The view over Sydney’s harbor is postcard-perfect.
Long blue fingers of water reach into the Australian metropolis, creating peaceful mini-harbors disarranged with sailing ships.
Yellow ferries and gleaming yachts crisscross the harbor, surrounded by a city of cliffs, palms, evergreens, and, beyond, the famous beaches of Bondi and Manly.
The Opera House, ceramic sails unfurled, sits at the heart — an architectural marvel and a survivor of cost overruns and political backbiting that now, half a century later, is Sydney’s Eiffel Tower.
Soaring above it all is a steel arch bridge, the largest and widest of its kind in the world, carrying traffic in eight lanes, trains in two, and joggers and cyclists in two others.
It also is a span that sets hearts pounding.
Two decades ago, a member of the Young Presidents Organization decided to escort visiting company chiefs on a climb to the top of that bridge to soak in the grandest view in Sydney. He turned it into a business, and 4 million people have made the climb, day and night, summer and winter.
It is — perversely, some might say — described not only as an adventure for people willing to pay more than $200, but also as a cure for what ails you, if what ails you is a fear of heights.
The highest point is 440 feet — 40 stories, give or take — above the water. They haven’t lost a single climber, the people of Bridge Climb Sydney like to say. But, as with so many marketing pitches, that isn’t the whole story.
I admit to some nervousness as two friends and I approached our appointment for a climb earlier this year. We had chosen the "twilight climb," beginning just before 6 p.m. We had spent the previous two days exploring Sydney — taking a ferry to Manly and walking along scenic Bondi Beach and those others nearby, beloved by surfers.
My traveling companions were friends from my L.A. suburb. We have been taking short vacations together for two decades, stealing time from busy work schedules with short jet-lag-be-damned trips faraway. Machu Picchu in Peru was our first adventure, followed by Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil, Petra in Jordan, Delhi and the Taj Mahal in India, Mexico City, Tibet.
The bridge climb was Rich’s idea.
I don’t like heights, but I agreed to go along.
As we roamed the city, taking photos in the days leading to our climb, the bridge was a constant backdrop, streams of climbers visible from miles away.
When the evening of our climb arrived, we checked in at the southern end of the bridge. Each climbing group is limited to 12, with a guide. We had to fill out legal release forms, of course, and blow into a breathalyzer. (No one with an alcohol level of .05 percent or more is permitted to climb.)
We had to leave behind sunglasses, watches, hats, money, billfolds, and smartphones. One climber got to keep his hearing aids.
We changed into blue Star Trek-like jumpsuits and were outfitted with harnesses and a circular plastic device to hook to the guy wires on the bridge. We donned headlamps and tied handkerchiefs around our wrists to absorb flop sweat. We climbed sets of steep steel stairs indoors to get a feel for what we were about to face. Finally, each of us was given a wireless headset so we could hear our guide on the bridge.
An hour had passed by the time our band emerged onto long, narrow wooden planks — already about 30 feet above street level on the span — and began our journey with a march on a catwalk above the passing traffic.
Adam, the guide and formerly a police officer, told us about the bridge and about landmarks visible across the harbor. "Only" six workers died falling into the water during construction in the 1920s and early ’30s, he told us, which I didn’t find especially comforting as we climbed.
We eventually arrived at the spot where the bridge begins its upward arch. We climbed four steep ladders, about 25 rungs in all, to reach the starting point for the stairway to the summit.
Adam turned to me: "You OK, mate?"
I asked: "Does anyone ever turn back?"
"All the time," he said. "At this point in the climb, I’ve had them crying in a puddle on the stairs." That’s why, he added, other guides are stationed to escort folks back.
"You look all right to me, mate."
As we climbed the arch step by step to the top, I tried to recall the instructions I’d read online: Don’t look down (yeah, right, because why would I want to literally watch my step?) and remember to breathe. I found myself holding my breath anyway and began thinking, “Is this supposed to be fun?”
But I kept climbing, hooked to the steel guy wire by a piece of plastic that I doubted would support my weight if I ended up dangling over the water. My friends Rich and Steve, happily oblivious to the danger, chatted with Adam about how high we were, and the guide kept pointing out sights way down below.
At the summit, underneath giant Australian flags unfurled in a 20 m.p.h. wind, the view across the harbor was captivating. A sea plane passed just 50 feet overhead. Birds flew well below us. We could see beaches beyond the harbor and planes taking off from the airport eight miles away.
We turned left to walk across the top of the bridge, pausing to watch the orange sun make a stunning 10-minute plunge into the water. The twinkle of Sydney’s tall buildings grew brighter.
After reaching the lower level, we again walked along a catwalk with clear views of the passing traffic below on one side and water on the other. This would be much less stressful, I thought, with about .05 percent alcohol in my body.
We made it back to headquarters about three hours after we had arrived. The Bridge Climb people like to talk about all the folks who conquer their fear of heights on the journey. I suppose it’s true.
Fear of heights is a funny thing, though. Some experience it on a rocky outcropping over the ocean, some in an airplane, and some climbing on a steel girder vibrating from rush-hour traffic below. All I know is that I’m definitely no more eager to climb onto my roof at home.