Why Tree Climbing Matters: Part 1

canopy, rec climb, Canopy Watch
Love and trees conquer fear, creating bonds that last a lifetime. photo © David L. Anderson

Look around you, in your city or wherever you live, and count how many people you can find climbing trees. I dare you. Go drive for an hour, walk in the parks, knock on doors and look over fences. I can tell you from the comfort of my chair the answer: I bet that in an hour of searching you find none. Zero. Nada. If you do find any tree climbers, they will be either arborists, who are getting paid for tree trimming or removal, or a couple of kids.

What happened? The lack of people enjoying trees is a mystery to me. Most of us climbed trees at some time when we were little, and children’s books are full of tree climbing stories, evidence that trees resonate with us deeply. I find this abandonment of trees confusing.

My whole life I have taken the role of poking holes in people’s perceptions. I dare people in my circles to see differently than they’re used to. It’s a role that is mostly unpopular, I must admit, but now I have found a positive bridge to open our vision into the world and into ourselves: trees. I take people tree climbing, and I see beautiful things happen. Let me reflect on a few recent climbs, and look for messages that reflect this story.

Canopy Watch, Honduras, Panacam Lodge, Lago Yojoa
Friends, trees, and ropes. Smiles that could melt glaciers. Climber training in Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras. photo © Jamz Luce

September in Honduras, Central America, Parque Nacional Cerro Azul. The Honduran Ornithological Society (ASHO) and Canopy Watch are hosting a tree climber training for biologists from Honduras and El Salvador. We have 10 biologists who work in tropical forests, and none has ever climbed to look for birds, amphibians, or epiphytes (read about epiphytes here and here) that they can’t see or study from the ground. Everyone on Day 1, instructors included, is excited and nervous as heck. Can we learn/teach advanced canopy access methods in one week? Can we keep people safe? What will they think of this new skill?

ASHO, Lago Yojoa, Honduras, Canopy Watch
Climbing trees on ropes can be the closest thing to flying, as Kevin Rivera shows us during the Honduras climber training. photo © David L. Anderson

And therein lies the problem: we are defining tree climbing in grownup terms, and the spirit of the little kids is lost – but not for long. The first two days of the training are filled with fear that comes from feeling vulnerable while hanging on ropes high in the air, and a self-doubt about being able to learn all these new pieces of equipment and how to use them. Gradually, the emotion turns to pure jubilee. Being in trees is fun! It’s a new world up there! Being a kid takes over again and tree climbing lifts our hearts.

Honduras, Panacam Lodge, Lago Yojoa, Canopy Watch
Teaching tree climbing to biologists like Kevin Rivera in Honduras opens doors to our profession, and windows on ourselves. photo © David L. Anderson

September in Boise, Idaho, and the Idaho Botanical Garden and Canopy Watch are hosting Idaho’s first-ever public tree climbing adventure. Thirty-six climbers are registered and pre-paid. I’ve got about $2,500 of brand spanking-new harnesses, ropes, and helmets suspended in a lovely sycamore tree. Who’s nervous?! Every hour a new group of six climbers steps up to the tree with a look of, “Remind me why I signed up for this again?”

rec climb, Canopy Watch
Andres on his third climb at the Idaho Botanical Garden after warning me of his fear of heights. Something changed in him when he was on rope, and we can feel good about that. photo © David L. Anderson

Each person is deep in an internal dialogue, asking if they will be able to make it up the ropes, and if it’s safe. It’s grownup thinking getting in the way again. Minutes into the climb, after they figure out how to move up a rope and the climbing gear emboldens their security, the fear melts and the smiles in that tree would melt glaciers. The inner kid shines out, and I can see it in every face that day, a shift from self-doubt to self-confidence, and from trepidation to celebration.

rec climb, Idaho Botanical Garden, City of Trees, Canopy Watch
Idaho’s first-ever public tree climbing adventure, Idaho Botanical Garden, was a good day in the City of Trees. photo © David L. Anderson

You see, tree climbing is more than a skill, a tool for science, a group activity, or a type of exercise. Tree climbing opens doors in our minds and blows the blinders off our eyes. Somewhere in the chemistry of adrenaline, joy, fear, immersion in nature, and muscle fatigue, tree climbing unlocks the inner kid in all of us. Seeing through our youthful eyes shifts our perspectives on ourselves, on people around us, and on trees. Anyone who climbs a tree as an adult comes down a kid again. Life is new again, and it is good. Trees do that to us.

It is here at that junction of joy, newness, and shifted perception that lies the moral to this story: The Power of Trees is a vital conduit to the Power of Change. Nothing changes our perspective more than conquering our fear. Nothing creates a bond between people and trees stronger than the experience of climbing into one. When we climb in groups there is a collective “we” that includes not only the climbers, but just as importantly, the climbee. Tree climbing draws our focus from outward, to inward, and back out again, and it forms bonds that are durable and meaningful.

Colombia, forest canopy, climber training, Canopy Watch
Beware the Power of Trees. This could happen to you. photo © David L. Anderson

What’s next? I live in Boise, Idaho, the self-proclaimed “City of Trees.” I want to get more people climbing trees. I imagine elected city officials, the Mayor, and kids young and old climbing with staff from the city parks and Boise Community Forestry. And let’s add adaptive sports, climbing with folks who have differing abilities like wounded veterans and Make-A-Wish kids. How will it look when trees unfold their Power of Change on this group? All we need is a chance and a little help from the City, and trees will do the rest. Only time will tell us how it looks, but I see beautiful smiles happening.

Parting shots

Here is a video from the Honduras climber training, filmed and produced by Carlos Funes. Listen, and my new friends from Honduras and El Salvador will tell what the experience means to them.


First and foremost, I have to thank the Idaho Botanical Garden for their bold vision in offering Idaho’s first-ever public tree climb this past September. You opened the door, and I will forever be grateful. Patrick Brandt at Piedmont Tree Climbing helped in so many ways to make the Boise public tree climb a success. The folks at New Tribe Tree Climbing Gear are some of the best advocates of tree climbing that I know of, and they too help me connect trees and people in Boise. The Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation provided the financial support for the Honduras climber training, and WesSpur Tree Equipment filled the gaps when we were purchasing the equipment that we donated to ASHO. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation non-profit headquartered in Boise, Idaho, sponsors my time at international climber trainings.

This blog is dedicated to my friend Julian Lindsay, who opens my eyes on the goodness in others more than he thinks.


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