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This is the story of a bridge: Climbing the Sydney Harbour icon

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a must when you’re in Sydney. The grand old Coathanger opened to the public on 19 March 1932, so on the occasion of its 90th birthday, this potted review gives you an idea of what to expect, how to prep and why you’ll never forget your Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb experience.

Whenever you think of Australia most likely the Sydney Opera House will spring to mind along with Sydney Harbour Bridge. This beautiful bridge is one of Australia’s most well-known and photographed landmarks.

Affectionately known as “The Coathanger” by locals because of its arch-based design, six years ago I couldn’t resist climbing one of Australia’s most famous icons, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my third month Down Under, an awesome Autumn day in April 2014.

Maybe it’s just my obsession for scaling the highest tower, church dome, and skyscraper wherever I travel, but as a “pom” I felt like I couldn’t miss the opportunity to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

I contacted the BridgeClimb press office about potentially doing a piece on the climb and the lovely Sarah Vincent and Charli Beale offered me complimentary passes at 2:15 on the afternoon of 29 April, replete with a +1 for a fellow journalist (Simon Edds of Daily Sydney), in exchange for exposure. Mid to late afternoon tickets at that time of year have a face value of $300 each so thanks again girls!

Way back in 1815, Francis Greenway proposed building a bridge to connect the northern and southern shore of the harbour. But it took quite some time for this to become a reality. The first designs were submitted in 1900 but were all considered unsuitable, unfortunately, this slowed the momentum of the project.

It wasn’t until after the First World War that more serious plans were made. A general design for the bridge prepared by Dr J J C Bradfield and officers of the NSW Department of Public Works. And if you think the bridge’s design looks familiar then you’re probably thinking about Hell Gate Bridge in New York City from which it was clearly influenced.

Connecting the City of Sydney to North Sydney, construction started in 1924 and took 1,400 men eight years to build. A mind-blowing six million hand driven rivets and 53,000 tonnes of steel were used in its construction. The Bridge officially opened on 19 March 1932, a symbol of hope and future prosperity at a time of severe economic depression.

Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world’s largest (but not the longest) steel arch bridge with the top of the bridge standing 134 metres above the harbour. It now carries eight traffic lanes and two rail lines, bike lane, and pedestrian path.

I felt a mixture of both nerves and excitement leading up to the climb, especially as despite my adventurous spirit I don actually have a pretty chronic fear of heights (I know, pathetic). But, after meeting our hilarious climb leader Max, his quips distracted me from any fear I felt.

The climb entrance is at 3 Cumberland Street, The Rocks. Ensure you arrive 15 minutes before your scheduled climb time to allow enough time to check in. There is also a breathalyser test beforehand so don’t have a big night out before your adventure.

The group was small but perfectly formed with only nine of us in total, plus Max the guide. After receiving an introduction to the climb and safety measures, we were led to the next room containing lockers and change rooms where we got suited up. On chilly or windy days many climbers opt to we leave their “civvies” on underneath the branded jumpsuit, and are also given fleeces to wear if they need them. In warmer weather, staff will let strip down to as little as your underwear and go in the suit as is. I’m assured everything is washed after each climb!

Be sure to wear sneakers or other comfortable shoes with good grip and comfortable clothing. If you happen to find yourself without the appropriate foot attire, you can borrow both shoes and socks which are handy if you’re travelling light.

Watches, cameras, wallets, phones, loose change, and hats were all left in your lockers as a safety precaution. God forbid something were to land on the cars, pedestrians, or boats below. Sunnies are allowed but chorded up for the same reason.

Next, we met our entertaining climb leader Max. We were led into a larger room and took our places around a metal ring with hooks where we put on our harnesses. There were rows of climb gear, all organised and numbered. Everything about this process was so efficient and well-organised.

Then, it was time to do a practice climb.

Inside the same large room (which used to be Chocolate factory) there are four ladders which we practised climbing. The hook from our harnesses slid onto the line and we each had a turn climbing and descending the ladders, making sure no more than one person was on a ladder at any given time.

Next up was the real thing. Huzzah!

We slide our hook onto the secure cord running the length of the climb and within a couple of minutes we could see the cars beneath our feet as Max led us along a series of metal grated paths, then up four ladders which we had practiced climbing.

For such a massive bridge, the climb wasn’t remotely strenuous, or scary. Perhaps the scariest part is when you first step out onto the elevated grated path where you can see all the way down to the grown. From then on, the rest of the walk is like climbing up a really shallow staircase.

There were plenty of stops along the way to simply take in various points of views and listen to Max as he shared interesting facts about the history of bridge and Sydney harbour.

Halfway up the bridge we stopped and drank in the stunning views of the harbour. From up here, you really get to observe just how beautiful Sydney is. It’s a gorgeous looking location. Parts of land jut out and cut into the harbour’s aqua blue water which is busy with water taxis and ferries transporting locals to all parts of the Emerald City.

Sydney usually has impeccable weather and this particular day was no different. It was an incredibly warm and sunny Autumn day with great visibility. Kind of like a day in England during the summer week when it doesn’t rain. 

Facing East we could see all the way to the heads leading to the Pacific Ocean, to the west we saw the silhouettes of the famous Blue Mountains. Once we reached the top we followed the weaving shoreline around the bright blue harbour, admiring the skyscrapers dominating the skyline to the right, and the iconic Sydney Opera House shells sparkling in the sunlight.

As we walked above eight lanes of traffic, we stopped to see the equally beautiful western side of the bridge with swirling landscapes of blue and green, and the faint Blue Mountains poking out in the distance. In the 1800s early explorers struggled to surpass these seemingly impenetrable mountains, beyond which they dubbed as being ‘outback’, giving birth to this world famous Australian term.

One of the successes of the BridgeClimb is how much time you have to enjoy the view and gaze out onto the harbour. There was no sense of urgency in rushing us to the top then back down. It felt more like a leisurely activity than a hardcore climb which I thought it would be. Even so, my legs felt like they’ve had a 24 hour workout. Hills and thrills then.

The BridgeClimb is a must-do experience. I don’t know of anything else like this in the world. Well, I do, as the only other two bridges you can do a similar trek up are also in Oceania: Brisbane and Auckland. The kiwi one was fun but on a much smaller scale than Sydney. I guess I’m going to have to do Brisbane before it’s too late.

The whole climb is extremely safety-conscious, which put my mind at ease. Multiple climbs run throughout the day which means that everything runs like a well-oiled machine. On top of that, the staff are wonderfully friendly and knowledgeable.

Sydney BridgeClimb is one of the most expensive activities you can do in Sydney (Adults range from $178-378 AUD / $140-298 USD), but if you’re short on time then you might want to consider the Sampler or Express tours. And with the amazing panoramic views I savoured and how the experience made me feel, I can honestly say it was worth every cent.

Every ticket to the top includes a group photo, a Certificate of Achievement, a BridgeClimb Cap and free entry to the Pylon Lookout. Additional photos can be purchased when you book your ticket or after your climb.

The whole process takes a few hours, so be sure to eat something beforehand or grab something in the cafe downstairs. Bearing in mind we kicked off just after 2pm we were lucky enough to catch the start of sunset by the time we completed our mission.

Mission incredible then. Time to open a tinny?

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: It’s the non stop ecstatic blue steel video show…


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