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Adventure: Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

A writer confronts a life-long fear on a daring holiday adventure

The stair-climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo courtesy: BridgeClimb
The stair-climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo courtesy: BridgeClimb (BridgeClimb)

Signing a couple of disclaimer forms that absolved the organizers of any responsibility in case of injury, I wondered if I had lost my mind. I had just signed up to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the world’s largest street-arch bridge (503m long, and 134m tall at its highest point). It’s a challenging activity for anybody, and I have a fear of heights that’s plagued me ever since I was a youngster trying to jump off a springboard in swimming class. No amount of cajoling or threatening had convinced me then, but now 27 years later, I had decided it was time to beat my fear.

My group was led by 63-year-old Jon Brian, who’s been leading these tours for nine years. There are different kinds of bridge climbs based on the route taken: BridgeClimb route has 1,332 stairs and can take up to three-and-a-half hours, while BridgeClimb Express has 1002 stairs and takes around 2 hours. I went for the latter, for A$293 (around Rs15,000).

Once we had worn our climbing gear, he led us to the base and latched us to the safety line. “Welcome on board flight 1530! Hope you are comfortable and your seatbelts are fastened. We do not offer in-flight meals but there is loads of in-flight entertainment for all of you," Brian joked, to ease the tension. We followed him through a series of catwalks along the underbelly of the bridge. The sight of the green tree tops below made me feel a bit light-headed. We soon reached the south-east pylon, which was where the first foundation stone was laid on 26 March 1925. An estimated 2,500-4,000 workers are said to have worked on this masterpiece under the leadership of its chief engineer J.J.C. Bradfield.

I could hear the heavy rumbling of tyres over asphalt and realized we were just below the road deck. Above us were eight traffic lanes, a railway, and cyclist and pedestrian lanes. From this point on, we encountered a series of ladders, narrow passageways and steps that made the climb challenging. Occasionally, I could see the blue-green water of the Parramatta river below me and my heart was in my mouth. My breathing turned shallow and rapid, and my legs seemed too heavy to move. My pace reduced and I trailed behind, holding up the climbers after me. Suddenly my headphones crackled and I could hear Brian exclaim, “Look at the beautiful Sydney harbour to your right with the Opera House sitting daintily by its shore." But at that moment I didn’t care for the views; I needed to find the willpower and perseverance to complete the climb.

Looking at the steel railing that I was gripping on to tightly, I thought of the men who had worked for long hours to construct this bridge without safety equipment of the kind I was wearing. Rivets were heated in small furnaces that were placed across the bridge. They were then thrown to a catcher standing across the bridge who would pass them on to a riveter to fix. About six million such rivets were used in the construction of the bridge. It was no mean task. In the almost nine years it took to build the bridge, 16 men lost their lives.

One survival story touched my heart. Vincent Kelly fell from the road deck level about 60m above water. As he fell, he threw his tool belt down to break the surface tension of the water and entered the water feet first. He survived the mishap with six broken ribs and returned to work within a few weeks.

Taking inspiration from the tales of survival Brian narrated to the group, I decided I would have a better time if I followed his advice and ignored my fear to take in the beautiful sights around us. Ascending along the lower arch of the bridge, I forced myself to admire the gleaming white, sail-shaped outer shells of the Opera House, the busy Circular Quay and the green estates of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Ferries sailed below like little blobs on the water.

My breathing slowly returned to normal and I could feel the wind in my hair. I realized I was just a few steps away from the pinnacle. With that came the awareness that it is possible to overcome my fear, that it can no longer hold me back. Author Tim Fargo said, “Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you can’t begin to explore your possibilities." My bridge was this beautiful cathedral of steel.

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