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Constructing the Glacier Skywalk

By Heather Hudson

The best things in life are rarely exactly the way we imagine them. And the breathtaking Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park is no exception.

Back in 2010, Brewster Travel Canada put out an Expression of Interest to three construction firms to create a tourist attraction featuring a “cliff-edge pedestrian walkway” snaking its way along the Canadian Rockies.

Though the initial concepts included cable- supported structures, when Dr. Simon Brown of Read Jones Christoffersen (RJC), a consulting engineering firm, and construction manager Scott Updegrave of PCL Construction Management took a trip up the side of the mountain, they were inspired to create a new design.

“After seeing what the site had to offer, we changed our minds based on the spectacular scenery,” said Brown. “We didn’t want anything above the viewing place to obstruct the view and we wanted to maximize the excitement of the glass floor element.”

These new requirements inspired a cantilevered structure that gets out of the way of the scenery and requires visitors to take a leap of faith in engineering before they step out to take in extraordinary vista.

The first 300 metres of the walk are along the cliff and include three interpretive stations that tell the story of the environment. The experience culminates in a U-shaped glass-floor observation platform that extends 35 metres from the cliff and overlooks the Sunwapta Valley.

Open since May 2014, it’s already weakened the knees of travellers the world over.

The design
The original cable stay concept was born out of Brewster’s requirement to mitigate any impacts to the environment. Updegrave says the team drew on their experience to come up with another type of design.

“We build a lot of drawbridges and used some of those concepts to design girders that could be anchored into the cliff face and cantilever off the face by about 50 metres,” said Updegrave.

Brown says the design was mainly driven by engineering, but character was paramount. The bulk of the 21 tons of steel is weathering steel because of its minimal maintenance requirements and the fact that it naturally rusts, protecting it from further corrosion. It also has a reddish hue that blends into the colour palette of the cliff. 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.