery Centre. Currently, water system specialists are working to activate the potable water and wastewater treatment systems. After that, it’s up to the team to keep a close eye on the temperatures and ensure that lines don’t freeze. At 2,000 metres (6500 ft) above sea level, “springtime” nights still bring temperatures well below the freezing level.
It’s an annual event—the slow but steady movement of massive Ice Explorers from our maintenance compound in Jasper down to the Columbia Icefield. Despite their immense size, the Ice Explorers are locked at a maximum speed of 18 km/hour.
Driving them 100 km (62 miles) down the winding, two-lane Icefields Parkway would take at least five hours. So instead, 22 Ice Explorers and five additional pieces of heavy equipment are all transported one by one on a flatbed trailer.
The days are busy up at the Columbia Icefield, and they’re going to get busier leading up to opening day.
For Antoine, it’s time to settle into the summer lifestyle of eventful days and serene evenings.
“It’s one of the magical things about being up here,” he says. “Yes, we can get 5,000 people a day in summer, but by 7 PM, it’s just us and our backyard—the biggest backyard of all.”