Why I Teach Tree Climbing

Canopy Watch International
Climbing Academy 101: Hanging out with Marilyn Wright of Utah State University. Photo © Dan Kimball

It’s a universal truth that everything in life was harder when we were young. The walk to school was longer and it was uphill both ways. The weather was worse, with severe blizzards every week in winter, scorching summer heat records, hurricanes that swept away entire neighborhoods, and even the tornadoes were taller. Back then, we had it rough.

Tree climbing is no exception. In the good ol’ days you climbed a tree with spikes strapped to your legs. There were no gadgets, no ascenders, no slingshots, to make things easier. And helmets? Who wore helmets? Back then tree climbers took a blow to the head from a falling limb and died like manly men. There is a reason why dead hanging branches are called “widow makers” to this day.

I may be exaggerating, but not by much. I started climbing in 1995 and I learned the hard way: by trial and error. By that I mean mostly error. I had exactly two lessons in Boise, Idaho, climbing local cottonwoods with spurs before I left for the tropical rainforests of Central America. When I got there everything was harder, quite literally. Some of the trees I spurred had wood that was so dense and so smooth that the spurs barely entered, and it felt like ice skating a vertical waterfall. Some trees spurted such a profusion of sap that I was dripping with goo the color of blood. Epiphytes covered some trees so thoroughly, that once I just climbed on vines for 20 feet before I could sink my spurs into the tree. Then there were the insects, giant wasps nearly the size of hummingbirds, and ants called “bullet ants” because their sting felt like getting shot with a .22 caliber bullet. The nearest hospital was two days away by dugout canoe and a flight in a twin-engine airplane that spewed smoke from one engine – and that, I promise, is no figment of exaggeration. There was many a climb when the wind blew across me, the tree swayed to and fro, and I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into, and how I would be remembered if I died.

canopy, rainforest, forest canopy, Honduras, Canopy Watch
Climbing in Honduras, 1996. The trees were bigger back then.

The worst part of it all was, being a complete novice, I had no idea of what was the real difference between safe climbing practices and dangerous ones. I made mistakes no one should have to make, and I survived on sheer luck. Once in Oregon I was driven to the hospital with a puncture in my right thigh caused by a rookie move that I don’t make anymore.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Tree climbing technology and methods have undergone a total revolution. New gear is introduced every year that makes climbing more efficient, safer, and more fun. Still, you have to know how to use it. Any newbie can crash a car and die in it, and the same applies to climbing; do it right or stay home. One small error with good equipment and they are writing your epitaph. And so I teach. I want everyone to feel the joy and confidence of safe and efficient climbing that takes them to new heights in the canopies of trees. Tree climbing is perspective-shifting, affording you a new look on the world and into yourself.

I recently taught climbing to three biologists from Utah State University. We went through all the steps to get them into, and out of, trees with Goshawk nests. It’s a professional skill, methods for field ecology. I can help make their jobs better. They came for reasons related to what climbing would do for their research. What they didn’t expect was what climbing would do for their hearts. They loved it. Together we can make their spirits soar higher.

Canopy Watch International, tree climbing
The smile says it all. Climbing trees isn’t just for work. This smile is why I teach climbing. Thanks, Marilyn.
Canopy Watch International, tree climbing
Max von Zastrow gets a feeling for big trees in a ponderosa pine.

In August I head to Honduras with my good friend and climbing mentor Jamz Luce to teach canopy access methods to biologists from northern Central America. The canopy of the tropical rainforest is full of secrets. To find them, we really need local biologists climbing their local trees. A small grant from the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation (MCHF) pays for travel, food, lodging, and a couple of complete climbing kits. The Honduran Ornithological Society (ASHO) is organizing the event. A link to the Honduras climber training is here.

My deepest thanks to ASHO for organizing the event to grow the careers of young biologists, and to MCHF for funding. The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit that conserves birds of prey and their habitats around the world, is sponsoring my time. Carlos Funes – eres el rey del evento.

Canopy Watch International, canopy, tree climbing, Costa Rica
Carlos Funes, on the left with the bandana, is the reason why climber training is coming to Honduras.

The moral to the story: If you are thinking of learning how to climb trees the right way, find a teacher who knows. And definitely don’t take their word for it. Ask questions: how long they have been climbing trees; where did they learn to climb trees; from whom did they learn; find out if they are using specialized ropes, harnesses, and equipment designed for trees.

This blog is dedicated to friends like Damien Carré, Will Koomjian, Brian French, Scott Altenhoff, Jamz Luce, Patrick Brandt, Eric Forsman, Jimmy Swingle, Tyler Zuñiga, and many other expert climbers who share their knowledge and passion with the public, so everyone can appreciate trees in a new way.

Final word: The scientific name of the bullet ant is Paraponera clavata, just in case you think I’m making stuff up.


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