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 Sierra Sequoia-Redwood. Despite my age 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. As a beginner, I was at the very earliest stages of becoming a self sufficient climber.

Since that time, I became passionate about climbing and finding new techniques with less impact on my back, using an (SRT) stationary rope technique. A sit-stand SRT climbing method was the method I used during my initial Redwood training experience. It was relatively simple to use and involved both the upper and lower body’s muscles. The sit-stand approach uses a hand ascender with a foot loop, together with a Petzl Chest Croll to capture progress on ascent. This gear is an economical option, compared other methods using more gear with greater efficiency and it workes well for beginners. However, I soon came to realize it’s by no means the least strenuous and most efficient climbing method.

An advanced climbing system using a popular rope-walker type of approach, uses both a foot and a knee ascender. This is the preferred method used for SRT, among 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 simply for guiding the rope, while the heavy lifting happens 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 tree climbing instruction nowadays, focus on using a doubled rope technique (DdRT) for beginners. Beyond the basic setup used for that, this hardly comes close to covering the entire scope of equipment 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 pasttime. Learning  to use various climbing methods is a building process. Either a stationary or moving rope system 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 easy. Availability of gear was another factor, since specific kinds of gear may not be available at certain times or locations.

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. I recommend bypassing that type of struggle by learning from an experienced climber who can help you move through the process and dial into an effective climbing system with far greater ease, rather than by trying to do it all by oneself.

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 climb’s objectives, the weather and the actual climber

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 and has had a profound impact on my overall quality of life. This isn’t about being the fastest or the strongest. We’ll get there when we get there, while enjoying the journey.

Even wear a climbing helmet properly can be challenging. Having the front chin straps set too loose can cause the helmet rode back too far, thereby over-exposing the forehead.  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 take practice. Connecting a Rope Wrench to a climbing line requires a person to know how to tie proper friction hitch knots. Certain hitch knots like the Valdotain Tresse (VT) may have more sit-back than the Michoacan/Martin. For me, on my Hitch Hiker 2 using a VT, I’ve been able to settle into using a suitable 9.3mm friction cord that loads consistently and smoothly releases with ease. Various types of cordage can bind more or less tightly and require more or less effort to loosen.

I often climb trees in my backyard, mostly Cedars. I also learned that there is no one perfect method, technique or climbing style, so I’ve learned several techniques which enable me to switch and incorporate one or another, using gear suited for a variety of situations.

Having a primary (stationary or moving) climbing line, a lanyard and sometimes even a second climbing line, enables me to position myself and move more freely within the canopy.  Of course, this is all relative to the various conditions, including the actual tree and it’s structure being able to safely support me.

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