Anytime a product — truck, tool, software program, etc. — helps us go out and earn a living, we tend to develop a little loyalty toward it. When a product helps get the job done and keeps us safe in the process … well, that’s when a real bond develops. For tree climbers, not much matters more in terms of performance and safety than ropes and saddles/harnesses. We asked a few pros which of these products they count on and why.
Hanging on by a thread
When it comes to climbing ropes, the industry standard is a breaking strength of 5,400 pounds.
“Pretty much all the ropes I know of that are marketed for arborists far exceed that,” said Jeremy Williams, certified arborist and owner of Tree Climbers Tree Services in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Williams noted that there are three main types of rope construction most commonly used in arboriculture. First is 16-strand, “which is very abrasion-resistant, but also has quite a bit of stretch,” he explained. “A lot of older climbers use that, because it’s sort of an older style rope. Also, if you’re using natural unions (running the rope through branches), it holds up better.”
Williams prefers to use a double-braided rope, which offers a little higher performance.
“It’s a little more fragile; you have to use friction savers and pulleys and things like that to preserve the rope a bit, but it has a tighter weave, so it runs a little faster and a little smoother,” he said.
The final type of rope typically used by climbers is a kernmantle (or static) rope.
“That’s really only used for going up into the tops of trees; it’s not used for working,” Williams said. “Those have a parallel core with a braided cover. They’re very fragile as far as friction, but they’re also very strong and very low stretch, so if you’re foot-locking into the tree, a lot of climbers will use these and then switch to a different rope once they get to the top.”
Williams said the choice of rope doesn’t depend as much on the type of work being done (pruning versus removals, for example), as on the personal preference of the individual climber. One of the biggest considerations is how much “stretch” you like.
“Some ropes have a lot of stretch, up to 3 percent. With other ropes, it’s 1 percent,” he noted. “Some people like that little extra bit of bounce; there’s a little more of a safety factor because it can absorb some of the shock if you were to fall. But if you’re working on your rope at a weird angle, that same rope will give a little and you’ll move back and forth a little more than some people like.”
While there are many equipment — not to mention technique – tips to be gained by watching top climbing competitors, Williams said it’s important to consider how you use equipment in real-life situations on the job.
“For example, a lot of competitive climbers will use double-braided ropes, because in a competition you’re moving faster through the tree. In a work situation, that’s not as much of an issue,” he explained.
Ryan Bartlett, certified arborist and owner of Sanctuary Tree Service in Denver, uses a single line climbing technique with a rope wrench when working in big trees, and prefers a double rope system with a friction saver in smaller trees.
“I don’t like too much spring in the rope I use with the single line system, so I look for something with a little less give,” he explained. “I like 12- to 16-strand ropes, and I like the 11-millimeter size because I like the feel of it in my hand – it’s not so small that your hand cramps up because it’s hard to grab a hold of.” His climbing rope is from Yale, and his rigging line is by Samson.
Paul Guzenski, certified arborist and owner of Paul’s Tree Service in Alaska, started in the business using Safety Blue ropes (from New England Ropes), and more recently has been using Yale’s Poison Hi-vy ropes.
“I really like that; it stays pretty supple, even in the cold we have here in Alaska. When it’s really, really cold, the rope doesn’t seem to suck in the water as much and freeze up as quickly. And it’s always stayed round and hasn’t flattened out on me. I also like the splicability,” he explained.
Guzenski said he tries to swap out to a new rope every year.
“We have a very defined season here, and the off-season is a good time to rotate out gear and retire things. It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll let it go a little bit longer … but it’s good to go through all your gear and make sure you’re climbing on safe stuff,” he advised.
By the seat of your pants
Guzenski uses an A.R.T. Tree Austria 3.1 harness.
“I like the quick clips and all the other convenient features,” he said.
Prior to that he was using a different brand of saddle that used a floating D-ring. Guzenski said the switch to the quick clip system didn’t require much of a change in his climbing style; that definitely was the case years ago, though, when he initially moved from a fixed D to floating D saddle.
“That change opened up a whole new world, because my lower back and butt weren’t burning by the end of the day,” he explained. “The biggest thing is to find one that’s comfortable to you; that just means you can spend more time in the saddle without it bothering you.”
Guzenski’s most recent saddle purchase was made for practicality as well as comfort.
“The replaceable parts on the A.R.T. Tree Austria 3.1 was part of what sold me; when the bridge wears out, I can replace it. Where on the old one, as soon as that leather strap wore out the whole saddle was pretty much done.”
He uses the new saddle for all types of jobs.
“You can change it from leg whips to a bottom seat, so if I’m doing something like installing Christmas lighting, I’ll throw the bottom seat on so I’m basically just sitting down throughout the day,” Guzenski added.
Bartlett has used the same style Weaver (model 27617) saddle since he entered the tree care profession 15 years ago.
About five years ago, when he was preparing to take part in a tree climbing competition, Bartlett switched to a different, lighter saddle. “I hated it. Everyone I knew asked, ‘What happened to you? You’re so slow now.’ So I went back to the old leather Weaver. I love it,” Bartlett explained.
“It’s heavier, but it works for me. It’s a comfort thing. And I like the floating bridge … it’s a flat band that’s almost 2 inches wide; I just trust it.”
Another climber at Sanctuary uses the lighter Weaver Cougar harness that Bartlett tried and loves it.
“He forgot it one day about a month ago and spent the day in my saddle, and he absolutely hated it. It’s really personal preference,” said Bartlett, who calls his saddle “semi-old-school.” Joking, he said, “I wish I could say I run the expensive saddles, but I don’t, I’m cheap! It’s not my style.”
Williams prefers to use a treeMOTION harness by Treemagineers.
“That’s my personal favorite,” he stated. “Pretty much all saddles [available for sale now] will meet the safety requirements, so safety isn’t as big of a consideration anymore – it’s fit and function and what you’re doing.”
He appreciates the light weight of the treeMOTION, and the range of motion it provides him when pruning, which represents the majority of his climbing work.
Williams has friends in the business who like Ergovation saddles by Buckingham.
“That seems to be the favorite for those doing a lot of removals; that harness seems to work better in that application,” he noted. It is built a little heavier and can better handle the weight of a bigger saw, explained Williams. Another climber in his company prefers a Petzl Sequoia harness, because it’s extremely light and does a decent job of handling medium-sized saws and is less expensive than some other options on the market.
“Saddles come down basically to personal preference,” Williams concluded. “Each person’s body is slightly different, and each saddle is made a little differently.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated.