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

Eric Risberg / AP

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.

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.