The joy of climbing trees
By Leonie Sherman
Climbers hate Santa Cruz. Sure, we love the rolling meadows, the beaches, and the abundant microbreweries, but the gentle climate, organic food and natural beauty can’t quite compensate for the complete and utter lack of climbable rock. Our closest crag, Castle Rock State Park, is a 45 minute drive. So we frequent the best climbing gym in the state, where we socialize and follow tape and forget the exhilaration that inspired us to pull harder in the first place.
Until one day, out for a hike, the climber looks up. And a whole world reveals itself in the trees.
Climbing the majestic redwoods, sprawling oaks and stately Douglas firs of the temperate coastal rainforest offers challenge, adventure and reward with no carbon footprint. For those afflicted with the immobilizing combination of climbing-lust and carbon-guilt, trees offer excitement and practice all without the tarnish of spewing poison into the atmosphere. Pulling yourself to the top of a tree is an eco-friendly way to get your climb on.
While some contemplate the impact of their recreation on the planet, others contemplate the impact of their recreation on the wallet. For those afflicted with the immobilizing combination of climbing-lust and poverty, trees offer a creative training ground, right in your backyard. Pulling yourself to the top of a tree is a cheap way to get your climb on.
Whatever the state of your bank account or your conscience, there’s probably a tree near you that demands your attention.
Within walking distance of my house is a tree that Chris Sharma used to climb. The bottom twenty feet require trust in tenuous bark holds. Sweeping branches, some as thick a a horse’s back, some as slender as a child’s wrist, lead to delicate traverses. The summit is adorned with tattered prayer flags and offers a stunning view of the Monterey Bay stretching away to the distant curve of the planet. All the joy of an alpine climb, and I can be surfing or back at work by the afternoon.
Within biking or hiking distance of my home there are live oaks which require more poise and balance than advanced gymnastics, madrones that provide an arboreal reclining chair ten feet off the ground, and cork oaks that offer simple fun. I’ve seen a friend balance on a graceful redwood limb a hundred feet high and leap onto the slim branch of a neighboring tree. I watched an eleven-year old climb seventy feet up a dying Monterey pine. You can choose your level of challenge, uncertainty and commitment. Welcome to the freedom of the trees.
Just like mountain-climbing, the recreational sport of tree-climbing requires skill, experience and equipment. The goal is to challenge yourself physically and mentally, to enjoy panoramic vistas without damage to yourself or the environment. The price of admission is the respect and humility to climb sensitively, without leaving trace of our passage.
Some argue there is no ethical way to free climb a tree; any impact is too much. For those who adhere to this view, attach a weight to your rope and fling it over a branch. Pull it down so you have both ends of the rope touching the ground; now you have a fixed line that you can climb with ascenders or prussiks without touching the tree. When you reach the limb supporting your rope, anchor off, throw the rope over a higher branch, pull it double, rinse and repeat. Once you’ve reached the top, or had enough, simply rappel down.
I’ve climbed the same redwood for over a decade and it’s still vibrant and healthy, so I don’t feel this ethical constraint. Sure, there are some signs of wear on the bark at the base; I liken those to ducks marking a popular off-trail route in the mountains. On the days I want to be safe or push my limits, I bring a partner, a rope and a bunch of slings. The same method for setting a fixed line provides a bomb-proof top rope.
With a belay and a little bit of imagination, you can practice any technique available in a gym – cracks, crimpers, chimneying, stemming, pinch-holds – at a tree near you. Instead of searching for the right color tape at your local climbing gym you can search for the right hold. Instead of listening to pop music, you can listen to birdsong. Instead of chatting with friends about what they did last night you can sink into the present moment.
Over the course of a decade of tree-climbing in Santa Cruz, I’ve grown fond of certain trees, the same way a Yosemite climber has favorite routes. Knowledge of your local forest and intimacy with the land is an unexpected bonus of this unconventional past-time.
Just like on the rocks, every once in a while I enjoy the untethered freedom of calculated risk. When I free solo in the Sierra, I usually stick to easy grades well within my abilities and bring a talented partner. If we’re uncertain what the route holds, we bring a rope. When tree-climbing, I often don’t have that luxury. Sometimes I’m alone or on a new tree. Then I contemplate each move carefully, knowing I will have to reverse it. The challenge is mostly mental; if I want to climb hard I climb safe.
Our distant ancestors were arboreal. They gave birth, found food and traveled, all out on a limb. Most of us experienced that first jolt of joy that led to a life of climbing in a tree as a child. Then we grew up and turned our attention to more serious pursuits. But when was the last time you climbed a tree? It’s time to get back up there.