Joanna Booth tests her head for heights in Alberta
It’s a big challenge, apparently, getting just the right level of wobble.
This is not an issue addressed in the latest series of The Great British Bake Off – we’re not referring to jelly. I’m talking to Jeremy Sturgess, the architect responsible for the Glacier Skywalk. This glass-floored observation platform curves out from a cliff edge in Alberta’s Sunwapta Valley like a giant see-through horseshoe balanced over a 280-metre sheer drop. You might think the optimum wobble factor would be zero.
Apparently not. London’s ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge illustrated to Sturgess’s team that the correct level would “get the hairs on the back of your neck up,” without being too scary.
As part of the group that experienced this wobble factor first hand at the official opening, I can confirm that it’s spot-on for the more nervous skywalker, with barely discernable movement even when one over-enthusiastic tester decided to jump up and down vigorously right in the middle. No wonder – the steel support rods are embedded 16 metres into the bedrock of the cliff.
Perhaps this minimal wobble is less to do with the Millennium Bridge and more to do with something else Sturgess confesses – despite designing this £12 million attraction, he’s actually afraid of heights.
I found the best tactic was not to look down as I took the first step from the chestnut-coloured Cor-Ten weathering steel on to the glass itself – despite knowing there were three inch-thick layers beneath me, it somehow felt rather like stepping on to nothing.
That step made, my nerves disappeared and I could enjoy the view. And what a view. The skywalk is right in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, so all around are snow-capped peaks and monumental glaciers. I spotted a Rocky Mountain goat perched on the cliff below like a cotton wool ball with horns and a neat beard. He was definitely staring back – probably wondering how on earth I was floating so high above him, apparently standing on air.
Free shuttle buses take visitors from the Glacier Discovery Centre just a few minutes away up to the Skywalk, where in addition to the view, there are audio tours and an exhibition explaining the area’s geology and the skywalk’s technology.
The Glacier Skywalk is the work of Brewster Travel Canada, which operates some of the most popular attractions in the Canadian Rockies, including the huge-wheeled Ice Explorer vehicles that transport visitors from the same Glacier Discovery Centre right out on to the surface of the 300-metre-thick ice cube that is the Athabasca Glacier. We filled our bottles with meltwater – which started life as snowflakes falling on to the Columbia Icefields 200 years ago – and scrambled up on to a snowy hillock to pose with the Canadian flag, the red maple leaf bright against the all-white background.
Brewster’s base for the two attractions, the Glacier Discovery Centre, is set in between Banff and Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, 144 miles of tarmac that winds through some pretty epic scenery, particularly the stretch between Lake Louise and Jasper. We spent the journey gazing up at icy peaks, across lakes turned a bright blue-green by glacier rock flour and into the shade of woodland in a frantic but fruitless attempt to spot bears.
We may have missed grizzlies, but we found a few grizzled characters in downtown Jasper. The guides at Jasper Motorcycle Tours may be kitted out like Hells Angels in head-to-toe leather, but you’d be hard-pushed to find a more courteous bunch.
Riding pillion and in sidecars on their Harley-Davidsons, we flew through the stunning Alberta countryside. It’s a novel way to travel, with the added benefit of being able to gawp at the views while someone else concentrates on the road.
We did a lot of gawping that day, having spent the morning riding the Jasper SkyTram, the highest and longest cable-car in Canada. The seven-minute journey is ooh-ed and ah-ed away in no time, so it’s lucky that there’s a viewing platform and cafe at the top, so you can make the most of the vista of six mountain ranges from 2,277 metres up. We tried to hike to the summit of Whistler’s Mountain, but found trainers without proper treads would only get us halfway before we started to slide back down through the snow. If clients want to do the walk advise them to bring their boots.
They’ll have plenty of chances to use them – Jasper National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Options range from challenging to easy as pie, and Maligne Canyon can offer both, depending on the time of year clients visit. If, like us, they head here in summer, they can take a short wander through this towering limestone canyon spotting local flora and fauna, from the ‘bearberry’ plant that’s like catnip for grizzlies to black swifts – this is one of only four places in North America where the birds can be seen. Between December and April, visitors can take ice walks and even try ice climbing. Our guide, Wes Bradford, says that even a first-timer could have a go at tackling the 80-metre-tall Queen of the Maligne waterfall.
The region is full of wildlife. I sighted the heavy, crowned heads of bighorn sheep by the roadside, scrambled for my camera when a pair of moose ambled out of the forest and almost walked into a herd of elk, waiting in rather spooky silence outside my cabin at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
The bears may have narrowly eluded me – every Albertan I spoke to seemed to have iPhone pictures of specimens they had seen the day before I arrived – but the bison and wild boar weren’t so lucky. At Evil Dave’s Grill, a Jasper restaurant far more welcoming than it sounds, I ate a meatloaf made of both – delicious!
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