The gate clicked open to the sound of an electronic buzzer and we were moving. We had to get to the cable as quickly as possible.
This morning was a long time coming. The bridge had been at the tippy top of my to-do list for years; the mighty Golden Gate. It is the most photographed landmark in the country, was the longest suspension span from ’37 to ’64, and is the suicide capital of the world.
As a national icon in the post 9/11 America and the prime destination for the hopeless the mass of orange painted steel left me intimidated and anxious to see what security was really like. To be fair it is better secured than a lot of other major suspension bridges. But safeguards aimed at stopping jumpers or preventing a bombing leave ample room for one simply seeking to climb. Still the previous climbs made by Alain Robert and the Beijing Olympic protestors kept me concerned. I had rehearsed this little mission in my head several times on the long trip out west and the cold damp morning reminded me that this was the real deal, with real consequences.
Though it was still early, a bit before dawn, the cars were coming by at decreasing intervals. After reaching the lowest point of the cable we eyed traffic and waited for a gap. After an unsuccessful attempt the previous morning my cohort and I had decided that if only one of us could get up we would not wait for the other. If spotted and called in we faced certain arrest and possible jail time. A slip of the foot could result in certain death. But We rolled the dice – flipped the coin.
Seeing no approaching lights we hit the rail and reached for the cable.
My lats and abs, weak from too many days on the couch, failed me. I had a sure grip on the cable but could not pull my self up. My mind raced. I was about to lose my holy grail because I had let myself get out of shape. My partner in crime dropped from the rail in exhaustion and warned of approaching vehicles. Adrenaline kicked in and I willed myself onto the orange cable. “Just go!” she yelled.
So I did.
Landing each hurried step within the narrow space from which my feet would not slip off the round cable I ran. Needing to get above the streetlights and not having time for fall protection I reminded myself to fall to the left should I slip. In a choice between a 300-foot-fall to water and a 30-foot-fall to concrete the winner is discernable if not immediately clear. After getting out of the glare of the tungsten lamps I hooked up my shock absorbing lanyards and slowed my pace. Re-clipping the two lanyards bogged down progress but I was in no hurry to join the rather large ranks of those killed by a sudden meeting with the San Francisco Bay.
I reached the top after two brief stops to catch my breath and immediately set up my tripod for a shot before checking the time. I had used up 15 minutes to get here. Dawn was coming and I had to be down before I lost the cover of darkness.
The top felt hollow underfoot. I set both of my cameras to a bulb exposure and wandered off to the other end of the tower. I had longed to be in this spot for years and imagined how it would be. Now I was here. I soaked it in. I watched the city shimmer in the distance and the waves crash against the headlands below. I did that for an hour, leaving the camera with shutter open, enjoying the view and the feeling of victory.
As the sky began to turn lighter and lighter shades of blue I packed up my gear and began the harrowing trip back down the steep cable. Stopping at the knuckle of one of the vertical cable groups I balanced my tripod on the curved bundle of wires. Perched on this 2 ½ foot wide hunk of steel a couple hundred feet above the roadway I took one last good look around. A sliver of bright purple was peaking over the horizon. The breeze kicked up as it came in from the Pacific. It was shaping up to be a really beautiful morning.