It sounds easy — climbing a 160-foot ponderosa pine and hanging out in a hammock way up there — that is, until you're standing at the bottom of one of these gigantic, centuries-old trees and Viola Brumbaugh is securing you in your hip saddle and hooking you up to myriad ropes, pulleys and other little gadgets on which your life will soon depend.
That's when a guy realizes, hey, this isn't like bicycling or wind surfing, where you can pull over, all nice and safe. This booming sport of tree climbing offers something very new and different — the exposure of sky diving, the exhilaration of scampering up a cliff and, well, some kind of deep reverence for nature in general and trees in particular — that you don't get from most anything else.
Brumbaugh says a little prayer to the tree, which she has climbed many times over the last decade at New Tribe, outside of Grants Pass. Brumbaugh is a climbing teacher and vice president. I say a little prayer, too. Something like: "OK, I really respect you Pokey (the tree's name), and although I'm new to this and will scrape a lot of bark off with my feet, which I'm sure you don't appreciate, I would like to ask you to let me climb up to the top of you and more importantly, let me climb down, too. And walk away."
First thing I learn is: tree climbing is not easy. It takes all the strength you've got, at least for a beginner who is facing a steep learning curve and trying to understand all the ropes, pulleys, leverage and body physics that must be quickly absorbed.
Then, in creeps that doubt: can I do this? Well, I could shout out, "Hey, 'scuse me, but I'm weak of body and mind, a little scared and would like to be rescued and taken down to the ground like a big wimp, OK?" But that's not going to happen, is it? I'm going to keep going, even if it's four inches up for each demanding pull on the down-rope — and if the tree is 160 feet up, let's see, that's only 480 really hard pulls on the rope, right? I can do that! Even if, when I look down, it's the thinnest air I've ever seen under me, except from an airplane.
Then the wind starts blowing in a blustery way and, dangling from my long rope, I get to navigate my way up between big branches, many of them dead and not inviting me to rest on them.
Brumbaugh keeps a keen eye on my body language, facial expression and tone of voice.
"You OK? How are you?" There's a right answer and wrong answer to that question halfway up this big tree, isn't there?
"Doin' good! Never better! Great day for a climb!" But, of course, Brumbaugh knows all the signs of naked terror — and knows I'll overcome it. That's what the climb is for, right? It's like doing a fire walk, on coals. There's such an element of impossibility about it but (like life itself), the clear hope that, if you find your guts and strength and if you can envision it, by cracky, you'll do it!
So I keep doing it. You have to throw your hips upward and push down on the rope loop, so as to take the weight off the saddle, so you can yank the down rope, then you push up on the ascender, this gadget with sharp teeth that bites the rope and keeps you from going down, Viola explains, with a reassuring smile. It's what arborists do all day long. It's easy, she says. And, actually, after an hour of it, it is easy, that is, once you turn off the part of the brain that controls whining.
I tell her, OK, I had no idea what I was getting into here. I thought maybe we would climb around an oak tree and have fun, then get down. But this! This is Extreme-Sport City and, as I look down from the top, at 160 feet, I just cannot believe I did this. It's not like sailing or rafting, where wind and water take you where you want to go. You fight for every inch of where you go — and you're fighting against not just the elements and forces of nature (especially gravity), but you're fighting against the habituated forces of the human mind, which every minute of every day is looking only for ways to make life easier.
Tree climbing reverses that mental dynamic. You're looking for ways to be safe while making life much harder.
At the top, Viola has a treeboat (hammock) tied to the branches.
"Go ahead, get in it," she says.
"But stay attached to the rope, right?" says I. "Like, no way am I kicking back in that hammock without being anchored to a fat limb with multiple carabiners.
"Right. Stay attached. But crank that ID (initials for some French word) and that lets you rappel downward."
So, my feet are on the trunk of this tree, 160 feet up, my back turned toward the very distant ground and I'm turning the handle on this 6-inch wide metal gadget that's going to ease me into the hammock, right?
Hey, that Nike slogan, "Just do it," has taken on a whole new meaning. So, I just do it, and it lowers me gently into the treeboat and there I lay, smirking, safe and having a big rush of accomplishment, with a great view of Mount Ashland and the Red Buttes 50 miles away.
I tell myself to relax, enjoy this moment. This might be the only time you ever relax in the top of a giant ponderosa on your back in perfect safety. And I do. It's like being on a spacewalk where mission control tells you, "OK, relax and look around for awhile while we fix this doohickey."
And what I look for is — is the tree moving in the wind? Can I actually see this ancient giant move? Yes, just a little, and this is a wind that makes your hair blow.
We take pictures of Viola with her husband Rusel DeMaria, 59, who is taking his first climb after a heart attack last fall. They cozy up in the treeboat and kiss for the camera.
I decide it's time to descend. A chicken wrap, apple and Oreo cookies are waiting in the car. And my feet are longing to stand again on solid ground. Viola explains the ID in more detail, how it can never free-fall and how I can release the "death grip" I have on it and nothing will happen.
"How do you feel?" she quizzes, knowing full well the answer.
"Scared." We all laugh.
"OK, try it. Go ahead, let go of the ID, go limp."
Again, I "just do it." She's right. Nothing happens. I just hang there.
"Amazing, isn't it? This little metal ratchet gadget is all that's standing between me and about 5.5 long seconds of screaming, followed by a big thud."
They agree, it is amazing.
So, having never done it before — and a bit white-knuckled on the ID lever, I rappel down a long, steep, vertical surface, bouncing off it with my feet, just like on Discovery Channel — and it's easy. Soon my feet are on the ground and I'm unlatching the carabiners and letting the saddle fall to the ground.
Whooppee! Alive! Not just alive but "really alive."
As I tell friends about it later, I realize, geez, doing something that challenging and pushing beyond the idea, the illusion, the dread of catastrophe, I really had to push down a ton of fear and switch instead to a different channel, the one broadcasting messages like, "Hey, this is nothing, you can do this. Our ancestors only a few centuries back dealt with bigger dangers on a daily basis and it's what made them real, strong and confident. That's how it works. We're supposed to engage danger and risk, not devote our lives to skirting it. The skirting is what makes us a nation of sheep!"
The friends say, "Ok, how do I sign up for this? I gotta do this.
I say, "Yeah, it's easy, great fun. Just do it."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.