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

Ness leads the way. Though he is ten stories above the ground, wending through an elaborate spiral staircase of branches, each limb slightly thinner than the last, he climbs with simian grace, quiet, unhesitating. His movements have a springiness that was unapparent on the forest floor. He stretches out his long body (he is six foot two, and virtually fatless) and swings himself over the next branch. Ness is utterly unafraid of heights—but he does not forget that he is human. Before each step he tosses a short length of rope over the branch above him and secures the rope to his harness. He does this in one smooth, elaborate motion, like a pitcher in the windup. If he should lose his balance, he will fall no more than a few inches. Flecks of bark and lichen dislodged by his climb filter through the canopy. "Tree dandruff," Ness calls them.

Near the crown of the tree, where the bark on the branches is still green, Ness works his way into a comfortable pocket formed by the union of trunk and limb. Here, with a euphoriant view over the whole of the forest, the myriad ridges fading to blue against a hazy horizon, he sits and waits. In only a minute or so a breeze comes in strong, batting at the treetops. The ponderosa begins to sway. Surrounding trees, acres of them, start waving and churning in all directions. Soon everything appears to be swinging, clouds and mountains included. The effect is that of riding a dinghy in heavy seas. "You lose all sense of what's stable," Ness says, his voice bright with pleasure.

Tree climbing done correctly, with proper safety equipment, is an exceptionally safe pastime. Though limbs flex and creak, Ness says, they are reliable: "If branches can survive all their usual life experiences—storms, winds, fires, snows—they can certainly withstand a human weight." As far as anyone knows, no recreationalist has ever died as a result of technical tree climbing. Only during professional climbs—when workers have improperly secured themselves or their equipment—have serious accidents, a few resulting in deaths, occurred.

As the wind subsides, Ness descends to the thicker branches while his friends move up for their own tree-surfing sessions. From the bags of gear Ness retrieves three Treeboats. A Treeboat is essentially a rugged hammock, made of thick nylon canvas, with tie-off cords at all four corners. It is the invention that Ness and Sparks are proudest of. "Our designing of this piece," Ness writes in the current New Tribe catalogue, "was a watershed event in our personal lives." Treeboats allow climbers to sleep comfortably amid the grand architecture of centuries-old trees. Ness darts about the branches, tying cords and adjusting stabilizers. "I think like a spider," he says. In no time three Treeboats are slung within the ponderosa, positioned for optimal sunset viewing. Down sleeping bags are added, and tiny pillows.

TREE climbing is normally considered child's play—but Ness came to it extraordinarily young. He had a peripatetic youth: Batavia, Illinois; Casa Grande, Arizona; Los Molinos, California. His mother, Darlene, says he began scaling lilac bushes when he was two, apple trees at four, and carob trees soon after. For almost a decade his father, Sonny, worked as a tree trimmer for the Davey Tree Expert Company. "Dad always said you'd have to be a fool to climb trees for the fun of it," Ness says. Regardless, by the time Ness was ten, his father had hung a rope on a Modesto ash, and Ness had completed his first technical tree climb. In his teenage years his attention wandered to other pursuits. Following his stint in the Navy he settled in San Francisco and worked in the construction trade. He met Sparks in 1983.

During the couple's frequent hikes in the parks of Marin County, Ness found himself increasingly eager to take leave of the forest floor and again work his way up a tree. He mail-ordered ropes and ascenders from a military-supply company. In 1987, on a foggy summer day at California's Point Reyes National Seashore, climbing alone, he scaled a wide-armed Douglas fir. Immediately he was hooked. He introduced Sparks to the sport, and in 1989 they began manufacturing tree-climbing equipment. A year later they moved to rural Oregon.

High in the pondo, rocking tranquilly in his Treeboat, Ness slips into a kind of reverie he calls "tree time." For a while nobody speaks. The air smells richly of pine. Off in the woods comes a high-pitched screech. "That's a pileated woodpecker," Ness says. "Funny, I know the voice but not the face. It's like a radio personality."

He identifies nuthatches and pine siskins, tanagers and titmice. When he's stumped, he says, "Oh, that's a be-de-beep" or "I call that an LGB—a little gray bird." He points to various ridges, picking out the trees he has climbed. He recalls the first time he tested a Treeboat, in a Douglas fir on California's Mount Tamalpais. "It was right above a trail, and eight or ten people walked below. They didn't see me. One of them said, 'If I were a young man, I'd climb that tree.' I leaned over and called down, 'It's a nice one. Come on up.' They just about fell over."

Past sunset, when the treetops are hemmed with gilded light and the forest floor has gone to black, Ness muses about sequoias. He has climbed three of them. "They are the holy grails of tree climbing," he says. "Sequoias are out of scale with any living thing on this planet. They can grow for three thousand years. Of course, to climb one you have to ninja it, but that's reasonably easy to do."

Not everyone shares Ness's enthusiasm. Nalini Nadkarni, the president of the International Canopy Network (a corsortium of professors, scientists, and others with an interest in canopy research) and a professor of environmental studies at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, says the research community is troubled by the presence of recreationalists in the treetops. "I've found myself waffling back and forth about what actions to recommend," she admits. "It's a tough ethical issue. I understand the desire to explore, but forest systems are delicate. With tree climbing you're in contact with living material almost the whole time—it's like walking on a coral reef. Many species of spiders, beetles, slugs, and birds are specific to the forest canopy, and depend on arboreal mosses for food and nesting supplies. The damage from a single boot scrape can take decades to regenerate." Forest rangers at Sequoia National Park view unauthorized tree climbs as "damaging the resources"; the maximum penalty is six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Though climbing on national-forest land, like the Siskiyou, remains legal, national parks are more tightly regulated and many are off limits.

Ness views things differently. He'd like to see as many tree climbers as possible (and one or two more tree-gear makers). "True, we might knock off moss mats," he says. "Meanwhile, whole forests are being reduced to stumps. Climbing might provide another human use for trees besides door trim." Ness, who is renovating his house, refuses to build with wood. He uses steel beam and Sheetrock.

Up in the tree the evening birdsong subsides and the stars brighten. The climbers prepare for sleep. To protect against rolling over too far, the climbing harness must be kept on, attached to a length of webbing that is in turn tied to a branch above the sleeper's head. Bathroom needs are problematic. Any possessions dropped over the side of a Treeboat are gone for the night. Still, the breeze is soothing, as is the susurrus of the branches. Sleep comes easily; no one stirs until dawn.

Morning, though, brings the disquieting sound of chainsaws over the birdcalls. The Siskiyou is heavily logged. From atop the pondo a dozen shaved hillsides can be seen. Ness knows that, inevitably, a tree he likes to climb will be cut down. "It will be like having a friend killed in a drive-by shooting," he says.

Once everyone is awake, Ness furls the Treeboats and tosses them to the ground. Then he and his friends rappel down the rope, making an acrobatic return to solid ground. Eighteen hours have passed since the climb began. The equipment is collected and hauled back to the pickup truck. Ness coaxes the engine into turning over, looks up at the ponderosa one more time, and rumbles out of the forest.

Illustration by John Nickle

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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