People who don’t climb like to tell me that tree climbing is really dangerous. Many of these same people drive in bumper-to-bumper 80 mph traffic in big cities. When surrounded by a swarm of high-speed vehicles, it only takes a second of distraction by one person and a lot of people can get killed. One driver 10 cars ahead of you reaches down to pet a small dog and 30 cars are in a pileup. You have no control over that. When you go climbing you are in control and your safety depends entirely on your decisions and the information that bases your decisions. Sure, there’s this little thing called gravity, but as long as your knowledge is sound and you are following approved tree climbing techniques, you should be OK.
Here’s the catch: tree climbing is like a lot of things in that there is a lot of advice out there on how to do it, some good, and some really bad. Unlike a lot of things, bad advice in tree climbing can definitely get you killed. Where does this information come from? I’m glad you asked. Four friends and I set out to look at all literature that has been published on tree climbing since 1970 with the goal of weeding out the bad advice from the good. We reviewed over 50 papers published in scientific journals (papers written by climbing scientists for the benefit of other climbing scientists), plus books and book chapters written for everyman. Our paper was just published in the prestigious journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution. Here is what we found.
Fatal Flaw #1: Tree climbing is not the same as rock climbing, plain and simple. Articles that don’t make this distinction are setting you up for injury. Tree climbing and rock climbing are similar disciplines but they are not the same. The two differ in really important ways: rope installation, use of anchor points, movement of the climber over the tree or rock, and more. The whole setup to climb a rope in a tree differs from what one does to climb rocks with ropes. Therefore, the equipment used in trees and on rock – harnesses, ropes, hardware – is not the same. The climber who does not realize this and tries to climb a tree with a rock climbing harness, carabiners, ropes, and methods is putting their life at risk.
Fatal Flaw #2: Safety equipment exists for a reason. Wear it. The quickest way to get hurt in a tree is by not wearing a helmet, glasses, and gloves approved for tree climbing. Real men have brains, and they use a helmet to protect their brains. Is your helmet approved for tree climbing? If you got it at a local sporting good store then probably not. Helmets for tree climbing are stamped ANSI Z89.1 on the inside. We were surprised by the number of photographs we found in the published information sources that showed climbers without personal protective equipment. It sets a bad example.
Observation #3: We thought old sources would be outdated and therefore tend to offer bad advice, whereas newer sources would be conform to modern principles and tend to be better. False. What we found is that good climbers who know proper tree climbing methods tend to write good material, regardless of how long ago they wrote it. More importantly, the opposite is also true: just because an article is new does not mean it is good if the author is not experienced in tree climbing.
There is a reason why all of this matters. A person who makes a mistake in climbing risks their own health and safety. The author who writes unsafe advice for others to follow is putting at risk the lives and safety of others. The novice climber reading all this material doesn’t know what is good, bad, or downright ugly.
We set out to fix that. We established criteria to rate the material found in every source that we reviewed. We identified 10 potential safety deviations and 7 positive recommendations. For every source we identified every single safety deviation or positive recommendation and listed the page number for each. All this information is contained in a table and is color-coded to make for easy reading. One look at the table is enough to say, “Whoa, there’s a lot of red on that publication.”
So, how can you trust that we know what we are doing, and that our review constitutes good advice? The five authors of this paper have close to 100 years of experience as tree climbers and tree climbing instructors. Plainly stated, the four arborist co-authors are the best of the best, the top guns of North American tree climbing.
You don’t have to trust me; you can judge for yourself. Click here to preview and download the article from the journal. OR click the link below to open a PDF on your computer.
Many thanks to Paul Colangelo who contributed the cover photo to the journal. Check out his website for more great photography.
Anderson, D. L., W. Koomjian, B. French, S. R. Altenhoff, J. Juce. 2015. Review of rope-based access methods for the forest canopy: safe and unsafe practices in published information sources and a summary of current methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 6:865-872.