Sky High: The Rush of Climbing the Williamsburg Bridge

November 17, 2014 | Aymann Ismail

You would think that when you’re sitting on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, looking down at the lights of New York City, the view of the skyline is overwhelming. And it is, but when I was up there, I was far more taken by the enormity of the century-old bulk I had just climbed.

I went up at 11:45 PM with an experienced guide on a chilly night, when cars, trucks, and subway trains rolled on and off the bridge at a steady pace. It only takes about 15 minutes to get to the top of the towers — which stand 335 feet high — and requires lots of crawling and squeezing into tight spaces between the cross-sectional beams that create the bridge’s spine.

The first half of the climb involves scaling the 45-degree beams while fully exposed to traffic. At any moment, any one of the motorists or pedestrians passing by could have spotted me and called 9-1-1, oddly making the fear of getting caught far greater than the fear of falling. And cops are never too far, with at least one stationed at the foot of the bridge –where I left my bike for safekeeping — and police boats routinely patrolling the East River below. If I fell, I could probably grab on to another beam. But it would only take one stranger to end my night.

The first step onto the first beam was the scariest; I was either climbing up at a steep angle, or crawling across, parallel to traffic and the East River hundreds of feet below me. But with every step upwards, the view became more and more surreal.

That’s not to say I wasn’t afraid of falling. I was terrified, but I came as prepared as possible, wearing a hat to conceal my face (I left behind my kuffeya, an Arabic scarf, for fear of being profiled if spotted). I wore lightweight batting gloves for grip and opted to layer hoodies instead of wearing a coat, which was more likely to catch on the beams. I kept my photo gear light.

The one thing I forgot to do, though, was tie my shoe laces. Typical.

I was hustling to keep up with my guide, and half way up the climb — just before the beams gave way to an enclosed staircase — my shoe slipped off. As it dangled off my big toe, I became hyperaware of the cars and trucks whirring beneath me. Time slowed. A thousand scenarios flooded my brain: my shoe smacking a windshield; scrambling down the bridge with just my sock; getting arrested with just one shoe. My neck was stiff and rigid. I managed to shimmy the shoe back onto my foot. I kept climbing.

But as soon as I climbed the stairs and popped out onto the roof of the tower, it was worth it. At the top of the stairs, I wrangled my body out of a window into a space so large that, my guide joked, we probably could’ve played a tennis match on it. On the roof — a rather unceremonious name for the top of one of New York’s most iconic landmarks — a burst of familiar sounds rushed into my ears. But they felt far away. A train passed somewhere in the distance. I could hear the water gurgling past. Motorcycles sounded like thunder, and I could hear the screech of each individual car. But it felt like my senses were playing a trick on me because when I looked up, I saw the unobstructed, wide expanse of stars.

We sat there past midnight, just before the Empire State Building lights shut off, enjoying our personal playground. My guide turned and said, “Even if we get caught, the cops can’t take the view away.”

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)