“I don’t know that I’ll ever build anything like it again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime project,” says Scott Updegrave, construction manager with PCL’s Canadian Civil group, remembering his time working on Columbia Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park, Alberta.
Scott is an adventurer. He’s climbed every mountain over 14,000 feet in Colorado and the tallest mountains in the Canadian Rockies. So, when Pursuit issued a proposal for contractors to build a jaw-dropping experience overlooking the Sunwapta Valley, Scott knew exactly the spot they were talking about. “I parked my truck by the edge of the cliff and grabbed my climbing gear from the back,” he says. “I figured the best way to see what we were up against was to rappel down the mountain and see what was going on.”
With a better view of the terrain, Scott envisioned a collaborative team building a drawbridge-style, split-path walkway, attached to the side of the mountain. “I’ve built over 50 bridges throughout my career and I worked on some big drawbridges when I was in our Tampa office in Florida,” he says.
Pursuit was interested in the drawbridge design. “They called Marc Chiasson, vice president of Canadian Civil Infrastructure, and asked if PCL could really build the design they envisioned with engineering firm Read Jones Christoffersen,” adds Scott. “We hadn’t built anything like it before, but Marc said ‘Yes,’ and off we went. We were excited about the innovative design, and we were up for the challenge.”
With a remote location over an hour outside of the town of Jasper, Columbia Icefield Skywalk presented some unique challenges. “Everything we were doing had never been done before. We were digging a pathway on the side of a mountain edge — it was cold up there, we didn’t have cell service, and there was nothing nearby,” says Scott. “Pursuit wanted the entrance kiosk to have heat, but there’s no electricity in the middle of the mountains. We started looking at solar panels and found that a small modular solar system with a battery pack would produce enough power to heat the kiosk and store enough energy to keep it warm for more than three days, even if it was cloudy.”
Working alongside bears, elk, mountain lions and goats, and bighorn sheep, Scott and his team adhered to strict environmental requirements set by Parks Canada. “We spent over a year working with David McKenna from Pursuit and Parks Canada to ensure we had all the proper permits and procedures in place. Parks even assigned a full-time park ranger to the project,” says Scott.
Pursuit also ran a seven-year environmental impact study to monitor bighorn sheep and mountain goats using the trails and cliffs in the area. The study showed that Columbia Icefield Skywalk had a positive impact on wildlife because it was minimizing “up-close” human interactions. “I went back for the five-year inspection and I’m under the bridge checking one of the beams, and I notice it’s all furry. Turns out the bighorn sheep have started using the beam as a back scratcher. It was a unique follow-up inspection,” Scott says, laughing. “But that was the thing about Columbia Icefield Skywalk — everything about it was unique. That’s what made building this project an experience like no other.”