By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
The Australian-made film “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” may have a more memorable catchphrase — “Two men enter, one man leaves” — but those of us getting ready to climb onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge had our own mantra: “Three contact points, three contact points,” especially on the ladder rungs on the ascent and descent.
What our guide, Michael, stressed, for safety’s sake, was “one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot” had to be touching the bridge in unison as we progressed above the harbor. Once we got into a natural rhythm, the instructions were easy to follow, even if we were dazzled and distracted by the photo-defying panorama around us.
Sydney is a beautiful city, with its unique history, multicultural cuisine and gorgeous beaches, but among my most striking memories is the feeling of exhilaration generated by being atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
When the the bridge was completed in 1931, it quickly became the most impressive architectural accomplishment in the New South Wales capital, and perhaps all of Australia. Its ceremonial opening was March 19, 1932.
At more than 1,650 feet, it was the widest long-span bridge in the world, and weighed 51,965 tons. More than 1,400 workers were employed, beginning in 1923, to build the bridge, known locally as the “Coathanger.” Sixteen workers died in accidents while the bridge was under construction.
Eight lanes for traffic, two railroads, a pedestrian walkway and a bicycle lane now provided an efficient link between North and South Sydney, rerouting travelers who had previously made the trip by ferry or an indirect road.
Its monumental supremacy was unchallenged until the equally photogenic Sydney Opera House began to rise at Bennelong Point, on the eastern side of Sydney Cove, in 1959.
What was supposed to be a three- or four-year project and cost $7 million, dragged on and on. Along the way, visionary Danish architect Jørn Utzon resigned — he never did see the completed building in person — and construction costs rose to $102 million.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia to open the Opera House in 1973. Regardless of the delays and expense, the complex, meant to evoke unfurled ships’ sails, presented instant competition to the bridge’s iconic status.
From many vantage points, eager shutterbugs can capture both the bridge and the Opera House in the same frame. Each imposing structure says “Australia” in its own inimitable way.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the three buildings, eat at one of the restaurants or attend the opera or ballet. I saw the Australian Ballet perform “Coppelia” on my second trip to Australia in May 2010.
What tourists cannot do is walk on the Opera House’s Swedish-made ceramic roof tiles, one million of which gleam in the legendary Down Under sunshine.
That’s the one aspect where the bridge defeats the Opera House hands down in the battle (if there is such a thing) for best Sydney Harbour attraction.
I had seen a “Globetrekker” TV program wherein the presenter was part of a group that walked on top of the bridge. It looked like a fantastically fun thing to do, even though I am not wild about heights in general.
The business BridgeClimb Sydney (“360 degrees of unforgettable,” its website boasts) is in the historic Rocks area, where convicts transported from England, some for such petty offenses as stealing a loaf of bread, were housed in hastily built accommodation.
The general vicinity, which saw the First Fleet of 11 ships bearing more than 1,350 convicts and mariners arrive at Botany Bay in January 1788 after eight months at sea, now caters to tourists with numerous eateries, souvenir shops, small museums and hotels.
To date, more than 3 million people have completed the bridge climb. The idea was the brainchild of Paul Cave, who in 1989 organized the first climb as part of a business convention.
One can only imagine the reaction among the various state and local political bodies, worried about propriety and safety issues, and concerns of conservation/historical groups when Cave proposed what must have seemed like a hair-brained scheme to make climbing the bridge a tourist attraction.
“You want to do what? You want to let people who aren’t mountain climbers — or even trained athletes — risk their lives and our liability — just for the experience … and the view?,” they might have sputtered.
But Cave, who has an abiding affection for the landmark — his late father-in-law purchased the very first train ticket to cross the bridge on March 20, 1932 — persisted, satisfying all requirements and putting all doubts to rest.
In 1998, the BridgeClimb led its initial tourists onto the top arch, about 440 feet above one of the greatest natural harbors in the world.
I had been at a greater height outside, close to 1,000 feet up, when I visited Taipei 101, the striking green-glass skyscraper in Taiwan’s capital. The observation deck on the 91st floor has protective fencing all the way around, and while I was technically outdoors, I was in regular street clothes and wasn’t doing anything strenuous. My stay was brief, maybe about 15 minutes.
So it’s not really fair to compare Taipei 101 to BridgeClimb, other than to say it was plenty windy at both sights.
(I’m talking about manmade sights here. In Switzerland, I’ve been at more than 11,715 feet when outside the Sphinx Observatory at Jungfraujoch, “the top of Europe,” the highest train station on the continent. The site is easily accessible from Interlaken on the Bernese Oberland Railway and the Jungfrau railway. The Jungfrau, along with the Eiger and Monch, comprise a well-known trio of Swiss Alps.)
Bridge climbers have several options as to what time to go up: dawn, daytime, twilight or night (dawn and twilight are the most expensive). Visitors can make a thrilling adventure even more so by witnessing the sun rise or set, or marveling at the thousands of lights of Sydney Harbour’s buildings twinkling far below.
You can also decide if you want to mount the top arch or an inner arch, or go on a shorter express climb.
I chose the 3.5-hour day climb because it included the longest period that I could actually be on the bridge, covering a distance of more than 1 mile and 1,332 steps.
I was traveling solo, and an international cast of 13 others were in my group (14 is the maximum group size).
After check-in, we were each given a Climber Declaration and Disclaimer Form, which asked about any current health issues and assessed our general physical condition.
Safety is the top concern at BridgeClimb, and just as you wouldn’t drink and drive, don’t expect to climb if you’ve been imbibing. Staff administers a Breathalyzer-type test to weed out any people with suspect sobriety.
Once through the preliminaries, it was time to get dressed. We were each given a blue, black and gray full-length jumpsuit (staff were excellent at estimating what size we needed). In a curtained room, after stripping down to underwear, we put on our jumpsuits. (The website says depending on the weather, you might be allowed to keep on some of your clothes for warmth under your jumpsuit.)
Closed-toe shoes with a rubber soles, such as running shoes or sneakers, are recommended.
The rest of our equipment: a wide belt with clasps to attach our safety lines to the bridge, a billed cap (or woolen hat), a headset and power pack, outer fleece or rain gear and gloves, as needed. Our street clothes were stored in lockers and the key was secured in our jumpsuit. Staff checked our gear to make sure everything was suitably snug and being worn properly.
Everything we were wearing was clipped to someplace on our jumpsuit. This meant that we couldn’t accidentally drop anything either on the bridge or on anyone way below.
My group then had a mini-practice climb indoors, as we scaled metal steps and walkways in preparation for the real thing.
As we approached the door that led to the bridge ascent, I expected my heart to be pounding much harder and faster. And I thought I would be more anxious.
But I was thankfully calm. I wasn’t mentally picturing danger to life or limb, which would have been so easy to do.
Maybe it was the confidence Michael exuded, or the safety preparations and orientation that put me at ease.
Once through the door and heading toward the bridge, our safety lines were secured and we traversed several catwalks. The first real obstacle was the steep rungs of a vertical ladder, with noisy road traffic clearly visible beneath us.
Michael paced the ascent so that each climber was clear of the hurdle before the next was allowed to begin.
We proceeded in this manner — advance personal safety line and climb, wait for the group, repeat — as we made our way higher and higher on the Opera House side of the bridge. Left and right hand rails also contributed to imparting a secure feeling. Three points of contact, indeed.
Some sections were a mild incline and more walking than climbing. Overall, I didn’t find the exertion taxing and was surprised that I didn’t feel even the slightest hint of height-induced nausea.
In other words, I was on top of the world, Australia-style. Being wind-blown and pelted by light rain on the ascent were a small price to pay for the unencumbered vista of Sydney Harbour. For our trouble, we were gifted with a spectacular rainbow.
Our guide kept up a steady narrative, giving the history of the bridge, identifying important buildings in the development of the harbor and taking questions along the way.
At 1 p.m, a cannon was fired at Fort Denison (a daily occurrence), on a harbor spit of land named Rock Island by the First Fleeters. Particularly troublesome convicts were sent to the island, and lived on notoriously short rations.
The fort itself was built in the 1840s-’50s. It was amazing that from our bird’s-eye view we saw the flash from the gunpowder before we heard the boom.
When we got to the summit, i.e. the spine of the top arch, we paused for a lingering look and group photo. Nearby, a lovely sight: two tall flagpoles, with patriotic banners for Australia and New South Wales proudly flapping in the breeze.
On a clear day, Michael noted, climbers can see the famed Blue Mountains in the distance, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.
Too soon it was time to begin the descent. This meant crossing over to the Darling Harbour side and returning in the direction from which we came. We did not continue to the far side of the span.
A few caveats:
● You cannot take anything with you except your sunglasses. No camera, no smartphone, no headphones.
● Don’t worry about immortalizing your climb. The guide will take an individual photo of you on the ascent (and a few others) and then a group photo when you are atop the center span. The group photo is included in the overall cost, as is a certificate marking your achievement, and a blue cap (this has changed since my visit; I paid $12.95 AUS for the cap). You will have a chance to buy additional personal photos at the end of the climb, and souvenirs in the gift shop.
● Go to the bathroom before the climb. Obviously, there are no facilities once you are on the bridge. If you go on the longest climb like I did, you won’t have bathroom access for about two hours and 40 minutes.
● If a paralyzing fear of heights kicks in while you are on the bridge, and you feel you must retreat, a staff member — not your guide — will come to the rescue.
Should the price deter you, you can still get an excellent view of the harbor from the Pylon Lookout, on the city side of the bridge. The small Harbour Bridge Museum is also in the pylon and it has photographs and other facts and figures about the bridge’s construction. If you do the climb, the admission ticket for the pylon is included.
Quick reference: BridgeClimb, 3 Cumberland Street, the Rocks, Sydney. www.bridgeclimb.com. The website is loaded with information, video and photographs to help you plan your climb. Reservations are required; tickets are nonrefundable. Prices on the website are in Australian dollars. The climb I did cost about $150 US in 2010. It’s now up to $217 U.S. Children 8 or older are welcome, but they must be at least 3-foot, 11-inches tall (or 1.2 meters), and they must be accompanied by an adult.
The weather isn’t generally an issue, unless the winds are extreme or there is the possibility of an electrical storm. In those cases, the climb is postponed.