Many a late night discussion, sometimes of a heated nature, has occurred wherever tree people gather over what is the best method of ascent. While speed and efficiency are certainly important while gettin’ up yonder, climbers would be well advised to consider much of their ascent as the commute to work.

Certain systems and methods allow for pruning and other tree care activities to be carried out during the ascent. This multitasking does have great value, but the bread and butter of tree care, whether it be pruning or removal, involves moving around the canopy safely and efficiently. Thus the methods of canopy movement should also be at the forefront of tree folks’ thought processes.

The number of techniques and even unique tools that facilitate canopy movement are far too many to be discussed in any coherent form here, but an introduction to some of the basic considerations and possibilities of safe, efficient canopy movement will assist climbing arborists to start movin’ around above the ground in a more efficient fashion.

Triangles are strong

Most climbers at what time or another, typically in the early part of their careers or perhaps at a competition, have heard someone bellow out, “Watch your rope angle!” While yelling at someone about something they may or may not understand is not the best teaching technique – as is the case with most bellowed instructions — it is well intended.

The most basic method of staying balanced, secure and safe while moving through the canopy is to have an advantageous rope angle. Now for those who may have dozed through geometry during their scholastic career, this nebulous term “rope angle” refers to the angle of the climber’s line to the tie-in point. Simply put, the higher the TIP is above the climber with the rope following a fairly unobstructed path, the better the rope angle is, and the more secure and safe the climber is.

Unfortunately, this rope angle is only good and helpful if used correctly. The climber needs to keep his weight in the line, leaning back into it to create a nice straight side to the overall triangle that is the goal. The other two sides of this triangle of strength and climbing beauty are created by the branch or surface the climber is upon and the trunk or lead that leads to the tie-in point. When all three sides of the triangle are in alignment and bearing part of the load the climber will find himself in a position of strength, safety and security. As movement takes place and the angle of the different sides changes, adjustments will need to be made to balance the load, such as pulling slack from beneath the hitch on the climbing line as the branch begins to taper and sag. Maintaining a good rope angle, along with its attendant triangle, can enable a climber to make pruning cuts and move along branches safely and securely with his weight in the rope.

Two are better than one

A double tie-in is meant to provide more support and security to a climber, but can also allow for lateral movement through open branch- free areas in the canopy, or even from one tree to another. This technique consists of two tie-in points for the climber, though a single line can be used, or two separate ones if so desired.

When using a single line, the running end, or unused end, of the climbing line is passed through the second TIP and attached to the climber by the chosen climbing hitch. The climber is now effectively suspended between two points in the tree, putting them at the point of an inverted triangle and greatly improving security and balance.

As with many simple techniques, there are some downsides to using a single climbing line through a “naked” crotch as a second tie-in point. One is that the standing part of the line that hangs in a loop beneath the climber not only has the possibility of hanging on a branch or stub during movement, but also limits how far he may be able to descend, as he is using both ends of the climbing line. In addition, a climbing line running over the bark of the second TIP may not only damage the tree due to friction, but may seriously impair movement through that same friction.

The presence of two climbing hitches can also be cumbersome and difficult whether using one line or two, thus the refinement developed by Mark Chisolm wherein the climber passes the working end of the line through a carabiner or even pulley at the central anchor point of the harness. The working end then goes up and through the second TIP and is secured back to the harness. The climber now has the advantage of two TIPs with only one climbing hitch to manage, and a running end of the line that dangles freely. Descent beyond a certain point can still be an issue for the climber using this method due to the increased amount of rope in the system, but there is not a loop to catch on anything.

Improving that angle

As most climbers know, exposure grows the further out on the branch one goes, and this means exposure to falls or swings. The rope angle may be excellent, but due to the distance traveled away from the vertical leg of the climbing triangle, a misstep can lead to a vicious swing back in.

The use of natural or manufactured redirects can either improve a poor rope angle or mitigate the severity of a swing. A natural redirect is simply descending down through a branch union or over a horizontal branch above the desired work location. The branch union or branch then redirects the climbing line, preventing exposure to a dangerous swing back in toward the trunk in the case of loss of balance or uncontrolled movement.

Manufactured redirects take many shapes and forms, but are primarily the use of webbing, carabiners, pulleys and a variety of other gear to create either a redirect where no branch union exists, or to create a redirect with less friction than the natural redirect might produce. The intention, as with natural redirects, is to prevent exposure to a dangerous swing, or in some cases improve a poor rope angle. Manufactured redirects should meet the standards required for personal support even though they are not the climber’s primary means of support. This is for the simple reason that in the event of a failure the climber will be exposed to exactly the dangerous, uncontrolled movement they were trying to avoid by using the redirect.

Fairleads lead the rope fairly and smoothly

The use of a fairlead pulley beneath the climbing hitch, though quite simple and basic, provides large benefits during canopy movement. The pulley directs the climbing line into the hitch in a straight, unobstructed manner, or leads the climbing line into the hitch fairly, thus preventing the necessity of tailing or dragging slack climbing line over or around a branch or trunk to help the hitch function smoothly. In addition, the use of a fairlead pulley can enable climbers who think ahead to avoid second ascents.

As an example, a climber can descend over a natural redirect working one area of the tree while leaving the running end of his line on the other side of the redirect. When he wishes to move back into the trunk or to a different area of the canopy, he need not ascend back up above the redirect. He simply secures himself in place with a lanyard, ties slip hitches above and below his climbing system to prevent movement, detaches from the climbing line, and uses the tail or running end of the line to pull the climbing system/hitch up and over the natural redirect and back to himself.

While this can certainly be done without a fairlead pulley, the climber would have been “fighting” the friction or “tailing” the rope throughout the original descent, and the fairlead reduces that particular frustration.

The commute to work is important; after all, if one doesn’t get to the worksite high in the canopy, not much work can get done. Once there, moving around safely and efficiently is what helps climbing arborists do what the particular tree requires. Canopy movement styles and techniques are as personal and individual as the tree folks who use them, but the brief introduction to the techniques discussed here can assist climbers in developing skills that will help them move around above the ground safely and efficiently

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2014 and has been updated for accuracy.