If there’s one place in life I never expected to find myself, it’s balanced precariously on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 134 meters above the harbour below. Hooked on to the bridge by a climber’s lead, I scan the crystal clear blue sky, completely free of clouds, providing a literal bird’s eye view of the city.
The Sydney BridgeClimb is an incredibly unique experience, allowing visitors to physically climb the frame of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, walking all the way to the top, with the aid of an experienced and knowledgeable guide. The 3 ½ hours of the climb flew by, and when I found myself back on terra firma, my legs were quivering from the adrenaline rush of walking on top of such a beautiful city- and probably in part from scaling a few tall ladders. The BridgeClimb is such a quintessentially Sydney thing to do, and is a unique challenge that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world, combining history with a climb across Australia’s most famous bridge.
BridgeClimb’s headquarters, Climb Base, can be found on Cumberland Street, in the Rocks- you guessed it, next to the bridge. The vaulted ceilings and steel design of the facility align neatly with the architecture of the bridge, setting the tone for what’s to come throughout the day.
After checking in, our group of 14 excited climbers began the process of getting fitted out with everything we needed for the climb. It was an international group, with fellow Americans on board, as well as Chinese, Singaporean, Spanish, and Australian visitors, all eager to get going. As an ‘adopted’ Sydney-sider, it’s fantastic to see people so excited about spending time here, and coming to love the city as much as I do.
It was then we met our dynamic guide Richard, a BridgeClimb legend who has worked as a guide since its inception in 1998, and was a wealth of knowledge on Sydney history, the construction of the bridge, and had some great stories to tell about memorable climbs over the years. He has a great claim to fame of beating Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to the top of the bridge…but only because you can only travel up the bridge one at a time, and the guide always goes first.
Starting with a very cosmonaut-chic space grey jumpsuit, climbing lead lines, sun caps, fleece jumpers, and even a handkerchief, everything needed for the trek is provided to participants before setting off. I mention this as nothing can be taken on the climb unless it’s physically attached to you, for obvious safety reasons. As someone who has recently had the autumn sniffles, the thoughtful addition of the handkerchief to the uniform made my day (it’s the little things in life, I know).
Safety was obviously a number one priority before starting the climb, making sure everyone understood how the lead lines would work, and we did a test-run of one of the bridge ladders before leaving Base.
A History Lesson 134 Meters Up
Handkerchiefs and cosmonaut suits in tow, the ascent began. Heading out from the Base, we walked underneath the frame of the bridge on a rather narrow catwalk, suspended above the parkland below. From the catwalk, we headed up into the heart of the bridge’s foundation, through one of the four pylons.
Exploring the internal structures of the bridge was almost as incredible as the views from the top; it really brought to life the history of the bridge, first opened to the public in 1932. Once inside the bridge, we found ourselves above the bridge’s paint factory, contained within the pylon and used to keep up with the bridge’s constant need for repainting.
Standing on the same access ways used by bridge workers, surrounded by tons of steel and rivets, it’s not hard to imagine the daily struggle faced by workers of the era. It was a job demanding gruelling manual labour in a dangerous time before workplace health and safety existed- out of 1,400 workers, 16 died in construction.
In addition to the bridge’s obvious transport advantages for cars and passengers, its completion also connected Sydney’s north and south railway lines, something we take for granted now. Looking north from the bridge, just behind Luna Park, you can see where the old railway abruptly ended, now replaced by CityRail’s Northern Line and forgotten in time.
Climbing the Bridge
Next came a series of rather claustrophobic ladders, single-file. The ladders are probably the most challenging part of the climb, as they require close concentration due to the narrow steps, and are somewhat disorienting- above you metal frameworks, below you only the harbour and more metal framework and grates.
After surviving the ladders, we were rewarded with open air above us and epic 360 views as we came out onto the bridge itself, and began the trek to the highest point, while Richard educated us on all sorts of facts and anecdotes about the bridge, snapping photos of us as we went along. Maybe it was luck of the draw, but no one in our group seemed scared, or even apprehensive, about venturing to the top of the bridge, towering above the harbour below- I think this speaks to the professionalism and ability of the Bridge Climb team in thoroughly preparing climbers for the adventure.
The awe-inspiring feeling of looking out over the entire city was heightened by perfectly blue skies, giving clear views of Manly, the Anzac Bridge and inner west suburbs, not to mention Circular Quay and the Opera House below, the bright blocks of colour reminiscent of a Jeffrey Smart landscape. The perspective of being above the lively city is almost impossible to describe, with so much to look at, your eyes are hungry to take it all in at once while also savouring the unreal position you find yourself in.
BridgeClimb operates to the highest standard of professionalism and safety, which shown through in all interactions with staff. The whole operation runs like clockwork, with a high attention to detail. From automatically sizing up everyone for their jumpsuits on arrival to the almost instant turnaround of printing guest photos at the climb’s conclusion, time is maximised to make the most of your time on the bridge, which I appreciated.
One factor always brought up in discussion of the climb is the price tag attached. Yes, the climb is at a higher price point than some other Sydney tourist attractions, no arguing that, but the experience is truly once in a lifetime. (Prices range from approximately $150-$370, but consult their website for up to date information.)
If you’re visiting Sydney for the first time, I can’t think of a better way to see it, as well as learn about Sydney’s history. If you’re a Sydney local, it would be a great thing to do in celebration of a special occasion- sunset climbs have been the site of thousands of proposals over the years- perhaps another reason for the handkerchiefs?
Once I finished the climb and was heading home, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about how fun this was, as cliché as that sounds. While preparing this article, I tried to work out just why I found this experience so special- it was the enthusiasm they bring for the city of Sydney and its history, something BridgeClimb and I both share.
Know Before You Go:
• Don’t drink and climb- all climbers will be breathalysed beforehand, and everyone must have under the legal driving limit (0.05)
• In addition to the full climb, the BridgeClimb Sampler is available and is a good option for those short on time, or wish to save some money. It doesn’t go all the way to the top, but still gives great views.
• The climb, including prep, goes for at least 3 ½ hours, and some physical fitness is required- eat a filling and healthy meal beforehand, slop on some sunscreen, and wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes.
• For safety reasons, nothing can be taken up on the bridge that isn’t attached to your body- this includes cameras and phones. All climbers receive a group photo, with additional photos available for purchase.
• All climbers also receive an admission pass into the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout.
• If you’re bothered by heights or confined spaces, get advice from staff as to whether or not this adventure is for you- at one point we did go under some low-hanging areas, and up and down tall ladders is required.
• Interesting fact- The building Base Climb is housed in was also once a factory for Darrell Lea chocolates- unfortunately no chocolate remains.
For more information, please visit Sydney BridgeClimb
The author visited as a guest of Sydney BridgeClimb.