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Bay Bridge Climb

by Elaine Molinari

Elaine Molinari, former City Guides Director (1985 - 1990) contributes a story this month on San Francisco Bay Bridge shenanigans.

No matter that it was illegal, I was too old for such things, and my husband was a cop - it was an adventure we couldn't miss. This was acute urban daring, and we were being challenged.

Twenty-five years ago, when the world was not yet afraid of terrorists, a group of five friends led by an intrepid urban cowboy, planned a surreptitious nighttime exploration of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Gary, our trusted leader, had climbed the bridge before, and had encouraged us to conquer our fears and join him (Gary was a City Guide and was a founder of the Suicide Club). Plans were made and participants recruited: Paul and I; Bruce, another City Guides colleague; and Nick (a photographer).

The instructions from Gary were that we should dress in dark clothing so we would not be easily seen, bring along some food for the "topping party," and meet at 8 pm at Tu Lan restaurant on 6th Street. After extensive instructions to Brenda, the babysitter, about who to call if we needed bail, we took off. Our backpacks held dark gloves, ski masks, short sturdy sticks, food and wine.

The mixture of excitement and fear made dinner unmemorable, but last minute instructions were key: we must move fast, no unnecessary noise, and if caught - tell the truth. And we were off.

In 1983, a building and a dock existed as Pier 24 (both are gone now). And that dock extended out to the base of the western tower of the bridge. Access, however, was more readily available from Pier 26. First, we had to scale the 12-foot fence on the south side of the building. Using the sticks we brought, we inserted them into the fence to create a "step" and proceeded up the fence. Once on the other side, there was a fire escape ladder up the side of the pier building, with the bottom rung about shoulder-height off the ground. Hoisting ourselves up, we climbed to the roof and crossed over the building to the rear.

The piers extended out into the water, the buildings separated by loading docks, and guarded by dogs, and we needed to get from the roof of one building to the roof of the next without being detected. Even dogs have their price; and so, as we leaned over the edge of the roof, the salami sandwiches in our packs provided the toll that allowed us to climb down, move between buildings and up the next ladder to the roof of Pier 24.

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Elaine and her cohorts 25 years ago.

Thirty minutes into our escapade, my arms ached from pulling myself up to the ladders, and the adrenalin was pumping from the encounter with the dogs. Nick wanted to capture the moment. So while we sat and rested, he set up his camera and took a few shots. The views were magnificent; it was a clear night and the lights of the city sparkled from our vantage point.

Then we heard the siren. By instinct we flattened ourselves against the roof and started to panic. What if someone had seen us and called the police? Maybe it was the fireboat berthed nearby. What will they do? What will we say? There were a couple minutes of silence, and then we howled with laughter. What COULD we say? We lost our way, took a wrong turn, were gazing at stars? We were dressed in black, had what could be construed as burglar tools in our packs, and had climbed two fences and two buildings. There was nothing to say! We soon realized that the siren was from a Highway Patrol vehicle crossing the bridge.

At the rear of the building we climbed down to the dock and quickly walked out to the anchorage of the west tower of the bridge. Another fence surrounded the base of the tower. Again the sticks came out and we climbed over. And there it was, the Bay Bridge looming above us, much more massive from directly below it than from shore.

The bridge supports spanning the open areas of the bridge towers have access ladders rising in these supports. When we climbed the ladders at a 45-degree angle, on both sides was sheet-steel, but below and above was open air. As I climbed, looking straight down at the water, my knees started to shake; after criss-crossing up to the roadbed, we were about 220 feet in the air!

Gary and Nick were in the lead when they discovered that a ladder from the tower to the crosshatches had been removed. They came back saying the only alternative was to shinny up a cable in the tower until we got to the next ladder. Bruce, Paul and I declined, our ultimate goal unattainable to us. NO WAY could I shinny up a cable 250 feet in the air!

We broke out the bottle of champagne, crackers and cheese, marinated mushrooms, and celebrated. It was a November midnight, and we were sitting inside the tower of the Bay Bridge, partying. All we needed now was to get back down…

Elaine Molinari co-developed the Coit Tower tour with Masha Zakheim Jewett. You can see her ushering at San Francisco Giants games.

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