For Breakeley Span Fanatic Adnan Qadeer, There's No Such Thing as a Bridge Too Far

UPDATED 02/04/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/04/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

For Adnan Qadeer, it really was love at first sight. There he was, a recently arrived junior college student from Pakistan in 1982, and there it was, stretched out before his eyes in all its sensuous grace. "I had never seen anything like it," Qadeer says of the oversize object of his instant affection, the 8.4-mile-long San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

By 1986 Qadeer's passion had escalated to obsession. While researching the Bay Bridge for a documentary-photo class at the University of California at Berkeley, he found only postcard-style shots taken from ground level or from aircraft. What he must do, he told his professor, was to take a camera to the top of the bridge towers—because "something is missing if you only see it from the ground."

Before long, Qadeer's imagination wasn't the only thing that was climbing to dizzying heights. Not only would he ascend the nearby Bay and Golden Gate bridges, he decided to get to the top of all of the world's longest suspension bridges—most of them spanning at least 1,500 feet between towers. Some 45 of them are scattered around the globe, and for him there would be no bridge too far. To date, Qadeer has checked off 33 of them and shot more than 14,000 photos in seven states and 10 countries. He hopes to complete his quest this year and then assemble his pictures in a book. "I want to show that a bridge is more than a way to get to the other side," he says.

Now 31, Qadeer concedes that at the start he didn't really know what he was getting into. He had prepared for his mission by jogging, climbing pipes outside campus buildings and studying ballet for balance. To secure permission from Bay Bridge authorities, he recalls, "I had to sign a lot of forms promising that, if I fell off, my family wouldn't sue. I felt like I was signing my death certificate." On his initial ascent in October 1986, he used a safety harness and was guided by two bridge painters up a cable 28½ inches in diameter. At the top, 650 feet above the bay, all was quiet except for the whistling of the wind and the creaking of the tower. "The suspension cables looked like the strings of a harp," he remembers.

During a two-week flurry in the autumn of 1987, Qadeer climbed New York City's George Washington, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Bronx-Whitestone and Verrazano Narrows bridges, the two Delaware Memorial bridges near Wilmington, and Michigan's Mackinac. On an even wider-ranging 1989 expedition, he scaled 17 suspension spans in Portugal, France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Japan. He has climbed in temperatures ranging from—20°F to a sweltering 100°. "If I can do it, it's not because I'm strong, young or crazy; you have to trust God," says Qadeer, a Muslim, who always stuffs a few pages of the Koran into a pocket before his climbs.

In fact, says Qadeer, "climbing is less complicated than dealing with the bureaucracy." On one occasion New York City police took him into custody because they thought he was going to jump; on another a bridge painter accused him of being a bomb-toting terrorist.

Money is also a problem for Qadeer, who says he has already run up $38,000 in debts. His family in Pakistan—his father is a commercial filmmaker, his mother a housewife—can offer only limited help. He receives no scholarships or grants for his continuing studies at Berkeley. He has financed his cameras, film, travel and a $100,000 life insurance policy mostly with loans and his $250-a-month salary as a campus projectionist.

To supplement that income, Qadeer has painted houses, mowed lawns, designed a campus restaurant and worked as a research assistant studying damage to the Bay Bridge from the 1989 earthquake. He economized by living in an un-heated basement for a year. Working, studying and bridge-climbing far from his family and homeland have left him isolated, but Qadeer can even see a bright side to loneliness. "You can save money," he notes, "if you don't have a social life."

So far Qadeer has earned $5,000 from sales of his bridge photos, but he refuses to make commercial postcards or calendars until his pictures first appear in a book. "If I wanted to be rich," he says, "I would have stopped my project a long time ago." Instead he expects to earn dual master's degrees next year, in visual design and architecture. He hopes eventually to earn a Ph.D. in architecture and to design hospitals and houses for third-world countries. "He has a fierce commitment; there's almost a religiousness about it," says Berkeley literature Prof. Roy Thomas, one of Qadeer's campus advisers. "He's one guy who will get things done."

Among those things are at least a dozen bridges—in the U.S., South America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Pakistan—that he has yet to scale and shoot. Qadeer's eyes light up at the prospect. "When I look at a bridge," he says, "I see sculpture—a union between sky, earth and water. I want everyone—not just engineers and architects—to see the art."

—Dan Chu, Liz McNeil in San Francisco

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