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Of course you all know about tree climbing unless you were raised in the Gobi desert or North Pole, everyone as a child has climbed trees either to grab some appetizing cherries or just for the hell of it. But what is secure tree climbing then?
As it implies, secure tree climbing means that you are able to climb a tree without breaking a limb or falling flat on the ground. Just like for rocks climbing the securing will be done by a rope, the best no-fall device so far invented together with wings but more easily available to men...As quoted in the introduction most people have and some still do climb trees for various reasons, an activity deeply printed in our elder chromosomes. I also climbed trees as a young boy as I was lucky enough to have a large garden with huge trees, apple trees and pear trees as well as a large walnut and my parents would take me to the woods every once in a while so I could switch to pine trees, oaks and birches. Then I grew up and after various trials and travels I found out that seed was my thing so I set up this tropical seed business after a few years on Reunion Island.
Dear patient reader, we are now almost there! Yes, seeds grow on plants and some of those plants are trees or vines that creep all the way up and this is where I have to go for harvest. So of course I could still happily climb barefoot and gather a few ripe pods here and there but this was not enough for real business like when the customers want kilos of those seeds! Soon I was confronted with several problems; one was how in the heck to climb a tree which first branches were several meters high? The second one was; how do I hold to the tree AND work at the same time? And then how could I ever reach the end of this tiny branch which would obviously hold only a fat squirrel but is covered with ripe seeds? What about slippery bark when it is wet (and of course it tends to be quite wet right under the Capricorn tropic!). So after a few frights and bruised spots I decided to follow a short training with arborists.
Arborists are the people who work on trees (‘arbor' in Latin) often for pruning them. This work was traditionally performed by lumberjacks but soon proved to require more technique and fine tuning than woodcutters would supply. The basic tool was a lanyard, a piece of rope securing the worker to the tree, the very first ones being no more than a rope attached around the waist and slung over the trunk or branches to allow people to work with both hands while being secure. Soon people started using rocks climbing devices in order to work over ground with more security. The harness allowed work to be more comfortable but rock-climbing harnesses are designed in order to stop a fall and are rather uncomfortable if you spend too much time hanging in them, they also have only one central attachment point. Arborists started designing harnesses which would fit to what was needed; something strong, comfortable, with many tools holders, a central attachment for the climbing line and lateral ones for the lanyard. As the leg straps were made wider the harness sometimes was called ‘saddle'. Actually some arborists harnesses do have a kind of saddle or flat piece of material to sit on instead of leg straps for each thigh. Ropes also had to be adapted; climber's ropes are dynamic because they are designed and made in order to be elastic and absorb shocks whenever there is a fall. Arborists ropes, like speleology ropes, have to be semi-dynamic because the worker will spend time going up the rope itself and if it is too elastic it will be almost impossible to get up there. Those ropes are also often of a larger diameter (12 to 13.5 mm versus 10 or 10.5 for rock climbing ropes, the idea being to have a more comfortable grip on it and a less aggressive effect on bark. The climbing rope will be attached to the harness using a carabiner, either with a screw system or self closing, the later being much more secure as it will automatically lock when released while the screw has to be turned in order to be fully effective. Automatic biners (as we climbers call them) are divided between two -movements biners and three-movements biners, the last ones being the most secure as they are virtually impossible to open accidentally. Those very versatile tools are made of aluminium or steel, the later being more resistant but much heavier, the aluminium biners will anyway meet national requirements in term of security and should therefore hold around 2000 to 3000 kilo which is way enough even to hold a falling climber. Steel biners are used by arborists to secure pieces of trunks or branches when they have to be lowered to the ground instead of just thrown down.
Other necessary pieces of equipment are; a helmet with three attachment points to make sure it stays on your head even if you smash a trunk, goggles to avoid getting sawdust and other unwanted stuff to blind you, comfortable and strong clothes, some stamina and sweat!
So now here we are fully equipped at the foot of a 150 feet high spruce and ready to reach the very top. A visual inspection allows you to spot a strong enough limb about 30 feet high, just above another limb which will be used to stand on. Now starts the fun with what we call ‘tree entry', the very first tool used for such a climb is a throw bag or throwing pouch attached to a throw line. The throw bag is a small bag made of strong canvas, leather or other heavy-duty material filled with lead or iron, weighting between 8 and 20 ounces while the throw line is usually a 1/8-inch polyethylene or polypropylene line. It does take a little practice but you should soon be able to throw this about 60 feet high with correct accuracy. Very tall trees such as redwoods require a bow or a slingshot to get the business done. Once the bag has passed over the desired limb it will come back down to the ground where it will be untied and replaced by the climbing rope which will at his turn be hauled up over the limb and brought back down to you forming a loop over the limb. One end will be attached to the harness via a biner, the other end will be used for the friction hitch. This is a fundamental tool used to secure the climber and working both as an ascending and descending device. Basically a friction hitch is a piece of rope set in such a way that it will grip tightly on the climbing rope if weight is put on it but will also be loosened with a slight pressure from the fingers. There are many different hitches used; the Tautline Hitch, the Blake's Hitch, the Machard, the Valdotain, the Klemheist but the most frequent one is the Prussik which was invented in 1930 by an Austrian doctor who practiced speleology. It is done with a loop set up twice as a girth hitch. Once this is correctly set up the climbing can start; set up the Prussik as high as possible to tighten the climbing rope, sit back in the harness, raise one foot and make a loop around it with the rope, press on it with the other foot so as to block the rope, straighten your legs and raise your body then raise the Prussik as high as possible, it will grip on the rope as soon as you put your weight on it. This technique is called foot-lock and is guaranteed to keep your abdominal flat and strong! Repeat until you reach the limb. When you get to the place where you rope is set you have to use your lanyard, a piece of rope about 10 to 20 feet long with a biner at each endand either a Prussik or mechanical device to shorten it as needed. The lanyard is your other life insurance as you will switch to it when you want to untie your climbing rope in order to set it higher, you also use it as a second attachment point for working in the best position. Once the job is done you come back to the ground by slightly pressing the top of the Prussik but do not go down too fast, the friction between the hitch and the rope will generate a lot of heat and going down very fast on a long rope may burn your fingers and even start melting the rope!
For those of you who are already into secure tree climbing, do not get mad if false crotches, rope sleeves and other bark buddies are not mentioned here, I do use them at all time but this is too specialized topics.
With a little practice and the use of climbing spurs you can also climb coconut trees and enjoy the cool water inside the nuts!
This is a basic presentation, do not try anything like this by yourself, it is a rather safe activity if you master the techniques but those are to be learned directly from a reliable person and performed at low elevation before you start getting high up! See you on top some day!
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html