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.