When I was a kid I lived in a subdivision that didn't have any big trees, so I never got the chance to climb, but after today I can cross the activity off my list. I participated in a beginning recreational tree climbing course, and got to ascend into the canopy of a white oak that was more than 100 years old!
The class was organized by Jon Richards with Vertical Voyages, coordinated with Ginkgo Adventures, a local outfitting company that we've backpacked with before. When I got the invitation I quickly signed up and put it on the calendar, then forgot about it until I got a reminder email a couple of days ago telling me to wear comfortable clothing and shoes, and bring water and an open mind.
The class was held at a camp about a half hour from my house. I thought I was going to be early, but some road construction and a detour left me scrambling, and I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes late. The rest of the group, a dozen people of varying ages, was already there. Jon led us back into the wooded area, where he'd laid out his equipment on a picnic table. After everyone signed the necessary waivers, he explained what we'd be doing, then everyone got their equipment (an arborist saddle with leg loops and a band that attached around the waist all hooked together with a carabiner, and a hard hat) and we moved over to the tree.
Jon explained we would be using a doubled-rope technique. He had already looped ropes over branches in the tree canopy, using a rope sleeve called a cambium saver to protect the tree. He demonstrated the climbing system, then everyone moved to a rope and waited to get attached. However, Jon had miscalculated and hadn't set up enough; I didn't have a rope! He solved the problem by letting me use "his" rope, which had a slightly different single-rope system. Soon my saddle was attached to the rope. Jon pulled all the slack out, and I was sitting slightly off the ground, feet dangling in the air. I learned that climbing a tree this way takes a combination of arm and leg strength. There's an ascender that's attached to the saddle, and a long loop of rope for a foot loop. First you stand in the footloop while advancing the rope attached to the saddle, then sit in the saddle and advance the foot loop.
I soon got in rhythm of climbing, and I was able to chat with the people that were close to me. As I worked on ascending, I looked up and noticed that my rope was on the highest branch. There was no way I was going to get up there! I stopped for a while and sat in my saddle just looking around. However, from the ground Jon pointed out that there was a branch jutting out two thirds of the way up that I could get to, and I decided to make that my goal. When I got close to the branch things got challenging. It was in the way of my rope, and I had to push away from the trunk with my feet so I could manipulate the ascender. The last few feet were really tough, but I made it! I swung my leg over the branch, then sat for a few minutes admiring the view.
When it was time to come down, I took the rope out of the ascender, pulled the handle up, and slowly rappelled to the ground. As he did for everyone, Jon was below me guiding the rope and making sure everything went well. When my feet hit the ground, I realized just how hard I'd been working; it took me a few minutes to unhook myself because my arms were shaking. I had a tiny cut on my knee from scrambling up on the branch, and when I took off my hard hat my hair was matted from the heat.
I wore my badges proudly as I walked back to my car. I earned them.