Humble Beginnings of a Recreational Tree Climber

For those who are following my tree climbing endeavors, I basically decided to become a recreational tree climber and approach this activity as a sport, much like rock climbing. My first trial was back in June 2015 where I participated in a one week training program offered through Cornell Tree Climbing Institute. We went on an expedition to climb Redwoods in an forested area just outside Kings Canyon National Park, for research purposes and to teach students to climb.

My initial training enabled me to ascend into and rappel down from the canopy of a giant Sequoia-Redwood and despite my age of 57 and having had back surgery and other ongoing concerns, with the assistance of well qualified instructors, I was ultimately able to reach the top, at nearly 300′ above the ground.

Since that time, I became passionate about learning about other climbing methods with less impact on my back. The sit-stand approach used during my initial Redwood training experience was adequate, yet burdensome. While the sit-stand approach uses gear that’s a bit more economical than other climbing methods, it is used successfully among instructors to get new climbers effectively up a climbing rope and into a tree, but by no means is it the least strenuous climbing method.

I learned about an advanced climbing system using a rope-walker type of approach and found it is currently used by many industry professionals. It’s similar to ascending a ladder and  compared to other climbing methods, it uses far less energy to climb a single line, compared to the sit-stand method.  Realizing that I may only get the opportunity to use this method if I obtain my own equipment, I decided to investigate and learn everything I could possibly learn about tree climbing equipment and then decide whether or not to move ahead.  My in depth market-research included browsing the Internet for climbing equipment, studying reviews and researching the types of gear that are both mainstream and cutting-edge.

Realizing that tree climbing is a tool used by professionals in the Arborist and Tree Care industry, I approached my objective as if I were going to make recreational tree climbing a daily occurrence. Over the following weeks and months, I gradually became familiar with and outfitted myself with all the necessary accoutrements, being both safety rated, designed for this specific use and based on my own personal preferences, including my physical condition, height, weight, etc.

Having absorbed as much information and training material about tree climbing, from books, tree-climbing forums and after viewing countless YouTube videos on the intricate aspects of climbing, knot tying, ropes, climbing harnesses, and other specific items, I reached a point where I began to see a clear vision of what it is to be not just proficient, but to become a fully outfitted, self-contained-recreational-tree-climber with everything one may need to go from ground-to-crown and back again.

From my experience, it also seems that most tree climbing instruction for beginners usually doesn’t cover the entire scope of equipment options, since one should probably advance in skill with appropriate training to an extent beyond the basics, before moving onto the to more contemporary climbing styles and more sophisticated gear alternatives.

While waiting for my next formal tree climbing training, being offered by Tim Kovar at Tree Climbing Planet a couple months from now, I’ve been doing some practicing on my own, with a couple thoughts in mind. Be careful and practice low-and-slow.

When trying out my newly purchased gear, what I thought would work in my case didn’t, so some adjustments were needed. Acclimating oneself to one’s rope, friction cords, climbing harness, mechanical devices, etc., takes  a bit of practice and only through trial and error, does one find the so called sweet spot, where everything meshes together and works as expected.

Even something as seemingly simple as attaching  a friction cord to an ascending device with a friction knot, depends on the quality of the knot itself,  the rope it’s being tied to, plus the amount of tension to be secured and the ability for the knot to consistently perform as expected under varying conditions. Variables such as the weather, the weight of the climber and other factors do occur dynamically, as if to teach one to be extra mindful of the life-bearing function being served and to take every necessary precaution to ensure one’s own personal safety.

A climbing acquaintance once said something to the effect that when you climb trees you’re forced to overcome all of your fear. Placing one’s trust, reliance and life on the integrity of a tree limb and the proper use of one’s equipment, aided by a profound understanding and mindfulness that each individual component is properly suited, well maintained and able to safely perform the specific function/s for which it is intended. Even though each piece of equipment may be weight tested and certified to hold somewhere in excess of 4,000 lbs., this will never completely guard against the improper use of gear and unexpected incidents.

My initial (unsupervised) climbing endeavors quickly revealed several unexpected results. Overcoming these obstacles not only tested my patience, but enhanced my resolve to learn the art of skillfully climbing and navigating tree canopies.

After multiple attempts to get all my gear properly adjusted, I have now reached a point where I feel I am fully able to securely and confidently set a climbing line in a tree, as well as, ascend up and descend down to a maximum height of not more than 20 feet.

Using the concept of practicing low-and-slow, has helped to build confidence and familiarity with my specific gear configuration, as needed to meet my initial goal of mastering basic ascending and descending skills.

One thing I learned was how to wear a climbing helmet. I initially had the front chin straps set too loose and the helmet rode back too far.  I was made aware of this by a person who sells bicycle helmets and who was kind enough to properly adjust my helmet straps.  A properly adjusted helmet will protect a person’s forehead and minimize movement.

Developing the skill needed to utilize each component of a climbing system requires a proper climbing form and positioning. During an ascent, I like to keep my harness’s floating-bridge pulled tight, as to make my system’s primary tie in climbing system as compact as possible. Once I climb to a desired height and lanyard in, I can then adjust my floating bridge into a more open position, affording me greater movement and mobility.

Connecting a Rope Wrench to a climbing line requires a person to know how to tie proper friction hitch knots. Certain knots like the Valdotain Tresse (VT) may not be compact enough, or may expand further than other friction hitch knot options. For me, I’ve been able to settle into using a suitable friction cord that releases with relative ease when under load, compared to other types of cordage that bind more tightly and require more brute force and strength to loosen.

I spent many practice sessions in my backyard, climbing on a 50-75 year old Red Cedar tree. I also found a comfortable, secure and efficient system that I allows me to make long ascents. Using a Rope Wrench for descending short distances seems fine, but I prefer to add an second back-up figure-8 type descending device, so I do not have to depend on solely on a friction knot for longer descents. The other option is to replace the Rope Wrench with another descending device, like a Petzl Rig or a Gri Gri . In either case, I now feel a lot more comfortable climbing to heights in the 40-50 foot range and returning safely to the ground on rappel.

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