I was most likely six or seven when I climbed a tree for the first time. It was an apple tree, rugged and short—surely no more than fifteen or twenty feet at its tallest point—growing in the backyard of my childhood home. I remember distinctly how I felt as I traversed the branches of this tree: it was as if, in moving from one perch to another, I was exploring the empty rooms and undiscovered crannies of a great and mysterious house, waiting patiently to divulge its secrets if I clambered up to reach them.
By the time the first couple weeks of good summer weather had passed, I already had the tree mapped within my mind. Three trunks diverged from the tree’s base, the rightmost being the shortest and slightly kinked about halfway up, allowing one or two (squished) six or seven-year-olds to sit on it like a bench. The leftmost trunk was of less consequence: scalable, but lacking good perches. The middle trunk was the largest and most vertical, and also my favorite. The further it ascended, the more horizontal it became, eventually reaching the point where I could lie flat on my belly, my body supported by the branches below. From this spot I would listen to the birds of my neighborhood, watch the antics of Jingo, the beloved family dog, and while away the countless hours of those summer afternoons. It was certainly an idyllic life chapter, but also a short one. I soon became caught up within great modern inventions such as the television, Internet, and public school, forgetting (for a while at least) the joys of getting high up. It wasn’t until many years later that I began college and, in parallel, began to rekindle some of these long-neglected passions.
My next tree-climb was at midnight an autumn weekend my sophomore year. This tree was big, I estimate somewhere in the ballpark of two-hundred feet. My roommate Ted and myself, both burgeoning outdoorsmen, had decided to tackle this monster as one might tackle a wall of rock. We arrived after dark at the tree’s immense base, which was too large for us to engirdle with our four arms combined. We each donned harness, helmet, headlamp, and racked the appropriate tools for the job: webbing to sling around branches and quick draws to connect our rope to these makeshift anchor points. Tied in to my brand-spanking-new, slick, and slippery climbing rope, Ted mounted the beast. Working his way from branch to branch, each a body-length apart and wider than a thigh, he went up maybe twenty feet, paused to anchor himself in, and belayed me up behind him.
After this we began to ascend into the heart of the tree, taking turns leading thirty-or-so foot sections. It was at this point, perhaps a third of the way up the tree with Ted below me, that I saw lights flashing up at us: We’d been spotted! I remained stock-still at first, holding out hope it was just some curious student and that we’d be left to our business. A tug comes on the rope. No such luck, Ted was signaling me to rappel down. I slid down to meet him and discover two campus police waiting for us at the bottom. They told us that they had spotted our rope dangling from the tree (Blast! We had forgotten to pull it up!) and that tree-climbing on campus was not okay. We told them we were practicing for our climbing class and that it wouldn’t happen again (it totally did). The next January, after having left for winter break, we returned campus to find that twenty feet of the tree’s lower limbs had been lopped off. I would wager, however, that the gnarled and bulging trunk would still do well by any resourceful climber looking to gain entry to the branches above.
From that night, it took me about a year and a half before I really caught the bug. I rope-climbed a few more trees with friends, but due to the careful, sluggish pace demanded by the rope work, these occasions were rare and usually served as practice for multi-pitch rock climbing (don’t get me wrong, it was still glorious). Regardless, now that I had made the connection between climbing trees and climbing rocks, it was too late for me.
It was during the summer of junior year that I ditched the rope altogether and began climbing unprotected—or, as I like to call it, “tree-solo.” This opened up a whole new world for me; outdoor climbing had been this sacred activity I was only able to do a few times a year, and now I could climb anytime and anywhere I could find a good tree! I could hardly believe it. I started looking up at the trees as I walked around, reading branches like a rock climber might read a guidebook and always scouting for potential climbs. Soon I was out walking just to look for trees; I sought out parks, trails, graveyards, and any sites that might offer a decent variety of climbs. I also became increasingly ambitious with the projects I attempted, once or twice allowing the prospect of good climbing to lure me into somewhat precarious situations.
I found myself in one such situation last summer. It was a pleasant July day and I was driving west on highway 14 with the music turned up loud. I flew along I passed the turnout for the Ozone, a cliff face that descends sharply from the southern side of the highway and perhaps my favorite nearby spot for climbing rock. I had no climbing equipment with me, but the weather was fantastic so I decided to stop anyway and walk around. As I hiked the steep trail down to the crag, I scanned for climbable trees: spotting a maple that looked promising, I stopped and tried the start.
The moves were difficult for me—perhaps V4 had it been a boulder—and after about ten feet of climbing I reached a move I could not make. I decided to hop down and continue along the trail, eventually reaching a portion of the cliff named “Middle Earth.” I had climbed here a few times before and quickly recognized an immense pine tree on the trail opposite the rock face. The moment I saw that it had branches at ground level, I knew that I would climb it.
Now, let me take a moment to describe the scene. The path I stood on was narrow, perhaps four or five feet wide. On my left the cliff rose sharply over a hundred feet up to the highway. On my right, a steep slope of perhaps sixty degrees strewn with boulders and small trees eventually ran down to meet the Columbia River. The tree in question stood on this slope, less than a foot downhill from the trail, and reached up higher than I could make out from ground level. The low branches on the tree were all on the backside, pointing downhill, about ten or twelve in number and all of them dead. The first live branches started about twenty feet up and from that point and the climbing looked like a breeze.
I hesitated for a moment, then, after a quick mental “Well, screw it,” stepped up to the tree. I had to start on the uphill side, as the slope was too steep for me to walk around and reach the branches. I shimmied around the trunk from left to right, stretching out to reach the first handhold: A jagged six-inch stub where a branch had previously broken off. Afraid of swinging out like a barn door, I tensed my abdominal muscles to keep myself pressed firmly against the trunk and gingerly lifted my left foot off of solid ground. Because I started at trail-level and the tree began below that, I was already a good five feet above the steep slope; a fall even from this low could mean an uncontrollable tumble into the rocks and trees below. Realizing what I had just gotten myself into, I took a deep breath, cleared the fear from my mind, and began making my way up through the dead wood.
I made sure to distribute my weight as evenly as possible across my limbs and to grab or step as close to the trunk as I could, thus minimizing the stress I put on each branch. And, just like that, I was through the dead wood and once again safe. After a moment’s pause to calm my furious heart, I began to ascend. The scale of this tree was amazing, its highest branches reaching above the top of cliff and just barely visible from the highway. I rose far above the canopy of smaller trees on the hillside below and looked out to see Oregon, luscious and green across the wind-whipped waters of the Columbia. It was pure majesty. On my way down, I paused to chat with a climber on the cliff face across from me.
“So you’re a tree climber?” he asked.
I called back, “I guess I am!”
Tree climbing has impacted my life enormously over the past couple years. Beyond merely enabling me to “rock climb without the rock,” climbing trees has become a physical and mental challenge all its own, allowing me to keep pushing my limits and opening up a slice of wilderness I can access even when I find myself stuck in the city. To me, tree climbing is a dance: A moving meditation where one can clear their mind of all but their sense of balance. Unlike climbing rocks, when you climb a tree you are interacting with another living being. I believe that the trees I climb can feel my weight, sense my presence, and perhaps even appreciate the attention I give. Above all, I consider tree climbing to be an expression of the extraordinary capacity of human freedom, and a return to a state of mind all too many of us have left behind with our childhoods. The important thing in life, I believe, is not necessarily to climb trees, but to each find our own ways of expressing freedom and connecting with our younger, less docile selves.
Autsen Taylor-Kohn is a senior adventurer here in Outdoor Pursuits. He is an avid climber–both of tree and rock–as well as an impressive boater. His dedication to the activities we all love is an inspiration to us all, and we love having him around.