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Up High Down Under: A View From the Bridge

By John Shaw
Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page E02


What: Escorted climb along the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge

Where: Sydney, Australia

How Much: $50 (U.S.)

Why: If you have to ask, don't do it.

After 66 years of being merely a landmark span across the mile-wide harbor, the bridge affectionately known by Sydneysiders as the Coat Hanger is now open for agile sightseers seeking an urban experience that makes interesting dinner table conversation. Not long ago, I took the scramble.

The event starts in a stylishly converted warehouse at the base of the bridge, where the countdown to liftoff begins. First comes a breath test to screen out anyone sipping liquid courage. Then there's a walk through an airport-style metal detector. (The climb managers have promised that climbers will not drop or throw anything down onto passing traffic or into the water. The rules are strictly enforced: One climber recently had to propose marriage to his partner without a ring.) Then comes a video, the inevitable release papers and, finally, outfitting. Each climber is zipped into a pocketless, modish gray track suit and then fit with safety harnesses, whose key component is a cog the size of a tennis ball. Then comes a brief practice session climbing on a shiny mock-up of a bridge section.

Finally our guides, a pair of cheerful thirtysomething Australians, lead forth, two urbane Sherpas shepherding seven chattering tourists.

We begin in the bowels of the bridge. Stone steps rise to a junction of girders, a maze of riveted steel beams jutting high above a green park in which other, more sensible pleasure seekers are having a picnic, watching yachts and ferries glide past. We then attach our safety harnesses to the bridge umbilical, a slender steel wire said to be capable of supporting us if the Worst Thing were to happen.

The first 100 yards walking into space--striding carefully on a track of steel mesh high above the road--is a shock, even with a handrail and the lifeline shimmying along. Then comes another guide named Bob, who delivers the news, equal parts comforting and terrifying, that he will now replace our safety tethers with those that are really safe. He swaps the cog device for a kind of clamp. I recognize it from a TV show about Everest as a "jumar." It is designed to tighten when your weight is applied--i.e., should your body suddenly tumble earthward--and loosen when rescuers arrive.

The jumars are welcome indeed for the next stage of our climb, an open, vertical ladder about 50 steps high--that's about five stories, if you're counting.

Another bearded cog-and-clamp guy is at the top of the ladder. The wind is now kicking up, accompanied by the roar of vehicular and rail traffic.

Compared with the ladder, the long, gradual walk up the wide, shallow steps to the top of the eastern arch is a breeze, and it's the real payoff. A memorable panorama unfolds: The blue Pacific to the east, hazy blue ranges to the west, high-rises along the harbor shore and the Opera House seemingly about to sail away with its six white spinnaker roofs. Little green ferries trail meringue wakes. There's an eagle's view into the prime minister's waterfront garden and, in a distant suburb, of new stadiums rising for the Olympics to be held in 2000.

I did not see the pair of peregrine falcons or the lone raven said to nest at the summit of the bridge.

Descent is via the western arch. One highlight is a 50-yard crosswalk vibrating from the traffic speeding 250 feet below. I did not loiter, although I was in no hurry to reach the final ladder. The down ladder is next to the rail tracks. The guide who changed my harness from cog to clamp warned: "If a train goes by, stop and wait." It did and I did.

Back at the base I asked Robert Schuler, a spry 76-year-old from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., what he thought of the climb. He summed it up as well as I could myself: "Great view and nobody fell."

For more information, contact Bridge Climb, 5 Cumberland St., Sydney, Australia,telephone 011-61-2-9252-0077, fax 011-61-2-9240-1122, No one under 12 permitted. Heart ailments, pregnancy, severe asthma disqualify.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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