While I was never officially diagnosed with acrophobia, or fear of falling, it’s common enough and afflicts many. That was the first time I’d felt its effects but after that it occurred regularly. As I got older, whenever I faced a similar situation, I would just say that I was ‘vertically challenged’. Obviously, I avoided cliffs and other high places.
Two decades later, I climbed to the summit of Sydney Harbour Bridge, to be rewarded not only by the stunning views all around me but with the knowledge that meeting one’s fears is a step towards defeating them, no matter how long you’ve harboured them (pun intended).
It’s an achievement I’m proud of, and while I still feel a little queasy if I’m looking down from a high place, my bridge climb demonstrated to me that joking around to avoid an issue doesn’t always help overcome it. Maybe you have some fear or issue that you don’t know how to deal with. For me, facing it – in fact doing something that was bound to confront it head on – was the best way to begin that process, and it can work for anyone. While I didn’t consciously set out to learn this life lesson when I booked my ticket to climb, I knew that the experience would certainly take me out of my comfort zone – in fact a lofty 141 metres high out of my comfort zone.
On a blissfully bright Sydney morning, I turned up to the climb company’s headquarters at base of the bridge, registered, met the rest of the fellow climbers in my group, did a short induction course with the friendly guide Nathan, and donned a grey onesie. Please note that during the 45 minutes that this was happening, I was in a state of mute freak-outery. I gave myself a quick pep talk in the changing cubicle.
“Relax! Remember, you’re going to be clipped onto a safety wire, wearing headphones!” Hmm, this thought didn’t really provide much comfort as I glanced at the bridge looming large above us, a colossus of steel arching across the twinkling harbour while trains – yes, trains – and cars zipped across its breadth. Too late! We were on our way. I was tied to this venture, both physically and spiritually.
We began by walking across narrow platforms, called catwalks, under the main road of the bridge. Next, we had to climb four (four!) ladders to the start of the upper arch.
This is where my nerve finally faltered. As I climbed the first of the ladders, trains rumbled by in both directions, causing the ladder – and me – to shake like a leaf. Or was my full-body shake caused purely by my unadulterated fear?
I’ll never know, but I do remember Nathan’s lighthearted encouragement from the front of the line coming through the headphones: “Oh – poor Jane! She copped two trains. Don’t worry Jane, just keep climbing!”
I thought, “There’s no way I can keep going.” Stuck on a ladder, far above the sea (again!) I felt like my whole body had turned to dull, heavy cement. Meanwhile, the breeze from the trains’ velocity made my absurdly baggy grey onesie flap like a parachute.
“Onwards and upwards,” I told myself, in a very feeble voice attempting to muster strength. Somehow, I swallowed down the rising nausea and started climbing again, one hand followed by one foot, rinse and repeat, until I reached the top of the fourth ladder where I was greeted with congratulations and backslaps from my fellow climbers.
My legs were a bit jelly-like after that experience, but after a while, at last, the summit was within reach. A steady climb without looking down too often – just looking straight ahead at the person in front of me, one step after the other... and all of a sudden, we were at the top!
We enjoyed a quick stop to take some photos of the breathtaking view of the city buildings, the Harbour, the Blue Mountains and of course the Opera House. We then continued along the spine of the bridge to the Darling Harbour side, and finally, it was time for our descent.
Looking at that amazing view, I felt both humbled and proud that I’d faced my fear. I still felt a little wobbly when looking down directly, but staring at the remarkable vista, I knew that even if I hadn’t conquered my fear, I’d at least given it a damn good thrashing in this sally. I felt happy in my quiet yet exhilarated state and soaked up the good vibes of the group.
I don’t remember much about the descent as I was so full of adrenalin and excitement, but I do recall feeling that this was an important moment in my life. Ever since, the dizziness, nausea and fear I’d experienced has subsided. I’ve even visited the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower more than once.
The essential life lesson I learned from my adventure is that it’s important to take the chance to face your fear or the obstacles that bother you. We all have them! Working towards building (or getting over) that bridge – yes, including those metaphorical ones – will be something you’ll never regret. And the view's pretty good too.