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Monday, September 11, 2000
Looking down on the Olympic city

By TED ANTHONY -- Associated Press

 ATOP THE SYDNEY HARBOR BRIDGE, Australia -- Down, straight down, the cars rush by, so distant that I can barely hear them in the wind. Lower still -- down the length of a football field -- the salty waters of Sydney Harbor hungrily await my demise.

 It is Monday afternoon, and I find myself 400 feet in the air above the Olympic City, attached to metal and life by a cord around my waist. And, standing atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge, it occurs to me: It is lonely at the top after all.

 It's also sunny and chilly, exhausting and exhilarating, magnificent and absolutely terrifying. What's more, it's become a big business, this notion of climbing one of Sydney's signature landmarks just for a spot of adventure.

 For just shy of $100, the 2-year-old BridgeClimb will zip you into a bridge-colored nylon jumpsuit, test your breath for alcohol and strip you of personal possessions (even the smallest of change might shatter a passing Sydneysider's windscreen).

 Then they'll lead you to The Monster. Sure, it's beautiful from a distance and majestic in postcards, but when you're staring up at its underbelly and preparing to climb it, it's nothing but a steely, salivating, 68-year-old Rottweiler.

 "Not a good idea!" the little voice in my head was bleating. Unfortunately, the bigger voice in my head was shouting louder. "Quiet! Nicole Kidman did it. Those annoying twins from 'Full House' did it. Keep going."

 I had begun to worry less when I spotted the gift shop, filled with "I Climbed It" T-shirts, ties mugs and even golf balls. If people are buying souvenirs, I reasoned, then they're probably surviving.

 Justin Hewitt is my guide today. Hewitt, 20, is in the business of getting people high -- and, with his 150 fellow guides at BridgeClimb, working double duty during the Olympics to satisfy thrill seekers.

 They parade up like ants, in orderly, guide-led packs of a dozen gray-jumpsuited pilgrims each, tethered to a steel cable that was riveted to the structure just for this purpose -- to offer an unforgettable tourist experience.

 But more than that, it's a chance to own a bit of a city's permanent landscape, however briefly. For when you are up there -- ascending, gazing at a stunning skyline or beating back the imminent reappearance of your lunch -- a sense of ownership kicks in. That happened a bit more literally last year when Frank Sartor climbed the thing; he's the lord mayor of Sydney.

 The Harbor Bridge opened in 1932, a crucial link connecting Sydney's northern and southern sections. It spans nearly 1,500 feet and carries eight vehicle lanes, two train lines, a sidewalk and a bicycle path. More than 100,000 vehicles cross it daily.

 Then there are the climbers -- among them Kidman, Cate Blanchett, various Playboy bunnies, a heart-transplant patient, a centenarian and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the "Full House" twins.

 Not everyone is eligible. Suffer from vertigo? Stay home. Under 12 or pregnant? Go away. Back injury, depression or epilepsy? Watch from below. And, of course, they're not responsible for "loss, damage or injury," though guides say they've never lost a customer.

 The climb, then:

 First we walk a narrow wooden catwalk below the bridge. It widens into a metal equivalent. Then, later: Up three steep sets of ... are they steps? Are they ladders? Water is below, sky above, cars to the side. Hold on tight: The fact that you're attached doesn't mean you can't fall, only that you can't fall off the bridge.

 Finally, after ascending what resembles an endless roller-coaster track, we arrive at the top. All that's above are clouds and the flapping flags of Australia and New South Wales. Stay a bit, ooh and ahh at the view and head back down in an orderly fashion.

 The entire process takes about three hours -- about as much walking, rubbernecking and wind-burning as a tourist can take.

 Hewitt, majoring in tourism at nearby Hawkesbury University, understands the attraction locals feel. Sydney is an outdoor city, he says, and this is the ultimate urban solution to finding sun and challenge without leaving town.

 "I don't think you can have a bad day up there," he says.

 For his fellow guide, Rebecca Wards, it's an understandable hybrid: In an age of extreme sports, she sees BridgeClimb as a way to feel extreme without a significant chance of the accompanying bodily harm.

 "It's a soft adventure," she says. "Some people, they don't want to jump off a cliff. But they'll climb a bridge."

 Go figure.
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