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Climbing Trees

September 2, 2010

The view from up here

As an undergraduate student back in 2002, I participated in a tropical biology field program in Costa Rica. We had the opportunity to conduct independent research. I wanted to know there were differences in nutrients between canopy soils (soils collected in the crotches of trees, a crotch being any place where a branch meets the trunk). In order to collect those canopy soils, I had to climb trees. You may suspect that I designed my project around the awesomeness of the collection technique and you would be right. Nothing seemed more exciting or romantic than climbing trees to collect data. Science and adventure in equal parts. I almost reveled the fact that collecting samples was such an involved effort. I loved the gear. You may recognize much of it as rock climbing gear, but both tree and rock climbing borrowed the techniques from spelunkers (cave explorers).

Up a tree! Photo: Catherine Cardelus

Time was tight at our research sites so there wasn’t much time for us to climb in the field, but one of our team members, Phil Wittman, teaches climbing classes and happily rigged a tree in our hotel’s courtyard for a few of us to climb. It’s been about 8 years since I last climbed, but it came back quickly. Climbing trees is exhilarating to say the least. I won’t get into too much technical detail here as I don’t consider myself an expert. But simply, you are strapped into a harness which is attached to a line (climbing ropes are called lines sort of like on sailing boats) rigged to a tree.

Check out that epiphyte! (Photo: Catherine Cardelus)

You use an ascender which is a contraption which fits around the line. You can slide the ascender up the rope, but it will not slide downwards – this keeps you from falling unintentionally! There are loops of webbing attached to the ascender for your feet. Once you slide the ascender, you stand up in the loops, and slide the ascender further up. You inch worm up the line in this way as far as you’re line allows you to. We only climbed about 20 or 30 feet, but this technique can be used to climb 100+ feet.

Phil Wittman rigging a tree with his trusty slingshot

Phil uses a slingshot with a lead weight and fishing line to set up the line. Once the fishing line is safely over the desired branch, the line is used to pull up a slender piece of nylon line or the climbing line itself. This is how one would be able to rig a tall tree with relative ease.

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