July 27, 2020

History on the Harbour: Before BridgeClimb there were Sydney's 'social climbers'.

Often when I’m chatting with visitors to Sydney or even just having a brag down at the pub, people ask me if I’ve ever climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. My answer is “three times, twice legally”.

The first dawn climb, December 2002. My first legal climb (Roderick Eime)

Everyone knows the famous - ‘iconic’ even - Sydney attraction known as ‘BridgeClimb’ launched in 1998. It was a big deal because the founder, Paul Cave, had taken 10 years to overcome a wall of bureaucracy to make it happen and at the time, it was the first such attraction on a bridge anywhere in the world.

Cave would certainly have known about the ‘informal’ (read: illegal) Sydney Harbour Social Climbers Association which used to regularly climb the bridge before any sort of commercialisation took place. They even had a ‘guestbook’ at the top for summiters to sign. Cave may well have been a member. I have no idea about that.

With Paul Cave, BridgeClimb founder, in 2006. (Roderick Eime)

Better known were the pylon lookouts, which were accessible to the general public and were perfectly satisfactory for any normal person to get a bird’s eye view of the famous harbour, Circular Quay and the Sydney city skyline.

One lazy Saturday afternoon back in the mid-1980s, I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald and came across an article about the informal climbers’ club and that’s when the idea struck me. At the time I was sharing a big house with a bunch of blokes. We likened ourselves to the then-popular TV show, ‘The Young Ones’, but that’s another story.

View SW over Millers Point from pylon lookout 1958 (Fred Rasmussen)

One balmy January night we resolved to form a crew and conquer the bridge, closely following the handy instructions I’d found in the SMH. At the time, it was possible to scale the fence and enter the bulkhead-like box sections and climb inside the bridge to the top of the first arch where there was a ‘tank drivers’ style hatch at the top. You could then exit and (carefully) climb the exposed stairway to the red beacon at the top.

I should point out that we were all stone-cold sober and being very careful. Any clumsy fool could have come a nasty cropper if they were careless. So, feat achieved and photos taken, we scurried back down the way we’d come.

1986: Inside the tightest box sections at the top of the arch 

Shaky image of us at the top

On the topmost beacon mast - the summit.

Shaky image of Circular Quay

In 2002, I was asked to come back on assignment for BridgeClimb to photograph the launch of their new ‘dawn’ product and then again in 2006 for a new ‘explorers’ route using some gangways under the roadway. That was every bit as scary as my midnight climb ten years prior. On that last event, I actually climbed with Paul Cave and shared my story with him.

Below is a contemporary short film of a 1979 'social climb'.

As a footnote, I should point out that any attempt to replicate an independent climb as described is impossible with new, hi-tech security measures in place since 9-11 - and tightened even further since. Should you attempt such silliness, be prepared for a $20,000 fine and/or two years jail like this idiot. So, just don’t. It’s a different world today.

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