A Bridge Too Far?

So, the bridge climb. Before tackling it on Monday afternoon, I took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. The building really is a fascinating example of modern architecture. I didn’t realize until I saw it in person that what appears from the iconic view to be a single building is actually three separate auditoriums, connected underground but standing side-by-side on the surface. I will attempt pictures at the end of this post.
I also did not know until the tour that the roof “sails” are in the shape of progressively larger sections cut out of a sphere, an entirely new concept developed by the architect after most of the building had been constructed. Unfortunately, this was about the only interesting fact gleaned from the hour-long tour. The unenthusiastic guide endlessly repeated himself (we learned four times that during opera season, three shows rotate, but that ballet season features just one show with three rotating corps of dancers). He also told us how much it costs to rent each performance space – who cares? They could and should do so much better.

After a quick lunch and not too much water, I headed to the Bridge Climb center. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built between 1923 and 1932. It’s long – 3770 feet – and quite tall, rising 440 feet at the “summit,” or approximately the height of a 45 story building. The tallest steel arch bridge in the world. And I was to climb it.

We were a group of fourteen, plus climb leader Gareth. There were a few multiple-climb veterans, and a father with his twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son. That’s the minimum age to climb. There is no upper limit, and a 100-year-old woman set the record recently. The waiting room had a display if an impressively eclectic group of celebrities who’ve done the climb, including Prince Harry, Oprah, Daniel Radcliffe, Al Gore, and Bette Midler. At least I would be in good company.

We began by emptying our persons and pockets of anything not tied down. No cameras, phones, wallets, coins, watches, bracelets, or hats allowed. One girl was made to remove her barrettes. We then were fitted with climbing jumpsuits, colored grey to match the bridge and this not distract the drivers below. We were breathalyzed and made to fill out a detailed medical questionnaire, then led to the equipment room.

I had expected the type of step-in harnesses only used for rock climbing or rappelling. Instead, we got safety belts that cinched right around the waist with substantial buckles on each side. Dangling from the belt was a safety wire perhaps three feet long, with a “slider” at the end. This, we were told, would attach to a wire cable at the start of the climb and remain there throughout, with no possibility of becoming separated. We had a safety briefing – only one person on a ladder at a time, always three points of contact, don’t descend ladders facing away from the rungs – and had our eyeglasses cinched right with straps that clipped to the back of the suit. Then, with little fanfare, we were off.

First we had to go up, through one of the support pillars on the southern end of the bridge. (They actually don’t support anything and are purely ornamental.) this involved narrow catwalks with either wooden boards or metal grids, through which I could see the ground below. Okay. There were, of course, handrails and I kept a tight grip with my left hand. Then came four tall ladders. As anyone who’s been around me will know, I’ve never been great with staircases, especially ones I can see through (as the tempered-glass stairs in the place we stayed in Buenos Aires, Ricky Sawyer, or your attempts to get me to run stairs at the gym, Brad Brown), and these ladders were very nearly vertical. Still, I made it to the top. Okay.

Now it was time to venture onto the bridge itself. At this point, we were several dozen feet above the roadway, at about the point in the following picture where the top arch meets the support pillar:

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We proceeded out of the pillar and onto catwalks, again with either wooden boards or metal grates below our feet. The catwalks had handrails at waist height and further rails at about knee height, and our “sliders” snaked along the safety wire that hung level with the upper right-hand railing. The six-Lane roadway was below me. To my very immediate right was Sydney Harbour. And the wind was starting to blow. Although the rational part of my mind knew that I was perfectly safe, I was getting nervous quickly. I had two hands on the rails at all times, and whenever we stopped to hear facts about the bridge (we had radios and headsets tied to the suits) I was in a locked stance.

After a couple of hundred feet, we came to some gentle uphill steps. This was the transition point. As we stepped up, we stepped out, onto the top of the uppermost arch of the bridge. Solid metal below our feet now, which was good because I kept my eyes firmly planted on my feet. The same railing system was in place on the top, and of course I was tied to the safety wire, but if I’d been untied and stumbled, the edge of the arch was a foot or so to the right. At this point, of course, the wind picked up. It was blowing steadily at about 30 miles per hour, with regular gusts that were probably about 50 but felt a lot stronger to me, standing on top of a bridge, on a piece of metal the width of a sidewalk.

Onward and upward we walked, led by Gareth the guide, who was trailed by the ten-year-old kid. I grew more and more nervous, even though I knew it was irrational. When we were moving it was sort of okay, but when we stopped and stood broadside to the wind to listen to a fact about the rivets or the paint or whatever, I felt like I could have been blown right into the harbour with one strong gust or missed step. We stopped at several points to take photos. You’ll see one of me elsewhere on the site. I don’t know how Gareth managed to get me to look so relaxed. I can assure you I was very much not. I will say, though, that I did manage to look up often enough to appreciate the magnificent views of the entire harbour, much clearer views than I’d had from the tower the day before. Here is a photo provided by the climbing company of the view up to the crane at the summit:

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Eventually we reached the top, and crossed over the bridge (and the roadway waaay below) on a metal-grated catwalk. I didn’t know where to put my eyes – down was see-through and in front was the top of a bridge. I went with one foot in front of the other and gritted it out. We turned left and began the descent of the topmost western arch. It would be far too much to say that I became comfortable or relaxed on the way down, but it wasn’t as terrifying as the ascent, probably because I knew that I’d made it to the top and was on the way home. The descent was also quicker, which was nice, as I’d now been standing on top of a bridge for an hour and a half.

Finally we made our way to the pillar opposite where we started (same side of the harbour, opposite edge of the bridge – we made a left and then another left at the top) and descended in a mirror image of the earlier ascent. Back on terra firma, we unclipped, shed the jumpsuits, and retrieved our loose items. From the first introduction to the exit to the photo desk had taken exactly three hours. It felt quite a bit longer.

I realize I haven’t exactly climbed Everest here. Thousands of people have done this climb before, including the aforementioned child and a woman kicking off her second century. I wasn’t ever in danger. Still, standing upright on the very top of a very tall bridge, buffeted by a strong wind and secured only by my death grip on two waist high handrails and a cable with a hard plastic slider on the end, was challenging and frightening and exhilarating and, in hindsight, a fantastic experience. I don’t believe I’ll go back for seconds, though.

I had a nerve-calming G&T at a bar near the climb center and, later, a really good pizza at Mad Pizza on Victoria Street, where I chatted with the two American-born bartenders about our respective travels and, somehow, the plight of zoo animals around the world (here, my photo of a chimpanzee chained to a bench at the Moscow Zoo, smoking a cigarette, was top trumps). That was plenty for one day.

P.S. – sorry if the pictures don’t show up, or look wrong. I can’t see what the final post will look like until you do.

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One thought on “A Bridge Too Far?

  1. Pingback: The Best Year of my Life | John Round The World - the Blog

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