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 climbing and finding new techniques 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 by many 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.

An advanced climbing system using a rope-walker type of approach is used by many industry professionals. It’s similar to ascending a ladder and  compared to other climbing methods, it uses 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 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 hand’s on practice, 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.

Tree Climbing 101

Obtaining professional tree-climbing instruction is recommended for everyone who wants to learn how to safely climb trees. Learning how to identify hazards and understanding the risk is mission-critical.  Reading about it, or watching videos is no substitute for the real deal. Climb at your own risk.

Getting the climbing line into the tree is the first objective. Hand-throwing a weighted throw-bag, tied to a string into a tree is a basic and common method. In order to get the throw line over the higher limbs an oversized sling shot  known as a Big Shot is used to shoot a weighted throw-bag tied to a light throw-line up and over a secure branch. Once the throw line is in the tree and over a limb or buckle with a life-bearing-load capacity, a climbing rope is then tied to the throw-line and fed into the tree. Trees like Redwoods, may require a more powerful launching device to reach their lower limbs. A crossbow, an airgun or even a drone can be used to set a climbing line.

Friction Savers are usually made using a tube or two rings connected by a strap or rope. They protect the tree from unnecessary friction by placing a barrier between climbing rope and the tree itself.  From the ground, a person using knots, a throw-line and/or a weighted throw-bag can feed a Friction Saver into a tie-in-point, install it, and be able to retrieve again it from the ground. We encourage our readers to use friction savers to protect a tree’s cambium layer and whenever possible to avoid as much direct interference with the tree as possible.

Technically proficient tree climbers wearing a climbing harness connect themselves to a  climbing line to move up the rope, typically using a rope-walker, or a sit-stand (frog) method with rope grabbers, better known as ascenders. Once in the canopy, a lanyard or secondary climbing line can be used to provide an added attachment point, offering the climber greater security and the freedom to move laterally, or branch-walk. By releasing the pressure on either the main climbing line or the lanyard, this enables the climber to release and advance or relocate the tie in point/s.

Traversing the canopy and climbing from tree to tree requires a bit more technique and various methods can be utilized to secure distant tie-in-points. Getting a line into a neighboring tree and back to the climber becomes possible when using a grappling hook and a throw-line, or even a throw-line with a magnetic type of retrieval system. Another method utilizes a heavier DMM Captain Hook, connected to one end of the line. Moving from tree to tree also usually involves the use of two concurrent climbing systems, or some sort of zip line rig.

When transitioning from a ascent mode to a descent mode, the climber installs a rappelling device on the main climbing line, then removes the rope grabbing ascenders and while using one hand for breaking, descends in a controlled manner.  Ascending devices vary from climbing-knots to more   sophisticated mechanical friction devices, as a means advance the climber higher, whereas mechanical or manual belay devices enable a safe and controlled descent.

Products like the Rope Wrench, Hitch Hiker and the Unicender, are able to conveniently combine both the ascent and descent functions into one device. Pulleys or rings and carabiners are used in many climbing systems and climbers have an assortment of climbing-knots to incorporate into various climbing systems, as well. The variety of gear options and techniques, may be better suited to some, than others.

Tree climbing can be done with a single rope technique (SRT), or a double rope technique (DRT or DDRT). Climbers even use a combination of these techniques in certain situations when moving around within the canopy and by utilizing secondary or multiple tie-in-points, also known as redirects.

Hopefully as you read the articles posted on this site’s blog and other information, you’ll be able to acquire a better idea of what the Recreational Tree Climbing sport is really all about. If you are already an experienced rock-climber, than perhaps you are already familiar with many of the tree-climbing components, aside from the fact that rock-climbers climb on and are dependent on the rock walls, while tree climbers connect with living-beings and rely mainly on a climbing line connected to the tree.

All are welcome here, so please come join us for a taste of the TreeXP’erience.

John Greer / Admin

Setting the Throw-Line and Using Friction Savers

There’s a fork about 3/4’s up the tree on the left. This was my first attempt with my 8′ tall – Big Shot (sling shot), using a throw bag connected to my throw line. It initially passed through the buckle a bit too high, but after several more attempts, I got the line to pass directly through a crotch with life-bearing support-load capabilities, based on the rule-of-thigh concept. According to the rule-of-thigh, if a tree-limb isn’t at least as wide around as your thigh, it may not be strong enough to support your weight.

Installing a Friction Saver protects the tree’s cambium layer and reduces friction between the climbing line and the tree itself. My Friction Saver of choice was initially a two-ring saver, connected by a 3′ bite of 1/2″ static climbing line.

Getting a two-ring friction saver up to and over the buckle, shown above was far more challenging, if not nearly impossible from the ground, due to numerous impediments blocking both ends of the throw line’s path to the tie-in-point. Unfortunately, when using the prescribed method of installing a two-ring saver, using both ends of the throw line in tandem and pulling saver toward the destination, it became clear that the path I chose was not a clear path to and from the ground, free of all obstructions.

The following video is an excellent example, showing two methods for properly installing and retrieving a two-ring saver from the ground. The first method requires an unobstructed path between both ends of the throw line. The second method provides another technique which may work, if the first method fails.

Another important lesson I discovered had to do with throw-line management and how by raising and lowering either end of the throw-line tied to a weighted throw-bag, I could better isolate the throw-line’s path, in an effort to completely bypass other various branches or obstacles impeding the path of the line. Not doing so also makes it more difficult for a climber to reach the tie-in-point, by having to work around the impediments.

To better ensure the possibility of not losing or sacrificing a successful throw and when trying to isolate the throw-line over the intended target, adding another weight such as a partially filled plastic milk bottle, connected somewhere in the middle of the throw-line, enables the line-person from the ground, to raise and lower the line over either side of intended target-limb. This creates giant W’s, requires far more throw-line and a clear line-of-sight for the ground-person/s to determine which end of the throw-line to raise or lower.

Originally, under these challenging circumstances a friction saving rope-sleeve, rather than a two-ring saver would have been a good idea, given the ease of installation. Unfortunately at the time this took place, I didn’t yet own a rope-sleeve, so my climbing-plan adapted to this unforeseen variable. I had to settle for a canopy-tie-in, or run the climbing line through the intended tree-buckle, then tie into a basal anchor system, with an optional ground-based rescue system.

I preferred the later and figured that once I climbed up to the tie-in-point, I could manually install the two-ring saver and then have the option to use a DRT climbing system for my descent and be able to retrieve the two-ring saver once I was back on the ground. For the time being, I was giving up the option to climb on either an SRT or DRT system, leaving only the SRT option, in order to preserve the tree’s cambium layer at the canopy tie-in-point.

This experience revealed how effective the Dan House Rope Sleeves really are when it comes to easy installation and retrieval, compared to most other types of friction savers. The two-ring savers have another serious flaw, which is how when a weighted rope goes through both rings pinched closely together, the rope passes into a very tight upside-down v-shape, causing added wear and friction to the climbing line.

I now use two rope-sleeves when climbing, alternating one with the other, as I advance my climbing line and set up redirects. Moreover, the rope-sleeve is far easier to maneuver up and down a line and there’s very little for it to get caught on.  Using a simple slippery-knot (aka: safety knot or slip-knot) and a throw line, I can easily install and retrieve a rope-sleeve from either a ground base, or from within the canopy itself.

A little trick I learned from Tim Kovar at Tree Climbing Planet, when retrieving a rope-sleeve and when it’s sliding quickly down the rope, jiggling the rope in a wave like manner significantly slows it down for better control.

I’m currently experimenting with different nano-drones to set climbing lines, both from the ground, as well as, from within the canopy, so please stay tuned for further updates to this article.

A Week in the Trees: Climbing Redwoods

Available in E-Book format only ~ On sale now at – Save Our Trees!

This high resolution, photo enhanced E-book offers an autobiographically written and photographically visual perspective into the Redwood climbing experience. On the outskirts of Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno, is an area known as Whitaker Forest. Owned and operated by U.C. Berkeley, on the western facing slopes of the Eastern Sierras, this is home to some of the largest and oldest Sequoia-Redwood trees on earth. An expedition from Cornell University took eight instructors and six students, myself included, to our cabin in Whitaker Forest for the week of May 26, 2015, to June 2, 2015.

For me, this Redwood tree climbing adventure was a culmination of life and spirit. I knew all the preparation and physical training would transform me into a stronger, more vibrant and healthier person. I embarked on a journey that originated in my heart, acting on blind faith, without knowing exactly where, or how, this journey might end. What I soon discovered would forever change my life and my ongoing relationship with nature.

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