They're Not Just for Monkeys Anymore

A crash course in old-growth tree climbing (it's tree hugging's rambunctious younger sibling). Wanna come out and have some deep fun?

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

For some alpinists, lifeless rocks won't do.    Photo: Tom Woodward/Flickr

I get the rhythm of climbing this monster about the same time my fingers start to blister. I tip my head back and sight along the great column of wood rearing skyward in front of me. Halfway up this tree, the trunk does not yet begin to taper.

I flex my fingers and grab the two metal ascenders clamped to my climbing rope. The upper ascender is clipped to my harness, the lower to foot stirrups. They look like staple guns, work like locking ratchets. It's a two-step deal: Sit in the harness and raise the stirrups; then stand in the stirrups and raise the harness. It's about 18 inches a throw, and more than anything, it resembles the methodical crawl of an inchworm. Given that this tulip poplar is 165 feet tall, with a trunk that is 20 feet around, it seems about as fast.

As I climb higher, a woodland panorama opens up below me. Except for a few looming hemlocks, the forest is mostly hardwoods, and the light streams through the thinning tops of the taller oaks and basswoods. They are sizable trees, most of them, but even the 90-footers are dwarfed by the giant I'm dangling from. This tree is the tallest in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a 3,800-acre tract of old growth in western North Carolina's Appalachian Mountains. The tulip poplars here—the oldest date back to the 1600s—are among the largest living organisms east of the Mississippi. Decades ago, they escaped the logging crews that leveled these woods, and today they're being scaled by a gung-ho tribe in harnesses and helmets, packing enough rope for a direct ascent of Yosemite's Half Dome.

I arrive at the first branches breathing hard. How long did that take? Ten, 15 minutes? I've been a tree surgeon for years, but I've never been up a tree much taller than a hundred feet, and I've never climbed 90 feet without passing a single lateral branch. The limbs of this first crotch are more than two feet in diameter, too big to get my arms around. I lean over in my climbing harness and peer down. Genevieve Summers, my big-tree guide, stands far below, gives me the thumbs up. I mean, it could be the thumbs up—I'm so high I can't really tell one digit from another.

Genevieve is a former chimney sweep who still favors black. She is a clear-eyed, athletic woman in her forties and one of the few certified tree-climbing teachers in the country. She's a member of, and paid instructor for, Atlanta's founding grove (or chapter) of Tree Climbers International, a club and school dedicated to promoting the sport of "technical tree climbing." Established in 1983 by an Atlanta tree surgeon and rock climber named Peter Jenkins, TCI has five groves in the United States, as well as groves in Europe, Japan, and Botswana, where the lone member climbs baobab trees. As arcane sports go, tree climbing is right up there, though each year it creeps closer to the mainstream. By the end of 1999, TCI had some 600 members, nearly double its membership of just two years earlier. Its website—41 pages of advice, anecdotes, and boosterism—gets some 350 visitors daily. And New Tribe, the country's only manufacturer of recreational tree-climbing harnesses and saddles, arboreal hammocks, and other tree gear, doubled the size of its shop last year, hiring its first two employees. Tree climbers are taking all this equipment up California redwood, Okefenokee cypress, and Oregon Douglas fir.

Optimistically, perhaps, Jenkins calls tree climbing "America's fastest-growing vertical sport," attributing its popularity spurt to a kind of millennial techno-malaise. "TCI represents a grassroots movement away from high-priced machinery to a more simple form of exploration that adults remember from childhood," he writes on the Web site. "Our fast-paced technological society seems to keep pushing us away from the natural world. Yet there still remains that hunger for more simple forms of adventure that can bring us back to nature."

This weekend, about 30 of us are putting the moves on nature in the Kilmer Memorial Forest. The forest was established in 1935 in honor of New Jersey poet Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in World War I at the age of 32, but whose sentimental 1913 poem "Trees" ("I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree") doggedly lives on. Each year, TCI members and instructors from around the country meet here to commune with the big trees and with one another. It's not a buff and pumped-up group. Rather, it's familial: four father-daughter pairs, a father and son, a mother and son, and two married couples. Ages range from ten-year-old Patrick Livergood to 72-year-old tree-climbing marvel Wild Bill Riordan. But from my roost 90 feet up this poplar, they all look tiny, indistinguishable as marbles.

Genevieve's 19-year-old son, Silvan, is high above me in this great canopy of Rousseauesque leaves. He pulls himself onto a branch, checks his prussik knot, and lets himself down on his rope, hanging upside down like a lemur. He swings back and forth, grinning at me, and I think of what his mother said earlier: "Everything's different when you meet people in a tree."

At the base of the tree, I can just make out Genevieve, getting ready to come up. Very early this morning, she set our ascent rope with a hundred-foot shot over a high branch from her crossbow, and now she fixes her ascenders to the anchored line and snaps them to her harness with a locking carabiner. Most of the techniques and gear we use have been employed by cavers and rock climbers for years, but the tree climbers' argot is mostly their own: A "flying traverse" is a Tarzan-like pendulum swing from treetop to treetop. "Bark bite" describes a tree-inflicted abrasion. "Tree surfing" is euphoria-induced skylarking on a windy day.

Unlike most other sports, tree climbing takes place in a living organism (or "being," depending on whom you're talking to). Maybe that's why there's a kind of built-in pantheism to it. Trees have long provided places for us humans to hang any anthropomorphic whimsy that crosses our fuzzy little minds. To children, trees are sprites and fairy-tale monsters. To adults they are shade, board feet, gods or goddesses. To tree surgeons they are fickle, uncooperative, occasionally violent clients. For related reasons, the naming of trees seems an important part of tree climbing; this tulip poplar I'm in has been christened Ariel. A pair of TCI training oaks are named Nimrod and Diana. Julia "Butterfly" Hill, the tree-sitting activist, called the 200-foot redwood she lived in Luna. And in Missoula, Montana, where I live, there's a 60-foot Siberian elm I've come to know as Butch.

TCI founder Jenkins reveals his flower-power lineage when he speaks of wanting "to transform mankind's relationship with trees." And member Robert Fulghum, author of the spiritual primer All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, offers this koan-like assessment: "Tree climbing is a place to be rather than a thing to do."

"The intimate experience you get from climbing a tree opens the mind and heart to what a tree really is," says Sophia Sparks, co-owner of New Tribe. Of course, Sparks sells gear without which, for many, this degree of intimacy would be impossible; her company's Ness climbing saddle costs $70, and its Treeboat Hammock (for arboreal spooning or leisure) goes for $112. There are also Treeboat Blankets, Treeboat Pillows, and an insulating Treeboat Cozy hammock liner. This is all good-looking equipment, and quite reasonably priced. But it's hard not to think, Is this another deal where, to get back to nature, you gotta have the gear?

Unlike my own ascent of Ariel, Genevieve's is not inchworm-like at all. Her movements are fluid and economical; she reaches Ariel's first branches in half the time it took me. Watching a person come straight toward you up a rope produces a weird binocular effect, like she's tunneling at you through thin air. Genevieve arrives unwinded and ties in above me.

"Hey," she says, regarding us on our perches. "Lookit all these handsome dudes."

It's been a calm day so far, but now the wind kicks up. It roars through the branches like a great wave, loosening showers of seeds. There are shouts and whoops from all over the tree, and the climbers above me take pendulum swings, kicking out from the tree and rotating on their lines as the big tree sways.

"Wow!" someone exclaims. "Beautiful!" The earnest TCIers call this "deep fun."

On the other hand, it's impossible to be in a tall tree in a high wind and not feel, at first, a little bubble of panic. Then, like an infant, you give yourself up to forces stronger and larger than you—the rush of the wind, the creaking, the rocking. The movement becomes comforting and familiar. Even looking down becomes comforting and familiar. In a big tree, it all feels right.

It occurs to me that Ariel was a sapling about the time the Pilgrims arrived. In 400 years, the lower plates of bark have simply sloughed off, much like rock from an old vertical face. This is a "wild" tree, and up until ten years ago it was a pretty safe bet that no human had ever set foot in its branches.

Genevieve switches on her two-way radio and, like an air-traffic controller, tells ground control who to send up, who's coming down. She needs the radio because at 120 feet it's difficult to understand anyone hollering up from below, especially in this racket the wind is creating. The truth is, there's a lot of hollering anyway. And a whole lot of ropes. There are now seven climbers above, below, and parallel to me. I try, but I can't shake the feeling that somehow we're infesting this tree. To the small crowd of day hikers standing below us, we must look like a pod of caterpillars, dangling by our silks.

In oracular mode Peter Jenkins predicts that, inside of ten years, recreational tree climbing will eclipse both rock climbing and caving in mass participation. He believes this is good news for trees because it will instill what he calls "a heightened tree awareness," which will ultimately lead to more old-growth preservation. Included in the TCI mission statement is a pledge that its members will never harm the trees they climb. Spurs such as those worn by telephone linemen are forbidden, as are various other bark-damaging climbing aids like spikes or hook-ended lag screws. Climbers rely on ropes at all times. And TCI is scrupulous about the use of "cambium savers," nylon tubes, and webbing slings, all designed to protect tender upper bark from rope damage. TCI also encourages climbers to fertilize the trees they climb and to spread gravel at the base of those that receive a lot of foot traffic to protect the root systems and avoid compacting the soil.

In 1970, when I first started rock climbing, I thought it was a sport for renegades and eccentrics, maybe like tree climbing is today. None of us ever dreamed that there would soon be so many people on the rocks that we'd need to switch from high-impact to low-impact gear. Or that, in spite of replacing steel pitons with cams and stoppers, we would eventually degrade many of the best routes simply by overclimbing them. I hope Jenkins is right about the "heightened tree awareness." But I don't believe anyone really knows what effect increased traffic will have on the trees, even if it's traffic from enlightened climbers like the members of TCI. As the sport becomes more popular, of course, some climbers won't bother with the kind of ethical protocol TCI observes and will climb the big ones without much interest in whether it's injurious to the tree or even legal. (Here at Kilmer, we're climbing with the approval of the Forest Service, although Kilmer's rangers may soon impose more stringent regulations. Many public-land administrators, particularly in the West, will not allow their old-growth stands to be climbed at all.)

Then there are do-it-yourselfers like the Midwest man who took a bevy of students up a big maple and left them there, too panicked to get down. Or the kid who rolled out of his hammock high in a Kilmer treetop because he didn't tie himself in securely enough, and sustained a mildly cracked backbone. (The boy was not with TCI; its safety record over 16 years is superb: zero fatalities, zero serious injuries.)

Still, "sometimes you can love a tree to death," worries author Don Blair, a second-generation tree surgeon and the author of the book Arborist Equipment. Blair is skeptical about TCI's ability to both promote the new sport and prevent damage, but mostly he's scornful of that all-too-human tendency for climbers to keep score, a habit that mountaineers disparagingly refer to as "peak-bagging."

Jenkins says that he sees no sign that tree climbers are slipping into a macho "summit or bust" mindset. But records are nonetheless kept of the heights of trees climbed. (Jenkins himself has been up a 357-foot coastal redwood, reportedly the fourth-tallest tree in the country.) And everyone knows that climbing buddies will compete for the fastest ascent, much like motorcycle riders drag racing for beers. When I told a TCIer that I had been up Ariel the day before, she smiled and said, "Yes, but did you go way to the tippy-top?" I was too mortified to admit I had not.

After three hours in Ariel's canopy, I rappel to the ground and doff my harness. An older woman strolling along the path stops dead in her tracks. "Oh, my stars," she says. "Is that a girl way up there?"I assure her that it is.

A couple walks by. "I'm gonna sign you up for that, honey," the woman says.

"Uh-uh," he cracks. "My tail ain't long enough."

At the foot of Ariel, a couple from New York are sporting the first designer climbing saddles I've seen, both custom-made by New Tribe. Hers has a faux-jaguar seat, his is faux zebra. Her climbing rope is a striking coral color. Unable to restrain myself, I blurt out, "What a beautiful rope!"

She fixes me with a look that might be ironic, might not. "Well," she says, "isn't that what it's all about—your gear?"

A hundred yards up the path, several climbers prepare to ascend a double-trunked poplar tentatively dubbed The Twins. Nearby, a lone climber heads up a 120-foot cucumber magnolia as yet unnamed. He's wearing camouflage, so when he hits the foliage, he becomes more or less invisible. A TCIer and his 19-year-old daughter are making their way up Ariel with the New York couple. Ten-year-old Patrick Livergood and his father are hanging from a small maple, practicing a technique called the "body thrust." The body thrust is one of the more curious-looking methods of ascent: The feet are planted against the trunk, and the climber, horizontal to the ground, thrusts his pelvis skyward while he reefs on his rope. Talk about intimacy with nature! All this while 72-year-old Wild Bill is dozing in the sunlight halfway up a 40-foot maple.

There's a side of me that enjoys watching these tree climbers having their deep fun. But I have problems because trees are my workplace, where the daily tasks of high pruning and dead-maple removals are deemed so hazardous that most insurance companies refuse to write policies. It may be my calcifying soul, but it's hard for me to see trees as a playground. Imagine a gang of funsters piling into your office for a spin on the old swivel chair. Imagine them lying on your desk, saying things like, "Wow, that ceiling!" or "Hey! Bitchin' windows!" Imagine them wearing faux-zebra power suits.

I wander down the trail to the fenced-in plot that is the official Joyce Kilmer memorial. Every day, a steady stream of visitors hikes the one mile from the parking lot to the site; they read the boulder-mounted plaque, pausing to note the pitiably short span of Kilmer's life. They snap ritual photographs. Then, like light-seeking flowers, they crane their necks to the big trees, hoping to see whatever it is that people are always looking for up there. Which is what? A sense of scale?

"A tree that looks at God all day / And lifts her leafy arms to pray," Kilmer's poem continues, though not many get past the first line or two. You have to wonder what Kilmer would make of the scene here today: this towering forest bearing his name, the trees full of people, all this strenuous yearning for transcendence. The last lines of "Trees" ("Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree") will tell you Kilmer was all too aware of his limitations. All he ever wanted was to make something beautiful, and you can't blame a guy for that.

"Trees" is a forgettable poem, written by a young man with more heart than talent, yet it has not been forgotten. Probably because it's a poem that rather simply and nakedly longs for transcendence—not unlike the people climbing these trees. And not unlike me, now that I think of it.

Tree surgeon Fred Haefele is the author of the motor-cycle memoir Rebuilding the Indian.

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