Tree Climbing, September 2013

While not exactly travel related (too close to home for that), this was an interesting way to spend a September afternoon.

I went on a tree climbing course, where you learn, not surprisingly, how to climb up trees.

And that turned out to be fun.

This was a bit unexpected, since I'm not really suited for climbing. And there are no mountains nearby, so 'proper' climbing isn't much of an option anyway. (And sports climbing is quite hard to do and requires much more training, fitness and dedication than I would ever spend on it.)

But tree climbing is quite different.

It's more like industrial rope access than alpine or sports climbing.

While the goal with other climbing is usually to climb the boulder or mountain as 'free' as possible, with the rope primarily as a safety device (or, in extreme cases, without any rope at all), with tree climbing the rope is the primary tool and you try to interact with the tree as little as possible.

And it's also something that can be done about anywhere in the woods, so there's no need to go to specific climbing sites. And there are some technical toys involved (always a bonus). And the equipment needed is reasonably constrained (no need to carry a dozen different cams and nuts on your belt, just in case you happen to need them halfway up a rock face). And tree climbing is something where it's easy to stop if you're uncomfortable. If you're not happy with a situation, you can be safely back on solid ground half a minute later.

So, all in all, it's something that suited me surprisingly well.

And it is also fun.

As it's a fairly stupid idea to head out to a store, buy a bunch of equipment and head into the woods, doing a course first seemed sensible..

We started out with the unavoidable thing - knots.

I'm not that good at memorizing them, but luckily, the number of knots needed is fairly limited. There were six of them, but as half of them were variants of other ones, there were only three methods of doing them that we really needed to remember.

And before climbing the rope, there was the issue of getting it into the tree, so we had some basic instruction of using a throwing or pilot line over some branch far above to pull up the climbing rope. (Or, more specifically, get up some belt over the branch to which the actual rope is attached, to reduce wear and tear on the tree bark.)

Pilot line

After getting the rope properly set up and safely attached to the tree, it was time to do some climbing.

At first, we used a tree with some low branches and close supervision by the trainer.

And, just to give us an idea how easy we were having it later on, the first task was to climb the rope the 'classic way'. Or, in other words: Assume that you are in the woods, want to get up a tree, have a lot of rope and slings, but no ascenders.

This means using the prusik technique of tying two slings to the rope (one for the body, one for the foot) and, shifting weight from one to the other, push the empty one up or down the rope.

This is quite slow and exhausting. Unless you're fairly fit and bendy, every move, roughly equivalent to an exercise squat, brings a gain of about ten centimeters. So if you're trying to reach a ten meter high branch, you're doing roughly a hundred exercise squats - doable, but tedious.

And the (slightly) annoying thing is that going down takes the same amount of effort.

Of course, there's always the possibility to unhook from the prusik slings and attach yourself to a rappel-eight and descend quickly, but changing set-up while dangling from the rope always adds a bit of uncertainty.

But after doing it 'old-school' once, we did switch to modern ascenders, which make going up a lot easier.

Low branch tree climbing Low branch tree climbing

Climbing with a a belay device clipped to the climbing belt and an ascender with a foot loop reduces the effort of getting up the rope to about twice the effort of walking up stairs.

And you can just pull a lever to rappel back down to the ground.

So after we got the basics right, we were sent in groups of two to some larger trees and were told to apply what we had learned.

Climbing a rope up a tree Climbing a rope up a tree

Climbing up and down the tree was quite nice (especially on an unexpectedly sunny autumn day).

A big advantage of doing a tree climbing course (as opposed, let's say, getting tutored by someone who already does tree climbing) is the choice of equipment (at least on the tour I was on).

There are a couple of different belay devices and ascenders (such as a Rig, a GriGri, an ID) and while there are pros and cons for each, there isn't really a 'best' choice.

It's mostly down to personal preference and what you're comfortable with. So if you go climbing with someone who already made the choice, it's likely that you just get the same. But on the tree climbing course, different devices were available (and left- and right-handed ascenders, which make a big difference in climbing, but are also a matter of personal taste), so we could play around with all of them and form our own opinions.

Selection of belay devices

So it was an afternoon well spent - a fun day out and also a lot of new things to learn (and it is also very, very tempting now to buy the gear and head for the woods...)

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