Editor’s note: The fundamentals covered in this article are just some of the many things that climbers need to know to be efficient and proficient. It’s important for anyone new to climbing, or who has years of experience but never received formal training, to take a comprehensive class.
There are some pursuits in life, like scrapbooking or watercolor painting, where you can figure it out as you go. Climbing trees — safely and properly — is not one of those things. While there’s room for tweaks based on personal preference, there very definitely are right and wrong, safe and unsafe, efficient and inefficient ways of doing almost everything when it comes to climbing.
We asked a few climbing instructors about some of the most important fundamentals they cover when teaching students how to climb in order to work aloft:
- Gary Gross is president of the New England Tree Climbing Association, a group of six schools in the Northeast that train those who want to work in the tree care profession, as well as some recreational tree climbers. One of the first things Gross covers in his trainings are the names of the various gear and techniques
- What may seem obvious to those who are experienced climbers may be new to those just getting started. Take ropes, for example. “We convey that you can’t use just any rope, and that you can’t go by the size of the rope in determining how strong it is. We will show students pieces of rope where the fatter one is rated for 150 pounds and the thinner one is rated for 1,500 pounds,” says Gross.
- Knowledge about gear is important, but gear alone doesn’t make a climber more proficient, says J. David Mattox, forestry supervisor with the city of Manhattan, Kansas, and an arborist who teaches climbing classes, including for the Kansas Arborists Association’s week-long Arborist Training Program. “Gear is cool — there’s a lot of great gear out there these days, and it’s easy to get carried away and start wanting to accumulate a lot of gear,” says Mattox.
- Mattox explains that new climbers should begin by focusing on just the basics. “When I started, there were only a few different kinds of rope, for example. Now there are dozens of different types of rope with different characteristics, and some of it is compatible with some gear and some isn’t,” he says. “So, it’s easy for new climbers to get confused and overwhelmed and end up with a system that isn’t compatible within itself.”
- In his trainings, Mattox emphasizes a foundation built on the very basics of a climbing system: “a rope and a saddle and a basic bowline tie-in and a Blake’s hitch and figure-8 terminations,” for example.
- Learning to tie a variety of different knots correctly is essential to climbing safely and improving as a climber, stresses Mattox. And there’s a right and wrong way to do this: “One bad habit I encounter is ‘knot tricks’ — learning knots through some sort of mnemonic technique (like the bowline knot, which is sometimes explained as a rabbit coming up out of its hole and going around a tree),” says Mattox. “You need to learn to know a knot by the actual elements of the knot, because if you learn to tie a knot with a trick, you don’t actually know if you have the knot tied correctly or not.” He says he’s a big believer in knot practice: “You know your knots well enough when you can tie them blindfolded or behind your back, preferably both,” he explains, because that’s sometime roughly what you need to do in a tree.
- When learning to tie knots, it’s also important to learn the concept of controlling slack, says Mattox, “so you don’t get all kinds of slack and extra rope that confuses you when you’re tying the knot.”
Starting at ground level
- Successful climbing begins before you ever get in a tree, say the experts. Ben Larson, an arborist and owner of Bluebird Tree Care in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has taught climbing classes for Spokane Community College in Washington for three years. It’s a 32-hour program spread out over eight weeks. Before even looking at a tree, he starts with classroom instruction on things like forces and equipment, including details like the ratings of carabiners. He also covers ANSI standards, how to inspect ropes and other safety information. Then there’s knot-tying and more.
- While admittedly dry, these are things that climbers need to know, says Larson. “Unfortunately, many companies will just throw a guy a harness and say, ‘Here you go,’” he notes. “You need to start with a good basis.”
- There’s more prep work to do once outside and on-site. “One of the more critical elements of climbing is inspecting the tree for safety,” emphasizes Gross. “You need to look at things like whether the branches are dead; whether there’s a lot of root exposure; whether there’s insect damage… because you’re going to be hanging on a rope up there and you want to make sure your anchor is secure.” Mistakes made in this area can be deadly, he points out, so learning how to properly assess a tree is essential to becoming a safe, proficient climber.
- Mattox agrees, noting that while it’s easy for those just starting out to focus only on the technical aspects of climbing, a proficient climber needs to also be aware of the tree. For instance, he says that climbers should learn about and be aware of the relative wood strengths of different tree species: “A cottonwood is not nearly as strong as a bur oak, for example.”
- Mattox also advises learning how to identify things like squirrel damage and cavities in the tree. “Have that species awareness and be aware of what that sunken patch of bark or that black patch that may be a canker and indicate the tree is compromised — all of these things mean something… it takes time to develop that judgment…but the more time you take to develop that judgment, the better you’ll be able to do it.”
Up in the tree
- Climbers learn early on in trainings how to get a rope up in a tree and what sort of tie-ins to look for: Ideally, tie-in points should be high (above where you’ll be working) and centrally located in the tree, says Mattox.
- Becoming a truly proficient climber means taking this general knowledge and applying it to the specific tree being climbed and the work being done. This means developing a work plan, Mattox explains. That work plan would, for example, identify the best tie-in points for that tree. “When you put the rope up in the tree, you need to get it over something that’s sizable enough and secure enough to hold you while you make your ascent — that’s primary,” says Mattox. “Also, as you enter the tree, you want to position your rope high enough that it gives you a good place to make entry into a tree, so that you don’t climb up and find yourself under a big lateral branch that you’ll have to throw and leg over or muscle your way around — you want to position your entry to where you can climb up and step off on a nice lateral branch and be secure when you hook your lanyard to it.”
- Another factor that will influence the choice of tie-ins is the type of work being done, Mattox adds: “If you’re just going to remove a broken, hanging limb on one side, you’ll approach the tree differently than if you’re going to prune the tree or possibly remove the tree. You need to plan where you’re going to end up in the tree accordingly. Look the tree over, visualize what you’re wanting to accomplish and how you’re going to go about that. And then realize that the tree will probably trick you!”
- Once tied in and working in a tree, “the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) says you’re supposed to be anchored in two places,” says Gross, “so we teach students how to get that second anchor and how to bring up the safety lanyard and… how to loop that over another branch or around the tree.” The main anchor point still needs to be able to hold you, he emphasizes, but the safety lanyard provides not only backup but also the ability to pull yourself left or right, etc., as work needs to be done.
- “With some of these adjustable safety lanyards that you loop around a branch or the tree, you can use them to…help you move around in the tree, while the whole time being anchored in at two places,” Gross explains. In some cases, it can be used to help pull a climber back away from the tree.”
- Let’s say you’re going to be using your chain saw, but you’re right up on top of your work, so the blade is too close to you — you can use a safety lanyard over a branch that’s over your shoulder or behind you to pull your body back away,” Gross says. Getting into the proper position in the tree to do work is critical from both a safety and an efficiency standpoint.
- On that topic, Mattox says that one of the hardest things to teach a new climber is to use the work positioning system as it’s intended to be used: “Lean back in that saddle, get a wide stance with your feet so that you’ll be secure and you can use your hands to move around,” he explains. “Instead, they want to hug the tree and get as close to it as possible…. You need to learn to trust the system.”
- As far as technique goes, many climbing instructors, including Larson, start students with double-rope, and primarily focus on this technique: “I think it’s a little safer and a little easier.” He does at least introduce students to single-rope technique near the end of his trainings. He also discusses things like rope wrenches and ascenders, and talks about the advantages and disadvantages of the different techniques. “But I do think that you should always learn double-rope first,” emphasizes Larson. “Single-rope is a little more for advanced climbers.”
Room for improvement
- Larson says that, when it comes to improving as a climber, watching others is helpful but there’s no substitute for getting in a tree yourself and practicing, preferably in a nonproduction setting at first. Trying to learn on the job is difficult, he says: “You can be an apprentice in some industries, but if you’re up in a tree, you’d better know what you’re doing.”
- Larson explains that as they progress, climbers can benefit from “a lot of little tricks that can just save a whole lot of labor.” This includes throwline tricks such as “the trick stick” of placing a stick on the string to get it to walk into the crotch of the tree where you want it, and throwing techniques for getting good, high tie-in points. “If you can get a good, high tie-in for either a removal or pruning job, it’s going to save you a ton of labor in trying to just scramble up there,” he explains. “There are a lot of little tricks…to help you be efficient and save energy.”
- To be proficient, a climber needs to be efficient, stresses Gross. One key lesson to learn: “It’s legs; it’s not arms,” he says. “When people see a person go up in a tree, they say, ‘Wow, that’s like Tarzan.’ But it’s all about legs. If you can climb a ladder, you can climb a rope. You’re using foot loops and other techniques, but basically you’re just bending your knees and standing up, the equivalent of going up a ladder in terms of force.”
- If you learn to climb properly, “you’re not only going to come home safe to your family at night, your body is going to be in a lot better shape in 20 years, too,” says Gross.
- If you want to improve and become a more proficient climber, you need to push yourself, says Mattox. “To keep progressing in the way you need to, you need to be confronted with work situations that challenge you,” he states. “A lot of people won’t progress much if they’re left to their own comfort level; you increase your skills by pushing that comfort level as you gain experience with work.”