Up a Tree

Photo courtesy of New Tribe
Suspended high above the ground from a series of ropes looped over a branch, Shari Heinz moves like an inchworm up a 60-foot-tall beech tree. She alternates sliding a knot up a series of lines and standing in a foot loop, creating a manual pulley system powered by her body weight that propels her up the tree.

Heinz takes a break by sitting down in her harness--she swings lightly between the tree boughs. Pushed by the wind rustling leaves above her head, she looks peaceful and serene.

Veteran climber Sophia Sparks, founder of the gear company New Tribe, says she loves the sport because of "the challenge, the freedom to set your own goals, the moderate exertion and the serenity. Tree climbing combines the child with the adult--you morph into Peter Pan."

Since 1983 and the formation of Tree Climbers International (TCI), technical tree climbing (as opposed to free climbing, which uses no equipment) has become a full-fledged sport and is growing in popularity. Although still a niche sport with participant estimates in the U.S. ranging around 13,000 according to Tree Climbing USA, the activity is attracting more women. Avid climbers travel to California, Georgia or the Northwest to explore trees in national forests, state parks or even backyards.   

Like rock climbing, from which tree climbers have borrowed heavily, tree climbing requires technical knowledge and a complicated system of knots and ropes. For example, just to setup for a climb, a lightweight "throw line" with a weight on the end is tossed over a branch, and then attached to a thicker climbing rope. Also, "it takes strong leg and chest muscles," says Heinz, a novice climber who started climbing trees two years ago at age 53.

Want to try it for yourself? Here's how experts recommend getting started.

Sign up for tree school. One-day guided climbs and two-day classes are available through Tree Climbers International (treeclimbing.com) in Georgia, and similar programs are offered throughout the country. The organization's 25-year, injury-free record is attributed to its methods and safety measures, which requires climbers to stay on-rope at all times. Prices range from $15 for an afternoon of guided climbing to $450 for a weekend class.

Know your knots. Instructors will teach you how to tie some of the 45 hitches and knots used in tree climbing. Often beginners learn the self-belay friction knot, which slides as a climber goes up and down the tree and automatically locks in place when a climber lets go. Practice until you can tie the knots with your eyes closed.

Choose your tree carefully. Examine the nearby ground, the trunk and the canopy for clues of structural damage. These include sawdust at the base of the tree (which signals wood-eating insects like termites and carpenter ants), damaged or exposed roots, rutted ground or hollows. Avoid topped trees (trees with cut branches)--new sprouts are weaker than the original branches. Look for fungi, which indicates rot and possible weakness.

Don't pull. As in rock climbing, beginners tend to use their arms more than they should. Remember: Use your arms to balance and slide the hitch knot. Make your legs do the bulk of the work to move your body up the tree.

Use your legs. Inch up the tree by pushing on the foot loop like you would a bike pedal. To avoid stressing the knee joints, bend your knees and roll your hips forward toward the rope. Keep your knees under your hips and your thighs parallel, so your upper body is in line with the rope. This will help you reduce arm effort and lift your body with your leg muscles.

Go green. Care for the trees you climb. Don't wear spiked shoes--these destroy the tree cambium, the tender inner bark layers. Also, use cambium- or friction-savers on the ropes to avoid damage, especially on thin-barked trees like beech, eucalyptus and sycamore. Avoid walking on the limbs.

Watch out for Mother Nature. Learn to identify--and steer clear of--poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Be alert for overhead electrical wires, falling objects such as dead tree limbs and equipment (especially during group climbs), and nesting insects such as bees, hornets, yellow jackets and wasps. Know how to properly remove ticks.

Take it easy. Tree climbing is not a race. "It's as if you took hiking vertical," says Sparks. To rest during your climb, you may use a four-cornered canvas hammock or "tree boat." Snack or eat meals there, listen to the birds or even nap. Just remember to always stay tied in.

Gearing Up

SADDLE Made from nylon fabric and foam padding, saddles, also called harnesses, support your body and should fit comfortably around your waist. Be sure to get the correct size. Most harnesses and saddles come in small and large sizes and are adjustable, using waist and leg straps. Try on several before deciding because connection points and padding can differ dramatically from brand to brand.

CARABINERS Made of aluminum or steel, this attachment hardware connects you to your ropes. Choose a locking type.

TARGET THROWLINES Manufactured from nylon cord, thin throw lines pull the larger climbing rope.

LEATHER CAMBIUM SAVERS This device reduces friction on the tree, but also saves wear and tear on the climbing rope. Leather is preferred because it's lightweight and tough.

HELMET A must-have, a helmet protects your head from falling branches, acorns or other climbers' equipment. Choose a lightweight, ventilated model made of high-tech plastics and lined with polypropylene foam. Make sure a headlamp can be attached.

CLOTHING Dress in lightweight fabric pants, long-sleeve shirts and rugged, closed-toe shoes. Do not wear dangling earrings, and pull back long hair so it doesn't get in the way of ropes and equipment.

ACCESSORIES Safety glasses or goggles keep dust, debris or bugs out of your eyes. Cotton, latex or leather gloves improve your grip on the rope. Wear a whistle for emergencies.

Join the Discussion: Does tree climbing hurt trees?

Janice Arenofsky is a Scottsdale, Arizona-based freelancer whose articles appear in national magazines including American Forests, American Fitness, E-Environmental Magazine and Boys' Life.

For more information about this developing sport and class locations, visit treeclimbing.com, treeclimbingusa.com, treeclimbercoalition.org, newtribe.com, pacifictreeclimbing.com or tcia.org.

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