High Country News

Published April 14, 2008


Taking to the Trees by Morgan Heim

After conquering rocks, trails and mountains,weekend warriors head for the canopy

Harv "Ponderosa" Teitelbaum leans back in his harness, testing his weight against the rope dangling from the tree. He swings his legs forward and braces his feet against the tree trunk. Sliding one hand up after the other, he pulls himself up the rope, feet pushing off one at a time in an exaggerated stepping motion. He scales 80 feet in less than a minute in a practiced dance, becoming a silhouette against the mid-morning sun.

A swift foot jab pushes him away from the trunk and swings him sideways. He wraps an arm around the closest branch and in one swift move unclips a folded saw from his harness. A sound like a zipper-scratch drifts to the ground as he begins to methodically cut away dead stubble.

The ponderosa looks like a Christmas tree that grew too fast - all trunk with a cluster of branches near the top. Ropes dangle from the branches like leftover garlands. The trunk is pitted with dozens of light-colored scars, the marks of past pruning. "Headache," Teitelbaum shouts, warning those below that another chopped-off branch is on its way down.

"Ponderosa" Teitelbaum is an avid tree climber. He uses techniques pioneered by rock-climbers, canopy researchers and arborists to climb trees once accessible only to scientists and tree surgeons. Teitelbaum, however, does it just for fun. "It's wonderful to get up there and lose sight of the ground," he says. "In this arboreal world with no sense of the flat ground, everything is vertical, everything is air."

Back on the ground, Teitelbaum, a solid man in his 50s with climbing-honed forearms, stands, feet rooted to the spot, meditating on the personalities of trees. "Douglas firs, they're really nice to get all the way to the top," he says. "You can feel it swaying. And cottonwoods have their own personality, solid, even at the top." He smiles as he describes his namesake. "Ponderosas have a lot of character, great smell." He leans in, scratches the bark and inhales the faint vanilla aroma.

Today, he's climbing "Gus Otis," a ponderosa pine with a base three feet in diameter. The tree is more than 90 feet high, big enough to inspire vertigo, but it's dwarfed by Methuselah, an 1,800-year-old California redwood in San Mateo County. Methuselah is 14 feet in diameter at the base and about as tall as a 20-story building. It's a celebrity in the tree-climbing world: Several YouTube videos have shown folks climbing it.

The sport of tree climbing originated in Georgia three decades ago, but only recently became popular in the West. Now, climbing schools are popping up all over the region.

Still, tree climbing remains under most people's radar. But if the sport grows at even a fraction of the rate of its older cousins - mountain biking and rock-climbing - forests could soon bend under the weight of thousands of eager climbers. It's a prospect that some find alarming, because just one climber's boot can disturb the delicate ecology of an individual tree. If rock-climbing and mountain biking are any indication, conflicts will sooner or later arise between environmental purists and these new outdoor-fun junkies. The National Park Service has already banned tree climbing, and various cities have put their public trees off-limits.

The reaction may seem a bit extreme. After all, national parks and even wilderness areas are, for the most part, open to rock climbers, who swarm the steep faces of Zion, Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks without much restriction. But there's one huge difference between tree climbing and rock climbing: The trees are alive.

Peter Jenkins spent his youth in the 1950s and '60s exploring the wilderness and climbing the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park outside Estes Park, Colo. He easily transferred his mountain-climbing skills to tree trunks, and in 1978, he established a small tree-care business in Atlanta, Ga. "Treeman," as he became known, liked to take his work home with him. He climbed trees for fun, and soon found himself taking his tree-care clients up into the canopy as well.

In 1983, Jenkins founded Tree Climbers International Inc. He bought a small plot of land near Atlanta, featuring two stately white oaks, which he named "Diana" and "Nimrod," after the virgin goddess of hunting and the builder of the Tower of Babel. Those two trees have since taught thousands of people how to climb, and what began as a trickle of amateurs spreading their love of the sport through word-of-mouth has blossomed into a nationwide community of tree-climbing enthusiasts.

And there are no signs of the sport slowing down. In the last five years, Jenkins has watched his class load jump from one a month to nearly three times that many. Teitelbaum regularly leads classes attended by up to 10 people, as often as once a week during spring and summer. Schools have opened elsewhere, including Dancing With Trees LLC in Alto, Ga., and New Tribe's Tree Climbing Northwest in Grants Pass, Ore. Several Web sites and chat rooms are devoted to the fledgling sport.

Along with classes, New Tribe offers climbing gear, including harnesses ($47), ropes ($100-$500) and tree hammocks ($300), for sleeping in the treetops. Its Web site - one of many devoted to the sport - even gives instructions for building a gadget that couples a fishing reel with a slingshot to get your rope up into the tree.

New Tribe's vice president, Viola Brumbaugh, says she's seen the company's profits grow 20 to 30 percent a year over the last decade, with about 70 percent of its gear going to recreational tree climbers. Business is booming: SherrillTree.com, a general tree-gear supplier based out of North Carolina, fills about 15,000 orders for recreational tree climbing gear a year and receives 50 to 100 requests for recreational tree-climbing catalogues almost every week, according to Tobe Sherrill, the company's founder and CEO.

Brumbaugh and Jenkins attribute much of the sport's growth to recent press coverage. CNN, National Public Radio and National Geographic Adventure have all covered it. Last April, Richard Preston published The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, a book documenting researchers' work in the canopy of California's redwoods. Most estimates place the number of recreational tree climbers at around 50,000 worldwide, but New Tribe co-founder Sophia Sparks says the sport is "mushrooming."

Hundreds of feet above the loamy ground in the Pacific Northwest is another kind of tree climber: the pinky-sized wandering salamander. This rare amphibian uses its long, slim legs and squared-off toes to climb ancient spruces and cedars. It spends most of its life in trees 300 feet high, never touching the ground.

The wandering salamander's world might as well be a different planet. Epiphytes - plants that grow free of the ground - latch onto trunk and branch in the muted light. Ferns, lichens and moss create new soil layers, providing water and regulating microclimates far above the ground.

The moss alone can take hundreds of years to grow. It traps sediment, which in turn traps moisture and then gradually releases it, altering the temperature and humidity.

The ferns also hold soil with their networks of fine, fibrous roots, creating mats among the branches that are sometimes three feet deep. These fern mats collectively act as reservoirs - a single tree can contain enough mats to hold up to 8,000 liters of water. They provide habitat for salamanders and other wildlife. Even the harpacticoid copepod, a common microscopic stream crustacean, can be found living in the treetops.

Lichens function as fertilizers in this airy environment. Cyanolichens convert nitrogen into a form plants can use to absorb nutrients. Stephen Sillett, a professor from Humboldt State University who studies forest canopy ecosystems, has seen entire new trees, such as hemlock and Douglas fir, sprouting from a host tree's fertile branches.

But this strange world is as fragile as it is vital, and even the most carefully placed hand or boot can take its toll, knocking the ecosystem out of balance.

"Even if you're an expert, you can accidentally bump off big clumps of moss," says Sillett, who winces at the damage he inflicts in spite of 20 years' experience climbing for research. He often sees the old scars left by what must have seemed, at the time, like an innocuous tap of the boot. "We're cruising through the trees with big rubber boots," he says. "We're not part of its natural equation."

But some climbers believe that keeping people out of the trees is harmful in other ways. "The othering of human beings from nature is very destructive," says Teitelbaum. Climbing trees and encouraging others to do so builds an appreciation for the forest and the organisms that rely on it, he says. He acknowledges that deliberately climbing in vulnerable trees, such as those containing epiphytes, is akin to "almost intentional destruction." But overall, he says, "I think there's more benefit than harm."

Teitelbaum, a former Colorado Division of Wildlife outreach educator and part-time professor of environmental science with DeVry University, believes that tree climbing is actually beneficial; he says it exercises the tree, making its tissue stronger with each trip. And because climbers pay such close attention, they are more likely to notice if a tree is sick or damaged. Those with enough training can safely trim dead or diseased branches, or notify others, such as park officials, who ought to know.

But Jody Rice, an education outreach coordinator who works with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to develop authorized tree-climbing programs, says that climbers need to exercise caution about things like trimming dead branches. "If you take dead tree limbs, you might make the tree healthier, but not make the ecosystem healthier," says Rice. Woodpeckers, for example, will only build homes in dead trunks and branches. Removing a dead tree branch potentially destroys important habitat.

Determining the impact of a sport still in its infancy is difficult, if not downright impossible. "At this point, I imagine tree climbers are so dispersed, there's not yet a problem," says Matt Dietz, a conservation ecologist with The Wilderness Society. But he predicts that if tree climbing continues to grow in popularity, researchers and land managers will have to deal with its effects on the environment.

Dietz is particularly concerned about birds, especially during the breeding season. Unless nests are conspicuous, like the top-heavy platforms constructed by ospreys and eagles, climbers are unlikely to realize there are nesting birds in a tree until it's too late. A parent bird upset by even a single disturbance to a nest could flee to another tree, leaving its young to starve or become dinner themselves, says Dietz. Simply avoiding trees during breeding season is not a realistic option, because birds in the United States tend to breed during spring and summer - the very times most outdoor recreationists prefer to be outside.

To climb a tree, a person must first get to it, which brings up a host of other concerns. "The trees are one thing, but I envision lots of people wanting to climb the same tree," says Myke Bybee, a public-lands advocate for the Sierra Club. That leads to the formation of informal trails, which destroy the surrounding grasses, ferns and other plants and pack down soil around the tree's roots, limiting its ability to absorb water and nutrients, he says.

Still, Bybee is not opposed to tree climbing per se. "Outdoor recreation in any form from hunting to hiking in general is a great thing," he says. "But we would want to make sure people take measures not to damage the trees and environment."

Even Jenkins admits that climbers can get a little tree-happy. "You can over-climb trees," he says. "Humans tend to kill or destroy what they love through the years."

This is why Jenkins and Teitelbaum are trying to establish standards for environmentally conscious climbing. They recommend starting and finishing at the same place, and using mulch to cushion the ground around trees. Both Tree Climbing International and Tree Climbing Colorado have published guidelines for safe and environmentally conscious climbing. And climbers are developing more tree-friendly gear, such as rubber-soled shoes rather than spiked ones, and protective cambium-savers - hose-like tubes that slide over ropes to protect the trees from rope burn.

Despite these improvements, Sillett advises staying out of old-growth forests altogether. "Our impacts are foreign to that ecosystem," he says, "and there will be impacts."

Just a few decades ago, rock climbing was more of an underground cult than a full-fledged sport, and mountain biking was a handful of hippies converting clunky street bikes into rough-and-ready trail riders. For the most part, the early climbers and bikers saw their sports as a way to connect with nature. Sierra Club director David Brower, for example, was also a rock climber who used his experiences to draw attention to places in need of protection.

But what started as a spattering of independent enthusiasts quickly exploded. The International Mountain Bicycling Association, which now has 32,000 members, says that Americans ride single-track nearly 600 million times a year. Each year an average of 10,000 climbers visit Happy Boulders, a bouldering site just north of Bishop, Calif. The vast majority of recreationists may be conscientious, but there are always those who drill permanent climbing routes into cliffs, smear desert varnish with climbing chalk, batter the backcountry trails with their knobby tires and simply refuse to pick up after themselves. As a result, rock jocks and bikers often find themselves at odds with land managers and environmentalists.

Tree climbing shares the adrenaline rush, expensive gear, and conquest-of-nature mystique of rock climbing and mountain biking. And trees are poised to become the next frontier for the nation's weekend warriors. Public officials who want to avoid previous mistakes are determined to rein in tree climbing almost before the sport gets off the ground.

Denver flat-out refuses to permit tree climbing in city parks, citing liability concerns and the need to protect the trees. With people repeatedly climbing city trees, "we'd have to be replacing trees all the time," says Jill McGranahan, Denver Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.

Teitelbaum blames a bureaucratic "cover my ass" mentality, and Jenkins scoffs at the notion that tree climbing is dangerous. "Up to this point, we have had no injuries in this sport, none, nothing at all," he says. "You can't say that for rock climbers. You can't say that for cavers. You can't say that for hang gliders." (There have been documented climbing accidents - even fatalities - among professional arborists, however. And not long after Jenkins made this statement, a recreational climber fell and broke his back, recounting the accident on Jenkins' school's Web site.)

Even in places where climbers can get permission, the process is often difficult. Typically, a climber has to apply for a permit every time she wants to climb on public land. And because the sport is still so new, many officials are unfamiliar with it and unsure how to handle permit requests.

While some national forests and a few cities, such as Boulder and Evergreen, Colo., allow tree climbing, national parks remain strictly off-limits. Only forest ecologists and a handful of other researchers are permitted to climb trees in parks. This is because it is a ranger's "primary mission" to "protect the park," says Janet Cooper, special park use coordinator for Redwood National and State Park in California.

Researchers, Cooper says, have the training to minimize damage to trees, something that can't be counted on with recreational climbers. And a bunch of people dangling around in the canopy is bound to impact wildlife, particularly species like the endangered marbled murrelet, which nests in old-growth forests. Besides, says park spokesman Rick Nolans, opening national parks to climbing, at least in California, is unnecessary. "There're so many opportunities to climb elsewhere in California, it's not really a big deal for them to do so," he says.

But many climbers want to climb in national parks. Cooper notes that the Redwood office alone receives three to four calls a week from people asking about climbing trees in the park. The park denies all requests, a stance that veteran tree climber Jenkins respects. "Rangers are trying to preserve what's there," he says, "and have a hard enough time chasing tourists who don't behave well."

In the vast bottomlands of Georgia and Florida, 66-year-old "Swampy Joe" Maher often wades through water up to his "belly-button," paddles silently in his canoe, or catches a ride on a jon boat, in search of the perfect old-growth bald cypress tree. He travels light, often with just a backpack carrying little more than water, a few ropes and some mesh for a makeshift harness. When he finds a perfect tree, his "desert island" in the swamp, he glides up in his canoe, docks at the trunk and climbs the tree right from the boat. There is nothing around him for miles, no cars, no people, just tree after tree - and silence. "When I go out on what I call a ‚Äòreal' tree climb, I go to the swamps," says Maher. "I love swamps."

Maher, like hundreds of other tree climbers, doesn't ask permission first. He just does it. And for that reason, in the lexicon of tree climbing, he's considered a rogue. Rogue climbing has several offshoots - including ninja, or stealth climbing - which involve deliberate trespassing.

The term "rogue" is mostly a joke within the tree-climbing community, because it implies that simply climbing without permission is a renegade pursuit. But stealth and ninja climbing represent a murkier area. And not everyone in the woods shares the wilderness ethics of climbers like Maher, Teitelbaum and Jenkins, who practice "leave no trace" and wear muted colors - doing their best to avoid detection and lessen environmental disturbance.

"People hike out to a tree and one of the first things they do is begin stomping down all the surrounding vegetation," in order to clear the way for throwing a line into the tree, says Maher. Others see a dead tree branch and can't resist the desire to cut it off. "People within the recreational tree-climbing community have an idea that trees need to be ‘developed' for climbing," Maher says. "They will take handsaws and cut every dead tree branch or branch that is an impediment to climbing. Some people will go out into forests just to trim a dead limb because it's there. I get very annoyed with these people."

Rice, with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says ninja climbing harms the cause of tree climbers rather than helping it. "I don't support stealth or ninja," says Rice. "We have to look at that seriously. You have a responsibility to give people an idea of where you are," he says. "If they get caught, it just hurts the long-term effect of getting this approved."

But Jenkins sees stealth climbing as part of the sport's natural evolution. "Tree climbing is new," says Jenkins, "and because it's new, probably what's going to get policy to change is people climbing."

Back in Evergreen, Colo., I'm dangling 80 feet off the ground, trying to avoid touching the tree. Three children flank the tree lower down, yelling encouragement as I near the top of the climb. I'm using a technique that, on rock, would be called aid climbing. My legs, arms and abdominal muscles burn as I bring my knees to my chest and pull myself up the rope with all my might in a decidedly ungraceful maneuver. Thonk. My head bounces off the branch above me, but thanks to my helmet, I hardly feel the blow.

I've reached the end of my rope. This trip stops just above the main branches of the tree. Though I won't get to the top, seeing the world from a bird's-eye view is exhilarating. Life is pretty quiet up here, hanging with the branches. It's like a great view from a skyscraper, but instead of city streets jammed with ant-like cars, there's just the breeze and the sunshine. One of the kids asks if I'm going to come back down, but I'm in no hurry.

I flip upside-down to get the squirrel's-eye view and try unsuccessfully to "tree dance," swinging away and spinning a 360.

Teitelbaum stands in miniature on the ground, waiting for my signal indicating that I'm ready to descend. And the kids are anxious to head off for some afternoon swimming. I'm confident that the climb gave the children a greater appreciation for the trees that are all around them. Still, I'm all too aware of the impact we had, how we bumped and scraped our way up the tree trunk.

I take some comfort in the idea that "Gus Otis," like so many other trees, has survived centuries of storms, drought and even forest fires. Generations of animals have dug and scratched away at its bark; birds have come and gone, and who knows what else has happened to it. I suppose it can survive the attentions of a few tree-climbing, fun-loving humans. At least I hope so. Before descending, I take another moment to savor the quiet up among the branches, because even if the trees survive, this solitude may not.

Morgan Heim is a former HCN intern. She is a freelance journalist and photographer, who is currently finishing a master's at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism in Boulder.

"Taking to the Trees" by Morgan Heim.

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