Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Three years ago lots of exciting things happened. My youngest son was born, I started to learn to run again, and, unexpectedly, I was given an incredible opportunity to attempt to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That came about when I was asked to take part in the Stride4Stroke [raise awareness campaign all about being active] with the Stroke Foundation in November 2017. I can’t believe I waited for 3 years to write this blog, but I feel it is important to document this challenging, memorable, experience because it was definitely not straightforward at all
In early 2017, I started my high-intensity running group at Epworth Hospital trying to learn to run again, and one of the exercises was doing different kind of stairs exercises. I mentioned stair climbing in this blog (Stairway to Heaven) so I will not repeating myself, but climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it was the last thought in my mind - a pipedream or at least a very, very unfathomable goal because at this stage I couldn't run yet and cannot climb stairs properly in the stage. Quoting Darry Kerrigan at the Castle movie - I was thinking to myself ‘tell him he’s dreaming’. What an amazing movie 🍿 ...
I was pretty confident about climbing upward because I have good strength with my quadriceps muscles, but hamstrings and calves were not firing well so I was less confident about climbing downwards. Despite my hemiparesis (eg I am right side paralysed), I was quietly optimistic and I was relying on other people's experiences with the climb (eg. people said it is possible for me). But it was a risky idea and was uncharted territory.
The Stroke Foundation was supporting my goal, and I found out more details for the climb - basically we were launching Stride4Stroke with a few other stroke survivors, sponsors, the CEO of the Stroke Foundation (Sharon McGowan), and others. The trip included travelling and sleeping in Sydney before the climb and climbing and flying back the same day. But before I had a few hurdles to overcome - mainly that my wife will be 36 weeks pregnant, so obviously my main priority is not missing the birth. I was upfront and honest and I said “if Lauren goes to labour, I would catch the first flight back to Melbourne and miss the climb. If you are not comfortable with that, I will gladly accept the [umpire’s] decision and not go.” This was very unlikely to happen, however pregnancies are unpredictable and gladly the Stroke Foundation was very supportive of my situation. The only negative was Lauren was not allowed to come and climb together, but opportunely my brother, Ronnie, came and climbed with me together.
One of the other hurdles was the route of the climb. Bridgeclimb Sydney is a huge tourist attraction, and people can choose the route - Ultimate, Summit and Summit Express . The Ultimate and the Summit include climbing ladders and I was definitely not ready to climb ladders in this stage. Luckily the organisers chose the Summit Express option - included 1002 steps but it is faster and has fewer stops than the Summit climb and has handrails on both sides along almost all the way. The ladders and the handrails were deal-breakers for me, so fortunately I avoided the ladders and fortunately I had never worried of being scared of heights in my life.
Other hurdles were my anxiety (eg. flying in the aeroplane and nervous about epileptic seizures), medical clearances and bridge climb organisers. Fortunately my GP was comfortable with the decision, so I signed the disclaimer form but, very understandingly, the bridge climb organisers were needed to satisfy their decision to allow me to climb safely because obviously I have issues with my mobility and stamina. Leading up the climb, I remember receiving two or three phone calls and emails [from the bridge climb organisers]. They asked more technical questions like ‘you can walk across flat surfaces for several metres with that the use of walking aids’, ‘ascend and descent a standard staircase while holding on the hand rails’, 'descend a standard staircase backwards', ‘raise my legs to sufficiently step over a small vertical barrier’, 'step across a gap of 35cm’, 'duck to a height of 1.55m while stepping forward’.
Basically the Bridge climb organisers were to see a clear, strong grip on the rails and one foot per stair, with a confident foot placement and a reasonably steady pace. I told the truth about the questions, but the honest truth was ‘I don’t know’. Quietly confidently is little bit different versus faking it, plus is not fair for the Stroke Foundation who trust me to not jeopardise their plans - including pre-written media releases of the promoting the campaign. Consequently I decided to ask my physios to test me. Just as I expected, I passed my tests, and after that, I wrote back “....I am confident I’ll be able to complete the climb and am looking forward to it”. Still I was feeling more pressure to perform because the media releases were written already and I was asking for Stride4Stroke donations from friends and family.
One week before the climb, I was excited and nervous and frustratingly, I had a ‘man-flu’, so my fitness was compromised a little bit, but my body was 80% recovered - just in time - for ‘game day’. I also remember checking Sydney's weather every day because I was anxious about climbing in the rain, and - typical Sydney - it was overcast and rainy on game day :)
Leanne and Roberto (ex-Stroke Foundation employees) and I flew to Sydney together, and it was nice to chat with them and they explained the schedule. We unloaded our things from the apartment (close to the Rocks area in Sydney) and I walked around and after that Ronnie arrived later in the evening. He shared a room with me and - I reckon the last time we slept together was over 15 years ago when we were living at my parents house, so it was nice and reassuring that he was here and experiencing the amazing opportunity together.
We were told that that climb starts at 6:30 in the morning, so I was preparing to go straight away after waking up, however given the excitement and butterflies on my tummy, I had a bad sleep and I missed my alarm. Consequently I missed breakfast, I was not able to wear my contact lenses because we were running late. Nonetheless, we left quickly and arrived just in time to meet the bridge organisers, Sharon, others Stroke Foundation employees, sponsors and the other stroke survivors - Sophie Clayton and Sami Kennedy-Sim which shared their own inspirational stories of stroke.
We were ushered into the climb lobby, quickly changed our clothes, put my ankle brace on and the organisers delivered the safety instructions for the climb. Thank goodness Ronnie was there because of my aphasia and speech problems, I struggle with retention of verbal information - especially with groups - basically the information just goes in one ear and out the other. Also, my brain was running 100 miles an hour from the excitement, nervous energy, concentration and speaking to try to remember my rehearsed lines in the video (on the top of the climb) etc., so my cognitive abilities were tested a lot. We were told that mobile phones were not allowed in the bridge climb so I relinquished my phone and I was wishing that three or four hours without a phone Lauren was not in labour.
We arrived at the base and started our journey and aiming to reach the summit and the first obstacle was ducking and stepping over to the cantilevers under the bridge. This was pretty weird and I was trying to not hurt myself and consciously be careful but actually it was pretty straightforward. After that, we reached the open air and auspiciously the rain stopped however the concrete stairs were still wet and we were climbing all the way to the top, with a few mini breaks as well. My fitness levels were very adequate and I felt fine and we reached the summit - greeted with a cloudy magnificent view of the windy harbour.
We stayed at the summit for 30 minutes to record the professional videos - including Ronnie and I clips but I was so nervous to perform so I fluffed my answers to the questions. Aphasia is a killer sometimes… I guess it was not that bad, but I have big expectations for myself. Luckily Ronnie spoke well and pretty soon we were off to climb down to the western side of the bridge.
Climbing down the bridge was far tougher than climbing up - expected so - and I put a lot of effort to concentrate every step. One or two times, I was not able to hold on the railings so it was a bit more trickier however I navigated pretty well with others' help. Climbing down was definitely testing my endurance and after I finished the climb, I was pretty fatigued but with no major issues.
I think Ronnie and my family were pretty proud of my efforts and I was very excited and relieved that I accomplished the goal. It is a pretty special feeling reaching goals in stroke recovery - especially for me being able to come home and tell my son about what I had done and see his face when I showed him the pictures. It was a whirlwind of 24 hours, an unforgettable experience and if you visit Sydney, I highly recommend this bridge climb to anyone.
I am very thankful to the Stroke Foundation, Bridgeclimb Sydney, my Epworth Physios and obviously my brother Ronnie. Best of all, the Stroke Foundation raised lots of money for the Stride4Stroke campaign towards Strokeline, the only dedicated helpline for people affected by stroke.