Before a business trip in Canberra, Australia in December 2012, my colleague/friend Robert and I met in Sydney to acclimate to the opposite time zone of North America and learn about the country’s capitol. That included seeing it from the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, which we challenged ourselves to climb. (Yes, this is a veritable tourist attraction.) This famous landmark is nicknamed “The Coat Hanger” for visual reasons. It is the tallest steel arch bridge and widest long-span one in the world.
Fun facts: This behemoth bridge took 8 years to build (1923-31) with 1,400 workers, 6 million hand-driven rivets, 53,000 tonnes of steel and 272,000 liters of paint. Paul Hogan, the late star of “Crocodile Dundee,” helped paint it. In 1998, The Coat Hanger opened to the public for climbing. Since then, about 4 million people have scaled it!
Given this track record of success, it seemed like an easy feat, even for someone prone to vertigo with a fear of heights like me. (FYI, being tall doesn’t omit this fear.) So, one sunny Saturday morning, Robert and I went to “Climb Base” in the bridge’s southeast pylon. We were read the riot act of not bringing anything with us that could fall off the bridge, such as smart phones or cameras, and we were suited up like factory workers to make sure no “loose ends” got in the way of our climb. Plus our suits were equipped with a hook to which a metal string was attached that was supposedly strong enough to hold us lest we fell and dangled off the bridge. (Think placebo.)
Ironically, the toughest part was before the start of the arch. We had to climb up four ladders overlooking the ocean, which made me acutely aware of what we were doing. There was wide, open gap between each step, revealing where you would land if you fell. My body nearly froze in panic and I slowed to a second per step pace, gripping both sides of the wire railing.
“Come on, grandma,” Robert laughed. “You look ridiculous.”
“Hey, this is scarier than I thought!” I said nervously as alarm bells went off inside my head. “Danger, Will Robinson. I repeat, danger, Will Robinson!”
Robert de Niro and a centenarian climbed this bridge. Why couldn’t I? It seemed The Coat Hanger should have been named The Cliffhanger.
Robert nearly tested his safety wire laughing at my grandmother shuffle up the ladders, delaying our “Blue Man Group.”
“It was nice knowing you,” I joked, white-knuckled. “Did you know there are sharks in Sydney Harbour?”
Robert was dying of laughter about my thoughts of dying. About 30 minutes later, what seemed like an eternity, we made it to the upper arch, which had closed, metal tracks, hiding the ocean view. Thankfully, this removed my fear of heights and vertigo. I shot up the rest of the bridge as if in Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People.”
“Ooooh, grandma! You’re on fire!” Robert howled.
“Grandma’s got her groove back,” I exclaimed. My wrinkled, worried brow turned into a light-hearted smile and the twinkle of adventure in my eyes came back. We could see the summit.
We got to the top of the bridge on the Opera House side and an official BridgeClimb photographer took photos of our Blue Man Group with many expressions of joy. The views were spectacular. After looking around in awe for 10 minutes, we walked over the arch to the other side and descended back to Climb Base. About 3 hours and 1,300 steps later, we survived.
Ironically, BridgeClimb has the following Q&A on its website:
Can people with a fear of heights climb? In most cases, yes. We have helped thousands of people challenge their fear of heights by climbing to the top of the bridge.
I’m glad I didn’t fall into the “exceptional cases.” The grandma in me felt better learning from BridgeClimb that acrophobia is a common fear. Besides, I also had a fear of “plongee” (as opposed to bungee) into “sharkees” (a shark-infested ocean).
Nonetheless, I overcame my fears to join the ranks of 4 million climbers, including a handful of real grandmothers like a woman named Chris Muller, who was 100 years old when she scaled The Coat Hanger!
I don’t know about her but I was ready to “hang up” on Sydney Harbour Bridge after my climb of a lifetime. I decided that sipping a glass of Shiraz in a ground floor wine bar was a better way to learn about Australia’s capitol.