Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Beast of the North

Every bridge has its charm, and each bridge has a story. But after a while, the types of bridges and types of climbs start to repeat themselves - scampering up cables of a suspension bridge, climbing ladders or stairs to the top of a lift structure, scaling the curved beams of an arch bridge. We've long since pretty much figured out the best bridge designs, and tend to stick with the tried and true - suspension, cable-stay, arch, and the various moveable bridges. There are few opportunities to climb a truly unique bridge. One of those opportunities involves a 124 year-old beast of a triple cantilever structure just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Some members of the International Bridge Brigade had been up the north tower of the Firth of Forth rail bridge previously, utilizing the scaffolding that had been in place for years while the bridge was being inspected, repaired, and painted by workers. I arrived with both the benefit and drawback of the scaffolding being some months gone. The benefit being the lack of workers at night. The drawback being that I had no idea how I was actually going to get up the thing. Still, I figured if I couldn't somehow find a way up this giant jungle gym of a bridge, I didn't have any business being in the International Bridge Brigade myself.

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Luckily, I managed to hook up with a couple locals who had been eyeing the climb themselves. It ended up being a two-night affair, the second night being accompanied by my friend Steve who had just arrived in town that morning. We went for the south tower, and the road to the summit was truly a team excursion. I dare say if any piece of the puzzle had fallen through, I don't know if anyone would have gotten to the top. Local savvy and recon, bridge knowledge and climbing experience, everyone played their part, and I was very happy to play mine. It's always nice to be a bit more than just a tag-along on these types of trips abroad.
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The climb itself can best be summed up as what you might expect of climbing up a bridge over a North Sea estuary in Scotland in the middle of February. Not exactly a walk in the park, but the wind, mist, and drizzling rain only really made the photography a difficult endeavor, not the climb. And I wouldn't have wanted it another way. There is little like the feeling of mounting this Scottish beast with the wind and rain whipping around you and the Forth churning below.

The bridge itself is amazing. When large iron and steel structures started to be built in the late 1800s, many were heavily, heavily over-engineered. Nowadays we know how to do it. Sleek suspension and cable-stay bridges are the norm (witness, for instance, the lovely but perfectly standard 1964 suspension road bridge which also crosses the Forth a bit to the west). But back then you took no chances - especially in light of the recent collapse of the under-engineered Tay Bridge - and reinforced everything up the wazoo, which results in the almost MC Escher-like structure of the bridge. A myriad of supports, latticework, beams, all going off at different angles with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Adding to the surrealness is the wide array of random accoutrements - staircases to nowhere, various ladders placed seemingly at random, catwalks which stop 30 feet from any useful end point.
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But the most interesting thing isn't the resemblance to Escher - it's the resemblance to Gaudi. There are no right angles, no perfect rectangles. The entire structure is slightly flanged, giving the climb an eerie, extra-dimensional Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. Take a look at the picture below. You'll notice the bottom of the beams are closer together than the tops. Walking up inside them, I went from having to crouch to avoid hitting my head at the bottom, to needing to climb several feet in order to hoist myself up to the summit at the top. This also leads to a skewing of perspective that, I imagine, is responsible for the kind of optical illusion you see below, where the beams look much steeper than they actually are (it's a 30 degree angle at most).

And when we reached the top of the structure, we noticed another aberration, another example of everything about the structure being just a bit off. The top beams aren't flat, instead being slightly titled outward.
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While getting to top is always the main goal, as might be imagined from such a huge, over-engineered structure, there's a lot more to the bridge than just the summit. Catwalks under the railway, empty worker rooms, a 40-foot stone tower guarding the entrance to the crossing, and other various nooks and crannies like the one below. 
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We heard the morning's first train rumble over the bridge from in here, and it was time to go. All in all a wonderful time on a truly unique and historic structure. I highly encourage you to check it our for yourself.

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