Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge in New South Wales, Australia

Author Laura Byrne Paquet at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo courtesy of OTTTO Holdings (Aust.) Pty Limited ACN 079 564 346 trading as BridgeClimb Sydney.

Author Laura Byrne Paquet at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo courtesy of OTTTO Holdings (Aust.) Pty Limited ACN 079 564 346 trading as BridgeClimb Sydney.

I’d been in Australia for less than 48 hours when, still addled with jet lag, I set off to climb one of its most famous landmarks: the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Even though I was staying in the Rocks, an historic neighborhood nearby, I’d had only glimpses of the bridge before arriving at the climb base to start my adventure. That was the moment when I truly realized that the bridge is big. I mean, huge. Enormous. Gigantic. The top of the arch was some 440 feet (134 meters) above my head.

Basically, it didn’t seem like the sort of thing a moderately fit 40-something woman should be contemplating scaling.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You find bus tours way too tame.
  • You want to get an inside look at one of Sydney’s most famous icons and an unbeatable view of the harbor.
  • You love being up high and feeling the wind in your hair.
  • Good for: thrill seekers, walkers, families with older children.

But if I wanted to do it (and I did) I didn’t have much choice: BridgeClimb is one of the hottest tickets in town, and if you can’t make your appointed time, there are no refunds. I took a deep breath and headed indoors for my safety briefing.

Keeping the BridgeClimb Safe

The folks at BridgeClimb take safety very seriously. Anything that could fall onto the bridge or into the water–including cameras and cell phones–had to be stowed in lockers. Only eyeglasses and essential medications could come along for the ride.

Did I mention that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is high? Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

Did I mention that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is high? Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

We signed indemnity forms and went though a metal detector. Like all participants, everyone in my group–two Australian couples, an English couple with their teenaged son, a young German man and me–also had to take a breathalyzer test. If any climbers had had a blood alcohol reading above 0.05, they’d have been kicked off the tour with no refund. Fortunately, we were all sober, so we put on fetching BridgeClimb jumpsuits over our clothes. (And when I say “fetching,” I mean “resembling something the costume designers on the original Star Trek series would have deemed too nerdy.”)

Other equipment included headsets so we could hear our guide Antigone Garner’s instructions, and a strong, stretchy tether ending in a slider, which we would clip to a cable running along the bridge’s frame during the climb.

Packages for Most Fitness Levels

BridgeClimb (the name of the tour company) offers three packages: the original Bridge Climb (the name of the package), the Discovery Climb, and the Express Climb. On the 3.5-hour Bridge Climb, climbers walk along the top of the arches. The 3.5-hour Discovery Climb requires fewer steps (1,002 versus 1,332), takes place largely within the structure, and provides more commentary on the engineering and history of the bridge. The Express Climb also has 1,002 steps but takes just 2.25 hours to complete, so it appeals to fit people who don’t want to make a lot of stops.

Our group was doing the Discovery Climb. We entered one of the concrete-and-granite pylons along the bridge and began climbing a set of roughly 200 not-too-steep stairs. Along the way, Antigone–or Tigs, as she asked us to call her–regaled us with facts about the famous bridge, which opened in 1932 and is held together with almost six million rivets.

After less than 10 minutes, we emerged from the tower onto the traffic deck of the bridge. Even though Tigs had warned us we’d pop up next to the road like human Whack-a-Moles, and a thick railing separated us from the cars and trucks hurtling by, it was disconcerting.

The wind was fierce, and the strap on my BridgeClimb baseball cap earned its keep. We hooked our sliders to the cable and headed onto a catwalk, which looks surprisingly safe: Before I watched the introductory video during the safety briefing, I had imagined levering myself up the web of steel girders like an incompetent Spiderman.

A climber reaches the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge arch on the Discovery Climb. Copyright © 2009 OTTTO Holdings (Aust.) Pty Limited ACN 079 564 346 trading as BridgeClimb Sydney.

A climber reaches the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge arch on the Discovery Climb. Copyright © 2009 OTTTO Holdings (Aust.) Pty Limited ACN 079 564 346 trading as BridgeClimb Sydney.

But the Discovery Climb was really just a stroll with lots of steps and a few steep ladders thrown in. Even the Bridge Climb sounds manageable, as the bridge’s arches rise at a 24-degree angle. I suspect anyone capable of a half-hour dog-walk could do either the Bridge Climb or the Discovery Climb with ease (in fact, the company has had climbers as young as 10 and as old as 100).

Come for the Walk, Stay (briefly) for the Sydney Harbour View

Physically, it might have been a dog walk, but I can’t imagine many daily strolls with similar scenery. At the start, we had a bird’s-eye view of a wedding party being photographed on the grounds of the Park Hyatt. As we ascended, the 360-degree view expanded so that I really didn’t know where to look next. The shell-like Sydney Opera House naturally drew my eye, but there was so much more to see: ferries puttering in and out of Circular Quay, islands and sailboats dotting the harbor, the far-flung suburbs, and Kirribilli House, the official Sydney home of Australia’s prime minister.

Visitors on the patio of the Sydney Opera House get a prime view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

Visitors on the patio of the Sydney Opera House get a prime view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

When we emerged from the bridge’s innards to a viewing platform atop the arch, Tigs snapped our photos (guides are allowed to carry tethered cameras). It was tempting to stay at what felt like the top of the world, but BridgeClimb runs a tight ship. We had to make our way across the arch and back down the other side, so another group of climbers could take our place and be enthralled.

Practicalities

  • Rates vary by time of day and year, starting at $138 (AU) for children and $198 for adults. Prices are highest in late December and early January, on weekends, and at dawn and dusk.
  • Book your tickets at least a month in advance for the best selection of dates and times.
  • Wear enclosed, rubber-soled shoes and loose-fitting clothing.
  • Women less than 24 weeks pregnant can climb with a signed fitness certificate from their doctor.
  • To climb, children aged 10 to 15 must be over 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and accompanied by an adult.
  • Special headsets are available for hearing-impaired climbers. Twice a month, sign-language interpreters also accompany certain walks.
  • All climbers must be able to walk up stairs.
  • You’ll need to wait 2 hours and 40 minutes for a bathroom break on the Bridge and Discovery climbs, and 1 hour and 40 minutes on the Express Climb.
  • While BridgeClimb claims to have helped many conquer their fear of heights, and the trip is very safe, people with severe phobias should think twice before signing up.
  • One group photo is included in the ticket price. You can buy others at the end of the walk.
  • Romantically inclined? You can propose to your sweetie on the walk if you clear it with BridgeClimb first.
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