Sport March 1998

Tree Surfing and Other Lofty Pleasures

Technical tree climbing, with its own vocabulary and specialized equipment, has won enthusiasts in the American West and elsewhere


WHEN Tom Ness wants to climb a tree, he usually drives his rusty green pickup truck along the dirt roads of the Siskiyou National Forest, near his home in southwestern Oregon. He studies hillsides thick with old-growth conifers, some as tall as the Statue of Liberty. "A climbing tree needs good architecture," Ness says, by which he means room to maneuver through the upper branches, and limbs that don't droop, so that the ropes and hammocks he will tie to them can be safely secured. Also, trees laden with sap, or ants, are best avoided.

Otherwise, selecting a tree is an intensely private matter. "I look for one that stands out and announces 'Climb me,'" Ness says. Ness is forty-nine years old. He has a soldier's posture and haircut (he served four years in the Navy in the early 1970s), and deep-set eyes. He seems to prefer silence to conversation, and when he does speak, it is with measured precision, as if he were narrating a documentary film. Ness is a difficult man to categorize. He will occasionally shoot a deer to stock the freezer, but whenever he discovers an insect in his house, he cups it in his hands and walks it to the yard—a yard in which each tree has a name: Mamie the Douglas fir, Natalie the sugar pine, Queue the madrone. Every piece of Ness's clothing is green or brown or khaki or camouflaged—"so as not to disturb the forest's color palette," he explains.

Few people older than high school age spend much time in trees; those who do are likely to be arborists, canopy researchers, tree surgeons, or cone harvesters. Ness is none of these. He climbs trees because he loves to climb trees. For ten years he has been concerned with little else.

On this day, a humid blue spring morning, the tree that calls out to Ness is a ponderosa pine—a "pondo," he calls it. The tree is so well positioned atop the high point of a narrow ridge that it seems almost to be showboating. Roughly lollipop-shaped, it has an elongated trunk topped with a spherical cluster of branches—"broad-domed wagon wheels of foliage," in Ness's parlance. Ness estimates that the tree is 150 feet high and at least 300 years old. He likes it. He unloads several bundles of gear from his truck and walks swiftly through the forest, sensing his way amid the thick undergrowth to the base of the chosen tree.

Most times, though not on this outing, Ness climbs with his wife, Sophia Sparks, a tall, contemplative woman who stands beneath a canopy of curly black hair. She, too, climbs wholly for pleasure. "When you climb a large tree," Sparks says, "you can't believe something living can be that size. It's wonderfully humbling to feel so small."

Ness and Sparks are not the only adults to have become smitten with technical tree climbing, as the activity is called. An organization called Tree Climbers International, with headquarters in Atlanta and clubs in France, England, and Germany, has 600 members, including a baobab climber from Botswana. The group's chief objective is to promote the fledgling sport; the essayist Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, has been an informal spokesperson. At least two summer camps have recently begun offering instruction to children. Several climbers are known to sneak occasionally into the backcountry of Sequoia National Park, in northern California, and scale some of the world's tallest trees. The actual number of recreational tree climbers is difficult to estimate. "Tree-climber personalities," Ness says, "don't fit easily into organizations."

A tree-climbing vocabulary has evolved. "Tree surfing" occurs when a climber encounters strong winds atop a tree. "Flying traverses" involve shifting from one tree to another without descending to the ground. "Bark bite" describes the scrapes on climbers' forearms. "Ninja climbs" are those done behind the backs of park rangers.

In addition to being passionate and skillful tree climbers, Ness and Sparks provide an essential service to other climbers: they own a company called New Tribe, which manufactures high-end tree-climbing gear—items with names like Monkeytail and Limbloop and Treeboat. New Tribe operates out of their house, a former Grange hall near the hamlet of Grants Pass. The company has no other employees. "We design everything from scratch," Ness says, "and we work so closely together that it's hard to put just one of our names on any of our inventions." Sales of tree-climbing equipment and of a few unrelated inventions provide all of the couple's income.

Tree climbing, some feel, is a response to the complexity of modern society, a way of recapturing the spirit of adolescence. "The more stressful life on the ground becomes, the more some people feel the need to take time out in trees," says Peter Jenkins, the founder of Tree Climbers International, which has experienced a 25 percent membership increase over the past two years. Jenkins likes to stress that tree climbing is entirely noncompetitive. A tree-climbing championship is unheard of. This, however, is likely to change. Already records are kept on the tallest tree climbed (a 365.5-foot redwood) and the longest time spent continuously in a tree (nearly a week). Informal speed-climbing challenges are sometimes held among friends.

The larger the number of people who want to be in trees, the more orders New Tribe receives, and the more Ness and Sparks, ironically, find themselves earthbound. This is why Sparks is unable to accompany Ness today. It is her turn to stay home and grapple with the backlog of orders. On this trip Ness has ventured into the forest with two friends, neither of whom has tree-climbing experience.

AT the base of the pondo Ness produces a large compound hunting bow with a spool of fishing line mounted near the handle. The lowest branch of the tree is nearly a hundred feet above the ground. The trunk is a pillar of yellowish bark, cracked in a honeycomb pattern. Ness inserts a rubber-tipped arrow into the bow, and ties the fishing line to the arrow's tail. "No conscionable climber uses techniques that poke holes in trees," he says, stressing that the recreational-tree-climbing community discourages the use of spiked boots. Ness draws his bow.

The shot is perfect. The arrow arcs over the lowest branch, tight against the trunk, and dives back to earth. Ness retrieves the arrow, unties it, and attaches the fishing line to a length of nylon cord. He reels in the fishing line, so that the cord is now looped over the anchor branch. Next he removes from his backpack a length of thick climbing rope and attaches it to one end of the cord. Once again he hauls in the thinner strand until the thicker rope is looped over the branch, with both ends on the ground. The three-step process is necessary because fishing line will snap if used to carry heavy climbing rope, and anything stouter than fishing line will disrupt an arrow's flight.

Ness ties one end of the climbing rope to the base of a small tree nearby, and leaves the other end dangling. He wriggles into a New Tribe tree-climbing harness, pulling it over his dark-green pants until it rests snugly at his hips and waist. He takes from his pack two ascenders, which look roughly like staple guns. Ascenders clamp onto climbing ropes and can slide easily upward but lock in place if downward pressure is applied. Ness attaches the ascenders, one above the other, to the free end of the rope and begins shimmying upward, inchworm style, until he reaches the first branch. This takes no more than five minutes. There he secures himself to the trunk, sets up a pulley system, and hauls three bags of supplies into the tree—camping gear, climbing gear, a smorgasbord of food. Ness shouts instructions to his friends, and they follow him up, visibly nervous, struggling with the ascenders. Now comes the real climb.

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Michael Finkel is a contributing editor of Bicycling and Skiing magazines. His articles on unusual sports appear frequently in Sports Illustrated.

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