Peter Jenkins and Sheri Shannon. Credit: Sheri Shannon

As the coordinator for the National Big Tree Program, I have seen numerous images of arborists and researchers climbing superlative trees to get the most accurate measurement of height. From eastern hemlocks to ponderosa pines, photos of certified professionals in the tops of champion trees come across my computer screen and my jaw drops when I read the height on the nomination form. No, I don’t see myself climbing the world’s tallest coast redwood but I’ve always imagined what it would be like to be in the canopy of a tree I’d find in the town where I grew up, overlooking the forest, hanging midair with my feet dangling.The first time I watched someone climb a tree with ropes was at the international tree climbing competition at the 2012 International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Conference. I watched an arborist from Denmark in the women’s competition disappear into the branches, swing out to ring a bell on one branch, swing to another branch, tie a weird knot and then disappear into the canopy again. After watching the competition for a few hours, I had figured out the gist of how they were able to pull themselves up with various ropes and wanted to try it out myself. A year later, I got the opportunity at the 2013 Tree Climbers Rendezvous.

Patty Jenkins, executive director of Tree Climbers International, Inc. (TCI), invited me to speak about the Big Tree Program at this year’s Rendezvous in Atlanta, Ga. Recreational and professional climbers, foresters, arborists and students were in attendance to not only climb trees but learn about old-growth forests, canopy research and advanced measuring techniques for big trees. I had a chance to sit down and chat with Peter Jenkins, founder of TCI and the man credited with developing recreational climbing in 1983. A retired rock climber and active arborist, Peter discussed the evolution of climbing, the debate over whether people should only climb for research purposes and the greater impact climbing can have for big tree programs everywhere. So, I was honored when Patty told me that her husband would be the one taking me up for the first time.

Doing a bat hang. Credit: Sheri Shannon

The first thing I learned is to make sure the tree is clear before launching your throw line — a thin, brightly colored string connected to a small sand bag you throw upwards to loop around an upper branch. The next important thing I learned was to jump out the way when the throw line comes flying back down if you don’t hook the correct branch. I would say half of the battle is getting the throw line in place before you start tying your climbing line.

Several people pitched in during this process and taught me about the equipment and techniques used to protect both tree and climber. Before being strapped in, I practiced tying the one knot that I knew would save me if anything awry happened, or at least I told myself that’s the one thing that would save me. Sitting in the harness is like sitting on a swing. You’re just hanging out, twirling around and kicking your legs around. It took me a few minutes to understand how to move myself up the rope using the foot loops but I slowly pieced the puzzle together. There is a technical explanation of how I was able to climb the tree but all I kept thinking was, “bend your knees to loosen the knot, stand up and push the hitch.”

I repeated the same pattern and the voices below started to sound more distant and faint than when I was on the ground. That’s when I looked down and my fear of heights gripped me. Whoa. I was so focused on the rope that I lost track of where I was in relation to the tree. I knew that I was safe and wasn’t in any fear of falling but my mind was telling me to hurry up and get down. The voices below comforted me and told me to just relax and hang out for a bit. Let it all soak in. So I did.

Up in the air. Credit: Sheri Shannon

I looked down and saw all the climbers below me. But, more importantly, I looked up and saw the sun shining through the tree’s canopy. We have no idea what trees get to experience up here. I may have only been 20 feet off the ground and hadn’t even reached the first major branch, yet I got to experience the tree’s true size more than I would have if I had been standing on the ground. You can see everything. What if this was the tallest tulip-poplar, eastern white pine or black maple for 50 miles? I would be standing in the crown, could look around and see how other trees around me measured up. What if I looked out and saw another tree that was taller than the one I was standing in?

Eventually, I propelled down and my feet touched the ground, however, my heart was still in the trees. It took time as the coordinator of the program to understand why big trees are an addiction for many people but I get it. It isn’t just about bragging rights, but about the beauty and majesty of these champions. American Forests educates people about the many health benefits of trees and forests and I left the rendezvous with a greater appreciation for the positive impacts climbing has on people of all ages.

Dr. John Gathright, founder of Tree Climbing Japan, the first school for climbing in the country, gave a presentation about his organization and the “Treehab” program that gives challenged persons the abilities to climb the world’s largest trees. He helped Hikosaka Toshiko become the first severely physically challenged person to climb a 260-foot giant sequoia during the summer of 2001. The numerous stories of individuals who are blind and deaf or are bound to a wheelchair that have found a way to climb trees and enjoy nature is inspiring. I am reminded of my mother telling me about the mighty oak that withstands adversity and is always there when we need it. This is the enduring legacy of trees and forests.

I have forever been transformed into a fan of tree climbing and I encourage you to try getting into the trees. To learn more about recreational tree climbing, visit www.treeclimbing.com.