Up and down the Golden Gate Bridge
75th Anniversary all year
Nevada on a very clear day.
We are standing midway between the north and south towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, festooned with hard hats, climbing harnesses and thick leather gloves. Two hundred and seventy feet below me (give or take tide levels and bridge flex) is the surface of San Francisco Bay. Five hundred feet above me is the top of the north tower. A stepladder has been set before us, leading to the surface of the suspension cable that dips in its elegant arc to a nadir point just above the pedestrian sidewalk. I look down at the water. I look up at the tower. I take a deep breath and sling the camera carefully over my shoulder and around to the small of my back. It is my passport for being here. It would not be good if I drop it.
In front of me Sonoma County Supervisor Chuck Hinkle says, “Follow me,” and starts up the ladder. Behind me is a supervisor from the Golden Gate Bridge District. He makes a joke about catching me if I fall. I don’t laugh.
Up on the cable there are two wire bannisters running parallel to the cable about waist-high. I clip the carabineers from my safety harness into the cable on each side and start up. Every few yards there is an upright requiring me to unclip the carabineers and re-clip them on the uphill side. The supervisor advises me not to unclip both at one time. I think, “Duh!”
It is summer and as we ascend, the marine layer that has begun to flow through the Golden Gate thickens, bathing us in a cloud. Chuck calls to me. “OK. Take my picture now!”
He has turned to face me and holds both hands high in the air, the north tower framing his body, a manic grin on his face. It’s the second time he’s done the climb. He can, because he’s a member of the bridge district board. He has pull. The first time no one brought a camera. That’s why he called me.
I fire off a roll at Chuck and then confront the challenge of changing film clipped to the cable. The supervisor, concerned about Chuck getting too far ahead, edges past me. I consider the question of how long it would take me to hit the water if I fell. I later learn the answer is four or five seconds, at which point I would be traveling 75 miles per hour.
Very slowly I unclip one carabineer so I can steady myself by leaning forward against the inside bannister cable. I take off the heavy gloves that keep my hands from being lacerated on the rough steel, and I thread in a new roll of film.
At least 1,400 people have taken the almost-always fatal plunge off this bridge. The exact number will never be known because the ebb tide through the gate flows up to 7.5 knots-per-hour, carrying bodies toward the Farallone Islands and their great white sharks.
As the fog thickens I shoot the roadway where cars speed along like supercharged ants. Then I turn and climb up through the scudding cloud, emerging out of the soup and into the sunlight at least 200 feet short of the summit.
Once on top of the tower I am silenced by the scene below, a river of fog has covered the roadbed, the cables descend into the gray mist and disappear, then emerge on the far side as they ascend to the top of the south tower. Off in the distance the spectral image of Sutro Tower rises out of the fog atop Twin Peaks. It is meteorological magic.
The most recent statistics indicate 26 people have jumped and lived. That’s a survival rate of less than 2 percent.
Hard to imagine, I think, anyone choosing to die in the face of such beauty.
And then the supervisor’s radio crackles, he listens, turns his head and announces, “Looks like we just had a jumper.”
We descend the tower in a tiny elevator in which three is very much a crowd. We are quiet, absorbing the news. Back on the deck we gaze over the railing and see the still body, floating face down in the cold water, a Coast Guard dinghy approaching. This was not one of those less-than-2 percent.
Many years later, Chuck Hinkle has gone to Arizona retirement, but he tells me over the phone who to call for a return visit to that lofty peak. My previous photos were black and white and I want to shoot color. When I call Chuck’s contact he breaks into laughter.
“Not a chance, not on your life, not in a million years,” he exhales. “You were damn lucky. We don’t do that anymore. We just turned down National Geographic. You wouldn’t believe the liability exposure. But you can go up in the elevator if you want.”
So I do. And it is splendid. And the view is magical. But there is no fog this time. And the elevator seems a little too easy. And I think, Chuck’s friend was right. I was really lucky.
You may not want to, or be able to, catch a ride to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, but almost all year long the Bay Area will be celebrating the great span’s 75th anniversary with a program of activities planned by the bridge district and the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, in partnership with the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust.
Under the theme, “Bridging Us All,” the main event will be held over Memorial Day weekend, May 26-27, spanning the San Francisco waterfront from Fort Point (below the Golden Gate Bridge) to Pier 39.
Highlights of the celebration include a historic watercraft parade, multiple music and dance stages, art installations, history and educational presentations, a display of cars from 1937 to the present and Bridge-related activities on Crissy Field and the Marina Green. On Sunday evening, May 27, at approximately 9:30 p.m., the weekend celebration will conclude with a spectacular 75th anniversary fireworks display and grand finale.
For more information about the celebration, go to goldengatebridge75.org.