Pascale Marceau on managing risks - during an expedition and in business

Faculty of Engineering
 Pascale Marceau pulling an equipment sled over snow
She loves the polar regions, “the vast spaces where there are no answers, no paths, no trails,” and she loves ... calculated risks. But rather than be called “brave”, this explorer, mountain climber and risk management consultant by the name of Pascale Marceau (BScAp in Chemical Engineering ’99) prefers to be called “curious” and “tenacious.”

During her most recent expedition, a seven-week trek in Canada’s Far North, this Franco-Ontarian who hails from Sudbury and currently lives in Canmore, Alberta, faced some challenging conditions: the ice had broken up and was rugged, and she and her teammate were not travelling as quickly as expected. Should they turn back? “We decided to continue, to go it one step at a time, calmly making progress, finding our rhythm, one with Nature, and we regained our confidence. It’s exactly like that in life: once we accepted the situation, once we adapted, our perspective changed and we could gaze around in wonder despite the difficult conditions.”  

“People often ask me, ‘Why do you seek out hardship?’ Why do you go on such risky expeditions,’ ” she said, laughing. Keep in mind that this adventurer conducted the first women-only ascent of Mount Lucania, the third-highest peak in Canada, and was the first woman to climb a major subarctic peak in winter, namely Mount Wood in the Yukon. “In modern society, we tend to really shy away from discomfort.” Even so, she feels that facing the unknown in the wilderness is one way to reconnect with the environment, our bodies and our emotions.  

Smiling face of Pascale Marceau wearing a frozen hood.
Pascale Marceau, explorer, mountain climber, consultant

Changing the culture in high-risk industries

She also transmits these life lessons to frontline workers in nuclear, chemical, mining and oil sands industries, where risks are extremely high. “I try to change the culture in these often male-dominated environments, where it can be difficult to express doubts or fears. But trusting your gut instinct is very important in avoiding accidents. With experience, you learn to trust that voice in the back of your head, and that of your co-workers,” she said. And this approach has been productive: companies that have benefitted from her services have seen improvements in both operational and health and safety statistics. “In terms of risk management, running an expedition and running a business are very similar.”  

Giving yourself a chance to dream

It was during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at uOttawa that Pascale Marceau began hiking in winter in the mountains with classmates. This love of climbing eventually led her to Bolivia, Peru, Alaska, Nepal, Greenland and Canada’s Far North, and ultimately closed the book on a “normal” lifestyle. In fact, after an interesting career at Plasco, where she worked on designing a process to transform waste into energy – a world first – she decided to undertake a more flexible lifestyle that would allow her to alternate between risk management contracts and heart-pounding adventure. She describes her expeditions on her website, and has starred on an episode of 180, a tv show broadcast by TVA.  

Two explorers pulling their sleds in front of an icy cliff face
Pascale Marceau in Greenland in 2022.

“I loved my studies at the University of Ottawa and my CO-OP placements, during which I discovered different environments,” said this explorer who still keeps in touch with members of her small cohort of Francophone chemical engineering students. Pascale Marceau also considers herself fortunate to have been able to return to campus to teach a crucial course for fourth-year students. She advises young people to take time to dream about projects they really care about and not to wait until they feel perfectly ready before launching them. “Our ability to adapt is enormous!” she insists. “We learn by pushing our limits. Putting in the extra effort and taking on new challenges is always worthwhile.” The best example? Her next adventure is planned for 2025: a five-year journey in the Far North with her spouse, American explorer Lonnie Dupre, aboard ... a sailboat. Pascale Marceau bursts out laughing. “And here I am; I’ve never sailed in my life!” Until then, Pascale plans to scale two more mountains, both in Alaska. In March she will climb the East Kahiltna Peak, a feat yet to be accomplished in winter, and then in May, she will ascend Denali.