Spurs, gaffs, hooks, spikes and climbers, are all names for the same simple piece of gear, depending on where you are in the world. This simple piece of gear requires a lot more training and education to use safely and efficiently than is commonly realized. After all, most experienced tree care professionals would laugh at the idea of tossing a footlock Prusik to a crew member new to the industry and telling them to start footlocking, with no education or training, but how often have spurs and a belt been given to the newbie with the instructions, “Get on up there?” There is no doubt that spurs, or climbers, which is the technically correct name, are easier to use than some of the more complex methods and techniques of rope and harness climbing, but spur climbing does have its own share of quirks and techniques that are best learned in a school other than that of hard knocks. Practice, hands-on training and experience will, as always, be the best teacher when it comes to spur climbing, but a general knowledge of some basic principles and techniques will start a climber new to spurs down the right path.
One of the most basic principles of spur climbing is when they should be used, unfortunately, this is also a principle that is most often violated. Spurs should only be used on a tree that is dead or being removed and should never be used in pruning or otherwise maintaining a live tree, regardless of how much easier the user might think the use of spurs will make the job. Spurs, by their very design, cause injuries to a tree. In addition, many removals themselves, depending on the tree structure, may be easier, safer and more efficient, without spurs until absolutely necessary. A smooth spar or coniferous tree will often require the use of spurs in its removal, but a large, spreading deciduous tree requiring a lot of limb walking may be much more quickly removed through rope and harness methods, with spurs only being needed for the final spar removal.
Care of spurs
Some basic maintenance and care of spurs will go a long way toward making their use safer and easier. An excellent way to minimize the amount of maintenance needed is to put on and take off the climbers at the base of the tree. Not only is there no need to be striding around the work site aerating the customer’s lawn with the spurs, the wear and tear on the gaffs themselves from rocks, gravel and debris decreases their effectiveness, and the possibility of a trip or slip with the accompanying self-inflicted spur puncture is a real possibility. Many modern climbers are adjustable for different users, and, for pain-free use, should be adjusted to the individual user. The top of the shank, the long metal bar or shaft that comes up the inside of the calf, should be about two fingers width below the bony protrusion at the inside of the wearer’s knee. This height will help prevent the top of the shank from being too low and digging into the user’s calf muscle, while also keeping it from being too high and grinding into the bones of the inner knee. Boots with a stiffened shank beneath the foot will also help prevent foot pain when using spurs for extended periods; and though deep heels will help keep the stirrup in place beneath the foot, a wrap of the lower strap over, around and then under the shank will also fix the climber in place regardless of heel size. The gaffs, the sharp metal spikes that plane into the wood providing purchase, are a key component of spur/climber maintenance. Most manufacturers have guides for their particular gaffs in regard to angles and sharpening, and their use is highly recommended. In general, gaffs should always be sharpened from the inside with a file outward, toward and over the tip. The beehive or curved outer edges of the gaff should never be sharpened with a file and can be touctitle up with a whetstone if needed.
Tree or pole?
The majority of newly purchased spurs or climbers come already equipped with tree gaffs. Tree gaffs are significantly longer than pole gaffs, but are usually only necessary in extremely thick-barked trees, such as the large conifers of the Pacific Northwest. Pole gaffs, though intended for bark-free utility poles, actually work well for most trees, and are particularly useful in trees with harder wood where the gaff does not penetrate that deeply, leaving the user of tree gaffs feeling as if they are teetering on stilts. Although entry-level spurs or climbers may not have the option, a quality pair of climbers will allow for switching worn or inappropriately sized gaffs.
Pads or straps
There is a wide variety of attachment options on modern climbers/spurs; in fact, it is quite remarkable when one realizes that this 19th century tool, unchanged for so many years, has undergone such a wide variety of changes in materials and attachment methods in the last decade. Straps, either leather or the belted material sometimes known as pleather, are the traditional method of securing the upper of the climber to the user’s calf. There are now pads that secure with Velcro, some with moldable stiffened inserts, carbon fiber sheaths that fit around the user’s leg, and even stiffened plastic sleeves with ratcheting straps that encompass the length of the calf. All of these options are certainly safe and reasonable, and which one to choose will rest with personal preference and how often spurs/climbers are used in work activities, not to mention the extent of existing equipment budgets.
To tie or not to tie
Any climber who has had the distinct and unfortunate pleasure to have their gaffs “kick out,” leaving them to slide unencumbered down a rough and unforgiving wood surface until friction, or the ground, brings them to an abrupt stop, will probably readily admit the beauty of having an overhead tie-in point while spur climbing. Although sometimes not possible, being tied in is highly recommended for a number of reasons including the aforementioned “kick out.” In the case of a lower body injury to the climber, the likelihood of spurring down to self-rescue is unlikely, while an overhead tie-in allows descent with only one hand functional. Additionally, an overhead tie-in allows for greater and more secure movement laterally, while spurs and a lanyard limit the climber to pretty much the length of their arms and upper body. The Adjustable Friction Saver, Odis Sisk’s Monkey Tail, Running Bowline or some other form of choking system will also provide a tie-in point on a smooth spar where the tree structure does not readily provide one; and most of these can be advanced up the tree when ascending on spurs, allowing for descent at any moment as needed.
The following are some basic techniques that will assist in making spur climbing easier, safer and more efficient.
• Determine the tree’s lean, and climb on the upper side of the lean whenever possible, thus avoiding having to climb “uphill.”
• Draw an imaginary line down the center of the trunk and keep both feet near, but on opposite sides of, the line.
• “Jamming” or “kicking” the gaffs into the trunk should not be necessary, and wastes time and energy. Properly sharpened and maintained gaffs will slide into most trees securely with just the body weight of the user shifting onto the gaff when ascending or descending.
• The diameter of the tree will determine the distance between the feet, but it should not exceed shoulder width if possible.
• Stepping upward in small steps will save energy and end up being more efficient. Remember, the climb up is simply the commute to work.
• Work positioning lanyards should not fall any lower than the user’s knees and go no higher than their shoulders
• Arborists new to spur/climber use should advance their lanyard between upward steps. With practice it will become possible to advance it while stepping.
• Knees should remain bent while climbing, although when in a stationary position, particularly when the feet are at differing heights, locking one knee will increase comfort. Also, when in a stationary position for any length of time, move the feet periodically to prevent the gaffs from sinking ever deeper into the wood beneath the body’s pressure.
• Gloves of some sort are an excellent idea when using spurs to protect the knuckles and fingers from pinching and abrasion between the lanyard and the trunk.
The proper and safe use of spurs in removals is an excellent tool to have in one’s mental toolbox, but beware of mistaking the simplicity of the tool for a simple and easy technique. Spurs/climbers are not that complex, but using them safely and efficiently can be; and hopefully the basic principles and techniques discussed here will make that complexity a little bit easier to understand and master.
Michael (House) Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions/Arbor Canada Training and Education, currently located in Lancaster, Ky.