One of the beauties and wonders of our profession of climbing and working in trees is the almost constant evolution and development of new techniques, methods and equipment. Having worked in a number of fields and industries prior to, and in addition to, tree care, I cannot help but be impressed not only by the innovation and creativity shown by climbing arborists, but also the speed with which new methods, techniques and gear are disseminated across our work world. A part of this is probably due to the number of informational/discussion resources available to progressive tree folk—Web sites, competitions, discussion pages, magazines, professional organizations, seminars, training organizations, etc.—yet, just being exposed to new possibilities and having the information available to access and examine is not enough of an answer, the impressive part is the willingness of many within the industry to try new things, adjust them to their particular needs or desires and integrate it into their work practices.
However, this admirable quickness to adopt new methods or gear is not always fully thought out and examined, and sometimes results in unsafe work practices and even tragic consequences. On the opposite end of the spectrum, as many of us well know, this innovation and willingness to try new methods is looked at askance, and there are many that are skeptical of any technique or piece of equipment that they are not familiar with. My belief is that in many cases, the most appropriate position is somewhere in the middle. Innovation and creativity must be encouraged, otherwise our profession will grow stagnant, but it must not be done at the expense of ease of use, safety and efficiency. Conversely, those who have a piece of gear or method—as long as it is safe—that they are comfortable and familiar with should not be forced to adopt a new and improved technique or piece of equipment simply because it is new and improved. So, how do we find this place where safe innovation and familiarity meet?
Our professional standards, regulations and best practices, such as the ANSI Z133.1-2006, would be the obvious place to start; and though they provide excellent guidelines and “broad brush” requirements, they do not currently provide the level of detail needed to explain the safe use and application of every new ascender, piece of cordage, connecting link, etc., that is available, nor, in my opinion, should they attempt to do so. The speed and frequency with which new gear arrives on the arboricultural scene is such that it would be close to impossible task for regulators to keep up without shackling innovation and use. However, any conscientious and law-abiding arborist must examine and evaluate new gear within the broad framework the standards currently provide regarding breaking strengths, locking mechanisms/methods, etc., and ensure they are using the equipment correctly and appropriately to the best of their knowledge.
Until fairly recently, there has been a lack of true quantifiable research into the many types of new gear available in the actual applications climbing arborists subject it to, applications that often differ from the ones the manufacturers intended, however slightly. Thankfully, this is changing, with many organizations and individuals now scientifically testing and evaluating different gear in different applications and publishing their results. Dr. Brian Kane and Ed Carpenter of the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, and Mark Bridge, Chris Cowell and Bernd Strasser of Treemagineers in Europe are two examples of tree care professionals conducting research into these issues. Additionally, manufacturers and retailers such as Samson Rope, Yale Cordage and Sherrill Tree are taking a more active role in researching how their products respond and react in their end user role in addition to their already current manufacturer specifications testing.
The amount and variety of rope and cordage available to climbing arborists has expanded exponentially in recent years, incorporating desired features such as greater strengths and increased heat/abrasion resistance. There are now rope products available with equal or greater strength than equivalently sized steel cable, yet are much lower weight and stretch less. However, with these advantages come concerns. For example, a heat-resistant cord used for a climbing hitch may last longer without melting, but the frictional heat produced is going to go somewhere, either into the user’s hand or into the perhaps non-heat-resistant climbing line. A very high-strength, but low-stretch rope used as a rigging line will handle massive loads without breaking, but will in turn pass on that massive force to the block, sling and part of the tree that is the rigging point.
There are, as of yet, very few ascent/descent devices that have been designed and developed exclusively for the tree care industry. This is probably due to the size of our market in comparison to the much larger industrial rope access and recreational fields. This does not mean that ascent/descent devices meant for other applications are not suitable for our profession, but it does mean that the obligation is ours to ensure that we are using these devices in the manner they are intended to be used. Hopefully, further research and testing within the industry will help us as individual users learn the benefits and limitations of such devices, but, in the meantime, we must examine these devices, their uses and breaking strengths closely, perhaps even contacting the manufacturers to ensure that they are appropriate for our intended use.
Knots and hitches
As most tree care professionals know, the manufacturer published breaking strength of a rope is based on a straight pull, with no knot or hitch being part of the equation. Although there may be some variation between manufacturers’ testing methods, such as cyclical loading, number of cycles, etc., no breaking strengths include an allowance for the manner in which the rope is attached to a load or climber, although some do offer a “spliced breaking strength.” The standards require that an arborist’s climbing line or any cordage used for personal support have a breaking strength of 5,400 pounds, but the method in which that climbing line/cordage is attached to the climber may decrease that strength considerably, so tree care professionals should examine the research available to see exactly how much rope strength they are retaining with their chosen attachment method. Additionally, there are a wide variety of types of climbing hitches available, all of them offering one benefit or another, yet there has been little research done and published on their security and ease of use. Hopefully, data will soon be available that will fill in some of the blanks as to what loads various climbing hitches slip under, and what effect the use of different fibers/cordages has on this slippage. For now, we should examine our favored hitches closely with an eye toward their dependability and security.
I realize that this discussion contains far more questions than answers, but those questions are really what are important, for if we do not take the time to think, examine and ask those questions prior to incorporating new gear or techniques, we may find ourselves high in the canopy with larger problems and questions on our hands. Efficiency and safety are the lifeblood of our profession, and innovation and creativity, properly employed, can increase our safety and efficiency. Standards, regulations and best practices all play a role in maintaining our safety and efficiency, but the first, and in my mind the best, role in this process is our own creative and inquisitive professional tree climbing minds. Let us use those minds to find that middle ground where innovation and familiarity meet.
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.