Conquering Heights: The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

Travel writers are born to be adventurous. We live for the unknown – the hidden restaurants, private gardens or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We ride on planes, buses, cars, trains, camels, donkeys, boats or anything else that moves, and set out to explore. No sight unseen. No stone unturned. While our jobs are fantasies to some onlookers, our fears our real.

I fly millions of miles at 36,000 feet every year so it would surprise many that I am afraid of heights. However, standing atop a open-steel structure will make my heart stop… or so I thought. Everyone said, ‘do it,’ and who am I to turn down a challenge? So, I paid my ticket price ($189 AUD), suited up, and made a pledge to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one step at a time.

The tears started before I even set foot on the bridge. It was 8 a.m. and our climb was scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. I grazed through the gift shop and made back-to-back trips to the bathroom. I walked up one flight of stairs to the ‘holding area’, where I would await my tour guide and watch a quick movie on the climb. It was about 45 seconds into the movie I started to panic. The climbers were making their way up the curved steel structure double-time. Panic stricken, I looked around the room for my friend and when she caught my fear I simply said, “I can’t do this.”

The doors opened and we were ushered inside to another room where we were given breathalyzer tests and asked to sign the obligatory ‘if you die on this tour…’ form. I waived my family’s right to sue if I died and walked into the next room, where we were suited for our jumpsuit.

We stood around in a circle and were handed our climbing jumpsuits – polyester slate-blue one-piece fashion disasters that somehow ensured I would be safe. We were asked to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. I learned the names of people from all over the world – Denmark, Canada, Wales, Hong Kong, and Minnesota were represented. The circle stopped at me and all I could say was, “I’m Melanie, and I’m terrified.”

In the next room we changed into our polyester, zipped ourselves up and met our tour leader, Richard, a.k.a the one man who held my life in his hands for the next 2.5 hours. He claims to have done this climb over 4,000 times and it showed – Richard was solid, physically and mentally. He encouraged excitement and sensed fear. Richard had viewed Sydney from all angles and his favorite view was from halfway up the bridge. I wondered at what point I could turn back.We harnessed up, lathered on some sunscreen (a sunburn was, quite frankly, the very least of my concerns), took a drink of water and walked into the room of no return. The door shut behind me and I realized there was no handle on the other side – there was no way to get back in. My heart raced, my breath shortened and my eyes closed. “It’s time to climb,” said Richard. “Mel, you go first.” The man was out of his mind, but I took the lead and stepped out onto the steel grate.

The vibrations from the cars speeding across the bridge shook the metal platform that separated me from the concrete ground below. Our harnesses shook as they slid across the one-inch thick cable that kept us attached to the nearly 3,800-foot bridge. We walked along the flat steel-grate surface, ducking under steel limbs and dodging odd-shaped angles that jutted out in our way. One step at a time. One level at a time. With each lift of my leg I was getting a little closer to the arch of the bridge and a little higher from the ground.

We met the mouth of the bridge which greeted us with wide steps and open air, and Richard began to climb. I reluctantly followed. We walked at a 45-degree angle on the open structure – the Sydney Opera House to our right, the Blue Mountains to the left, New Zealand straight ahead. Richard continuously talked to us through the climb – stopping at certain points along the way to point out significant buildings or hidden details of the bridge.

With every step the city got a little smaller, my breath got a little heavier and my heart beat a little faster. We stopped at Richard’s command and turned around to view the city. Through my tears I could see the Sydney Opera House, the dozens of boats docking and one airplane coming in for landing at Sydney International Airport. And then, as if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Mother Nature threw me a curve-ball and it started to rain. The only thought I had was slipping on the steel beams and sliding down 3,000 feet of bridge. My breath became louder and my head started to pound, and I continued to climb. I thought, the quicker I get to the top of this damn bridge the quicker I can come back down.

The summit was within reach. Each step was a small victory in conquering this fear and I started counting my steps. Thirty-two steps later and I had reached the top. I climbed to the top of the world’s largest bridge, I looked down and took a deep breath. From here on, no height is too high, no building too tall. I was on standing top of the world looking down.

1,435 steps and 1.4 miles later I made it to the end of the climb. My feet were firmly planted back on ground. I watched without envy as groups of 15 made their way onto the same steel structure I just climbed. Would I do it again? Probably not, but I would highly recommend this journey to anyone who with the will to beat their own fears, or just see Sydney from above. As for me? I cried, I climbed and I conquered the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb.