Humble Beginnings of a Recreational Tree Climber

For those who are following my tree climbing endeavors, I basically decided to become a technically proficient 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 Sierra Sequoia-Redwood. Despite my age and back issues, with lots of exercise beforehand and with the assistance of well qualified instructors, I was ultimately able to climb to the top of a 275′ Sierra Redwood and safely rappel myself to the ground.

My passion for tree climbing enabled me to learn new climbing techniques with less impact on my back. A sit-stand stationary rope technique (SRT) climbing method was the first method I used during my initial Redwood training experience. It was relatively economical and simple to use. It involved both the upper and lower body’s muscles. This approach used a hand ascender with a foot loop, together with a Petzl Chest Croll to capture progress on ascent. This was easy to learn and worked well for beginners like me. 

Another popular SRT climbing technique is known as Rope-Walking. It uses both a foot and a knee ascender, together with a multicending device. This is the preferred method used by professional production climbers.  It’s similar to ascending a ladder and compared to other climbing methods involving upper body strength, but rope walking enables the arms to be used more for guiding the rope, while the heavy lifting happens more in the legs where the strongest climbing muscles are located.

Realizing that I may only get the opportunity to use a rope walking method if somehow I obtain my own equipment or take an advanced tree climbing course, 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 all sorts of climbing equipment, studying reviews and researching the types of gear that are both mainstream and cutting-edge, as well as provide cross over benefits, used by all types of climbers.

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 accouterments, being both safety rated, designed for this specific use. Certain items were also selected based on other personal preferences, including my age and weight.

Having absorbed tons of information and training material about tree climbing from books, tree-climbing forums and after countless YouTube videos. I came to appreciate various intricate aspects of climbing, knot tying, rope selections, climbing harnesses, and other specific gear. I also reached a point where I began to see a clear vision of what it is to be not just proficient, but a fully outfitted, self contained recreational tree climber, able to address a variety of tree climbing challenges.

Most beginning tree climbing instruction focuses on using a doubled rope technique (DdRT). Beyond the basic setup used for that, this hardly comes close to covering the entire scope of equipment and climbing options. Perhaps one should advance in skill with appropriate training to an extent beyond the fundamental basics, at least before moving onto the to more contemporary climbing styles with modernized gear options. The differences in climbing modern versus old school climbing systems are significant and available with those willing to seriously pursue this sport. Learning  to use various climbing methods is a building process. Either a stationary or moving rope systems can be used efficiently in various situations, so having the ability to switch back and forth is very helpful.

When trying out my newly purchased gear, I found it challenging to find the sweet spot, where everything was dialed in and worked as expected. Finding the right combination of hitch cords, hitch knots and rope sizes wasn’t always easy. Availability of gear was another factor, since specific kinds of gear were not always available at certain times or locations.

Acclimating oneself to one’s rope, friction cords, climbing harness, mechanical devices, etc., takes  time and hand’s on practice. The sweet spot isn’t always apparent, but when everything meshes together and works as expected, that’s the best. One is best served when receiving helpful instruction from an experienced climber. This helps to address the challenges when getting your gear dialed in just right.  Trust me, it’s more efficient than trying to do it alone.

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. Different gear may be better suited for certain conditions, depending on a tree’s characteristics, the climber’s objectives, the weather and the actual climber’s physical abilities.

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 and through professional instruction, I have now reached a point where I feel confident and outfitted well enough to climb a variety of trees, set climbing lines and a perform an aerial rescue, if need be.

The concept of practicing low-and-slow helped me to build confidence and familiarity with my specific gear configurations. Physical conditioning has also played a significant role in helping to improve my climbing capabilities, with the residual benefit of having a profoundly positive impact on my overall quality of life. It’s certainly not about being the fastest or the strongest, but more about simply enjoying the journey.

Even simple helmet straps may require adjustment. Having a helmet’s chin strap too loose can cause it to ride back, exposing the forehead.  A well adjusted helmet will protect a person’s forehead and fit with minimal movement.

I often climb trees in my backyard, mostly Cedars, Maples and Doug Firs. While there is no one perfect method, technique or climbing style, its good to be able to utilize any number of climbing techniques, depending on the circumstances. 

Having a primary (stationary or moving) climbing line, a lanyard and sometimes even a second climbing line, enables me to move about more, and position myself the canopy.  Of course, this is all relative actual tree’s structure.

Your comments are much appreciated