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Going up down under

An innovative arch of steely beauty becomes a height for many to conquer

Email|Print| Text size + By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Staff / August 6, 2006

SYDNEY -- I used to feel sorry for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The giant arch was the city's pride for decades after it opened in 1932, the most impressive feat of engineering the nation had ever seen. It had taken thousands of workers almost a decade to join the north and south shores of Sydney Harbor with 52,000 tons of steel held together with some 6 million rivets. For years afterward, the handsome arch that locals call the Coathanger was the premier Aussie icon.

Then in 1973 the Sydney Opera House arrived and the Coathanger was pushed aside, at least as far as Australian pride and joy went. Sure, it was still a national symbol, but it became a bit of a frowsy older sister by comparison, and I felt bad for the old girl.

The drab gray span was instantly outshone by architect Jorn Utzon's gorgeous structure, which sat gracefully right on the almost always impossibly blue harbor, its dazzling and brilliant white pavilions spread like billowing skirts at a ball.

But these days, the great, gray bridge is frumpy no more. Over the past eight years, more than a million people -- including locals, tourists, and A-list celebrities -- have clambered over the steely structure and looked down on the city, including that flashy opera house. Turns out the Sydney Harbour Bridge is now quite glam.

I grew up in the southwest of Sydney, a good 40 minutes away from the neighborhoods where people saw the bridge -- and got stuck in its eight lanes of traffic -- every day. I crossed it on a train a few times to get to the Zipper and Ferris wheel and fast food at Luna Park, the amusement complex by the bridge's north side . (You entered the park through the mouth of a giant, creepy clown face that still sits there, regarding the city with what appears to be a mixture of amusement and alarm.) I knew the bridge mostly from kitschy tea towels and souvenir spoons.

Going to university took me to neighborhoods closer to the bridge, and into contact with the kind of people who wanted to climb it. Everyone knew someone who had done it. It was a rite of passage. Stories of couples who had scaled the steel to join the 440-foot-high club were legion.

Late one warm summer night, I found myself surrounded by gently swaying, Coathanger-savvy classmates under the southern side of the bridge, looking up, contemplating climbing the thing. But there apparently had been a crackdown, resulting in far more barbed wire than my fellow adventurers had encountered previously. And it was late, and we were more than a little tipsy.

Mission aborted.

Twenty years later, I found myself at the base of the bridge again, surrounded by another group of people eager to scale the gray steel. This time, I was speaking breathily into a blood-alcohol testing machine held by a cheery young woman who airily informed us that a reading over 0.05 would mean instant disqualification.

``I'm really excited to climb the bridge," I said loudly, at her suggestion.

This time , I am happy to report -- given that it was not quite 11 a.m. -- I was utterly sober. So were my fellow adventurers : a few young tourists from Germany and the United States, some other Aussies at the back end of middle age, and my sister Thelma, a flight attendant with a fear of heights and an adventurous streak.

What changed between my misspent youth and today was the arrival of BridgeClimb, a tour operation that takes as many as 1,000 people to the top of the bridge's arch every day. Since the company began leading climbs in 1998, about 1.5 million people have scaled the Coathanger, including one Mrs. Chris Muller, a plucky 100-year-old.

Nicole Kidman has done it. Justin Timberlake. Cameron Diaz. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, although one wonders how the diminutive duo took to the compulsory drab gray jumpsuits that make climbers look like hapless extras in a Devo video.

These days, couples are more likely to become betrothed than to consummate their relationship atop the arch: About 1,000 couples have decided to tie the knot up there since 1998. About 28 percent of climbers are locals, 17 percent Australians from out of town, and 55 percent overseas visitors. All day, every day, you can look up from the forecourt of the opera house or waterfront cafes and see a couple of dozen gray-suited tourists inching up along the arch like so many insects.

Costs for bridge climbs vary, depending on the time and day you take them, from about $130 for a weekday climb to about $225 for a dawn expedition on Saturday. Thelma and I opted for an 11 a.m. weekday session. The whole thing takes about 3 1/2 hours, and a good portion of that is given over to preparing people for the climb.

With releases signed, jewelry and anything else that might fall into the traffic below removed or tied down, and jumpsuits donned, small herds of climbers are ushered onto a mock-up of the gray steel to practice safe stair-ascension and attaching their safety tethers to the cables that run along the entire route. (In case anyone slips, they don't go far.)

Still, once you get out onto the lower deck of the bridge, it's hard not to feel nervous. When the tour leader asked if anyone was afraid of heights, Thelma fessed up, and he put us at the head of the line, just behind him.

We followed him along a steel mesh approach, which runs under the roadway, and which already seemed an awfully long way up on account of you could see through it to the ground and the water below. So we tried not to look down. Then it was on to a series of ladders to the top of the arch.

This was where Thelma got those faint red patches on her cheeks she gets when she's uncomfortable. I wasn't so overjoyed myself at this point. It's a little disconcerting to be climbing a series of ladders with eight lanes of deafening traffic whizzing by within a few feet of your head.

It's worth it when you get beyond the last of those ladders, emerging on top of that arch for the first time. We had a gray day for our climb, but that first 360- degree view of Sydney Harbor and the giant, sprawling, city spread beneath us knocked the wind out of us nonetheless .

And from that point on, it's pretty simple, with wide, shallow stairs leading you to the apex. From there, you can see beyond the opera house and the harbor to the open sea.

Water taxis, yachts , and small boats whizzed along on the water below us. There were none of the city's trademark ferries rushing between the north and south sides because, in classic Aussie fashion, they were on strike that day.

To the west, you could see countless fingers of land jutting into the blue, and beyond that, the working class neighborhoods where I grew up.

We stayed up there for a while, taking it all in, and having our pictures taken. (We couldn't bring our own cameras, but we each got a free, not particularly flattering shot of the whole group, and bought a couple of pictures of just the windswept two of us .)

Our guide was full of helpful information all along the climb, but he wouldn't tell us how many people had died building the bridge until we were back down the arch, clear of the ladders, and on the mesh gangplank headed back to the base. (The answer is 16.)

By the time we were done, we were exhausted, partly from climbing 1,439 stairs and partly because of the adrenaline floods on the ladders.

We needed a drink. Happily, our knocky knees carried us as far as the Harbour View Hotel, which has a delightful pub where my sisters and I have spent some pleasant summer evenings.

The original Harbour View was razed to make way for the bridge. The new one, built in the 1920s, is quite stylish since a recent renovation. Thelma and I parked ourselves on the hotel's terrace and ordered a couple of glasses of wine, steamed mussels, and Vietnamese summer rolls.

From where we sat, we could see other dozens venturing gingerly onto the Coathanger's catwalk. Maybe it was the wine, but the sight of them already was making us a little nostalgic for our climb and more than a little enamored of the formerly frowsy bridge.

Contact Yvonne Abraham at abraham@globe.com .

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