Luckily, I’m not afraid of heights. Wherever I go, my best travel experiences often involve climbing up and looking down. I got my chance to do just that in Sydney, Australia, when I signed up to climb the Harbour Bridge.
The steel, single span arch bridge, often dubbed “The Coathanger” because of its shape, is an iconic feature of the Sydney harbour.
It stretches over 500 meters between Sydney’s North Shore and the Central Business District. By itself, the bridge is visually stunning. But viewed within its harbour setting, sharing the clear blue waterside with the nearby Sydney Opera House, the bridge is really something to behold.
To climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, you have to find your way to BridgeClimb Sydney near the southern end of the bridge, which is not as easy as you might think. The bridge ends in a historic neighborhood called The Rocks, named for the sandstone from which many of the original buildings were constructed. In the shadow of the Central Business District, The Rocks is a bustling, hilly area chock-full of shops, restaurants, galleries and gentrified urban living.
Somewhere near the top of The Rocks, the winding streets give way and the Climb Base headquarters of BridgeClimb Sydney finally appears.
Inside the Climb Base, I was grouped with a dozen other climbers and a guide, who whisked us through an efficient pre-climb orientation and safety briefing. First, we were issued weather appropriate climbing gear, and then we were breathalyzed before being admitted to the locker rooms. That’s right, I said breathalyzed. You can only climb if your blood-alcohol concentration is below .05%, so you’ll want to skip the pre-climb happy hour.
My group was suited-up in lightweight jumpsuits that covered us completely from the neck down. You have to leave all your extra clothing and belongings behind. That means no hats, no watches or jewelry (except rings and tiny earrings), no phones and especially no cameras. If you wear glasses or sunglasses, they will be tethered to your jumpsuit. We were issued caps that clipped to our jumpsuits and handkerchiefs on elastic bands fastened around our wrists.
For safety purposes, every climber was fitted with a safety belt, to which headphones and a radio were attached. The belt accommodated a wire tether, and each tether was secured to a central safety line. (This is the point where you better be sure you like the people on either side of you, because once you’re connected to the safety line, you’re stuck with them for the next 3 hours.)
With gear and safety instruction accomplished, we were finally ready to go. From the Climb Base, we emerged onto a series of level, steel catwalks near the bottom of the bridge’s south granite pylon. Our first challenge hovered directly above: a series of vertical ladders leading up from street-level to the top arch span. The ladders themselves were fairly easy to negotiate, but we had to crouch and shimmy between steel girders just to access them. Although the lowest girders had been wrapped with brightly colored foam padding, most of us still conked our heads once or twice. We climbed blindly for a while, not knowing where we were inside the steel superstructure, and then suddenly we emerged into the sunshine with the top arch of the bridge before us and the roadway below.
From this point upward, the climb was a gentle grade on easily spaced risers. We ascended the long arch slowly, right along the southeastern edge of the topmost steel span.
On the way up, we watched the harbour ferry traffic going swiftly to and fro by the spectacular Sydney Opera House.
As we climbed, our guide told us about the history of the bridge, which opened in 1932. To keep the bridge in top condition, an engineering and maintenance team is constantly engaged. Painters use special quick-drying paint on the steel surface to protect the traffic below from messy drips. (Bridge Trivia: the most well-known former Harbour Bridge painter is Paul Hogan of “Crocodile Dundee” fame.) In recent years, the bridge has been the centerpiece of Sydney’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
About 2 hours after we left the Climb Base, we reached the summit of the bridge. Beneath the flags for Australia and New South Wales, our group paused briefly to appreciate the uninterrupted panoramic view. We also enjoyed some awkward catwalk jig dancing and particularly bad singing – but we were all having too much fun to care. Before we knew it, it was time to cross over and come back down the southwestern edge of the steel span.
An hour later, we were back at the Climb Base, sorting our gear and reclaiming our belongings. The Rocks neighborhood beckoned us from below for a little post-climb celebrating.
Somehow, the pathway back down to The Rocks seemed even more precarious than the descent from the top of the bridge.
Nevertheless, we made our way down the hill to the lively district below. Around each turn, we were conscious of the Harbour Bridge rising higher and higher over our shoulders.
Seeing the bridge again from The Rocks, the youngest climber in our group summed up our excitement most succinctly. “Hey, we climbed that!” he exclaimed. We certainly did!
If You Go
Purchasing tickets from BridgeClimb Sydney in advance is a must if you’re on a tight schedule. All climbs are reserved for a particular time slot, and weekends and holidays routinely sell out. If your Sydney itinerary is flexible, however, drop by the Climb Base and inquire. The team at BridgeClimb Sydney can always book you into an available spot if you’re not picky about your climb time.
Climbs take place rain or shine, so be prepared to suit up in a variety of conditions. All cold weather and rain gear will be provided. It’s best to arrive in workout clothes so you can just pull the BridgeClimb gear over what you’re already wearing. Climbs will only be canceled in the event of high winds or electrical storms.
The Climb Base for BridgeClimb Sydney is about a 15-minute walk (uphill) from the main Circular Quay railway station. You can catch a bus or ferry to the Circular Quay area from anywhere in the city. BridgeClimb provides detailed, turn-by-turn walking directions on its website, and you’ll want to print them out and follow them to the letter. Otherwise, you’re going to be late!
Although you can’t take a camera with you on the bridge, your guide will take a few photographs that you can purchase after your climb. BridgeClimb Sydney also sells a variety of souvenirs in the Climb Base Visitor Centre.