RALPH STEARNS DYER REDWOOD CLIMB
Montgomery Woods, California
Link to pic of the Reynolds Triple Redwood in Mendocino County
|Redwood Expedition Climb: The Big Tree
The alarm went off way before dawn. I woke up in strange
surroundings, with a faint coastal breeze coming in the window.
The day before, I had driven 400 miles from my home in Oregon
to get to this part of Northern California where the tallest
trees in the world grow. Now it was time to drive another hour
in the pre-dawn darkness to the old growth grove of redwoods
where we were to climb. I wanted a scenic spot to have lunch--a
place with a nice view, and this trek with fellow Tree Climbers
International member Jerry Beranek was just the ticket.
It's not that I had never climbed a big tree--cone collection
contracts in Oregon had included 200 foot Sugar Pine--but the
challenge of the biggest of them all was somehow compelling and
mysteriously unresistable. Jerry's reputation as a consummate
master of the redwood empire was comforting enough to allay the
fear of attempting something that most people regard as
foolhardy. Leaving the perfectly safe ground to ascend over 300
feet in the canopy is, admittedly, very hazardous. By using the
most modern climbing techniques, safety procedures, and proper
equipment, we turned a lark into an expedition.
Upon arrival at the site, we had to pack our gear in. This
meant we couldn't bring much gear, period. The tree was about
a quarter mile up a moderatly steep trail. (Another quarter
mile farther is the 357' tree that was climbed by Jerry and TCI
founder Peter Jenkins and detailed in the winter '87 issue of
TREE CLIMBER magazine).
Weather conditions were perfect--the day had dawned bright and
clear--but as we entered the grove, the light level dropped to a
deep twilight shade under the multi-level forest cover. No sky
was visible to us down here on the forest floor, and the tops of
the trees couldn't be seen either. We felt like mere ants in
the land of the giants. My mouth gaped open in awe as the
first few monstrous trees came into view. Only a couple hundred
feet of their trunks were visible, giving the ominous impression
that the trees were a staircase to Jack-in-the-Beanstalkville.
We had entered another world--where time had stopped twenty
centuries earlier. We scrambled over enormous rotten logs that
had lain there, undisturbed, for 500 years (They must have been
several thousand years old when they fell, soundlessly). We
made the transition in our minds, as well. We were now with
nature, not in it.
It was quite obvious when we reached the tree. It was
significantly larger than the others, fifteen feet in diameter,
and very tubular. The sides of the tree trunk were
parallel--there was no apparent taper as my eye travelled up the
massive trunk. I craned my neck back and looked up and up, the
limbless trunk vanishing overhead into the competing vegetation.
Oh yes! This was indeed what I had come after.
Jerry didn't waste any time preparing for the ascent--he knew
what to do because he had been up this particular tree before,
so he acted as the lead climber. The plan was to go up a
smaller tree, swing over into a larger, twin-spired one, then
transfer on over into Big Daddy. I put on my Euc Man buttstrap
saddle and was starting to flake out the 175 foot Safety Blue
climbing line, when he stopped me, saying that it should be
carried coiled because it wouldn't be used until quite a bit
later. I suddenly envied his lightweight 200 foot, three-eights
inch Gold Line and hand braided saddle.
Our philosophies varied widely in the gear department. Jerry is
very minimalist, preferring to make his own, or adapt existing
equipment to his specialized uses. Ascenders and line guns are
some of the rigging tools he likes to use. As for me, I like to
carry a truckload of conventional arborist equipment of the kind
typically found in a Sierra Moreno Mercantile catalog. All
aerialists have their own preferences--from professionals like
Window Washers; Silo Painters; Ironworkers; Electrical Linemen
or Tree Surgeons, to amateurs such as Spelunkers; some Search &
Rescue people and Rock Climbers. Recreational tree climbing
takes from all these disciplines and uses whatever works. The
night before, Jerry had cut and spliced a special, 30 foot flip
line for me. Now it was plain enough to see why. Also, we used
climbing spurs, (not recommended by TCI), so we could confine
the climb to a one-day event. Jerry cautioned me about nicking
the top of the limbs, where breaking a small amount of tension
wood can cause large limbs to fail. We put on our backpacks
filled with camera gear, lunch, and other climbing stuff. Jerry
ajusted his flipline around the smaller redwood (a
seven-footer! ) and started walking up the tree. I followed.
What a workout! My anticipation turned quickly to perspiration
as I tried to keep up with Jerry, who moved smoothly upward,
above me. It was important to take big steps, so the large
diameter portion of the trunk didn't consume too much of a
limited ration of energy. I felt like a fly climbing a flat
glass wall. The bark was surprisingly firm, not like the spongy
bark of the puny backyard redwoods I periodically climb as an
arborist. The spurs barely penetrated. As we went up, I made
sure to keep at least one limb between us as a safety
precaution, lest he slip and come down against my flip line. A
second flip line was used for security as we unhooked to
vertically pass by limbs. My usual flip line is an eight foot
length of proof coil chain, secured by Klein harness swivel
snaps at a side dee ring. This arrangement makes for excellent
adjustment of length, although somewhat heavy and noisy (Some
people accuse me of having offended the Gods, and of being
condemned to chain myself to the top of a tree every night,
where an eagle tears out and consumes my liver! ).
As we approached the two-foot diameter level, over a hundred and
fifty feet in the air, we were at a bare spot in the canopy of
the neighboring tree. This was the location where the first
transfer would take place. Jerry paused and told me to wait
while he went up about 50 more feet to get a good tie-in. He
went on up, got tied in with a taught-line hitch, then slid back
down to where I waited. There was plenty of pendulum in his
line. He swung over to the next tree, whose limbs were about 15
feet away. He attached himself to the trunk with his flip line,
then unclipped his climbing line and sent it back to me, where
I repeated the procedure, and joined him.
This twin-trunked tree was hollowed out and bare of limbs in the
space between its two spires, like a big, outdoor room.
Actually it was more like stepping into a huge empty cathedral,
majestic with sparkling dust floating in long beams of filtered
sunlight streaming down through the stained-glass foliage. The
trunks were like massive pillars, and branches radiated out from
the center. This ancient cathedral was more than twice as old
as any built by man. We climbed another hundred feet in
We bridged to the opposite of the tree, where the next transfer
was to take place. This time it was my turn to go up to set the
line. Since the distance to be traversed was greater this time,
I went up a little higher, sixty to seventy feet, then came back
down on the taught-line hitch. Jerry took the tail of my
climbing line and tied a special 'Jam Knot', which he expertly
tossed over to a spot on the big tree where two interfering
limbs crossed each other. It wedged itself firmly between them,
allowing me to hoist myself sideways, hand over hand, until
gaining a good enough hold to flip my safety chain around a
limb on the big tree and slack off the climbing line. Working
my way sideways over to the trunk on some foot-in-diameter sized
limbs, I went up the trunk a ways and got tied in with the tail
of the rope. Going back down to Jerry's elevation, he threw me
the tail of his rope, which I tied to the climbing line set in
the big tree. He pulled it over to himself, and, suspended
between the two trees, made his transfer.
We were now all set to make the final leg of the climb. At this
point, about 250 feet above the ground, the trunk was still six
feet thick. It made the tree we had just come out of look like
a scrawny sapling. There was a lot of limb-over activity, using
two flip lines for safety as we climbed up. Jerry went to the
top, pulled up my climbing line and got me tied off, so I could
make the last part of the climb without having to keep stopping
to flip in. Such a team effort saves a lot of energy, and is
much safer than each climber replicating the movements of the
other. Swapping gear as the situation demands results in a
synergy unattainable by a single climber.
When we finally reached the top, Jerry said, "Congratulations on
breaking the 300 foot barrier! ". We didn't know exactly how
high we were at the time, but I felt overjoyed and relieved. We
had a chance to talk and relax after the grueling effort.
There was plenty of room for us both in this flat-topped tree.
The treetop was pancake shaped, with limbs the same diameter as
the trunk fanning out at the top. Maybe gravity had decided
that sap couldn't rise any higher than this. By standing on the
top branch, my head was higher than any part of the tree, and I
could see in all directions. Farther up the valley was a whole
hillside of 300 plus footers. Old growth has the striking
characteristic of showing large portions of individual tree
trunks, as they extend well above the understory in a
magnificent panorama. The ground was invisible, forgotten under
a carpet of velvet green, far below. Besides, we had worked up
a big appetite, so it was time for lunch. And what a view!
All good things must end, and it was finally time to come down
to earth. We had one thing to do on the way back down, which
made the descent more exciting, and less of a chore. Jerry
wanted to measure the exact height and diameter of the trunk.
So, with one end of a fifty foot tape, he started lowering
himself off the edge of this flat world into the abyss. I held
the other end of the tape at the highest point of the tree.
After he reached the fifty foot level, I decended to his level,
where we measured the circumference. The tree was fifteen feet
around, or five feet in diameter. Another fifty feet down, it
was seven feet thick. Fifty feet below that it was nine feet
thick. It started to become quite an operation for two climbers
to maneuver the tape around this massive girth. With all the
limbs, there was a lot of clambering around.
When we reached the lowest limb on the tree, (which was about a
hundred and sixty feet above the ground) we switched to single
rope technique. Doubled, our ropes would not reach the ground.
Jerry tied a running bowline around this limb with my half inch
climbing line. He tied his climbing line through the bight of
my bowline for later retrieval of the two ropes. We then
continued our descent on figure-eight rappeling devices. We
continued to measure girth every fifty feet. After the sixth
measurement, or 300 feet, we were almost at ground level, and
Jerry went down, leaving me up in the tree, holding the tape.
He made the last measurement at ground level and announced that
the tree was 336' 3" tall (There may be a little room for slop
in this measurement).
Here I am hanging on a hundred and forty feet of my rope with it
footlocked off below the figure-eight decender. (Ever footlock
with spurs? ). (Note: Footlocking is a very fast rope-climbing
method where the rope is wrapped around one foot, then clamped
down by stepping on it with the other.) Jerry decides to set
up a tripod to take some pictures, since the light is so low.
To keep my mind occupied, he takes the tail of my rope, and
walks me all the way around the tree trunk about three times,
says "Hang on! ", then throws me out into space. What a wild
ride! I coiled around that maypole a half dozen times--with
all the strech in the line it was a wide, springy arc, like a
ride at Disneyland. When I came in for a soft landing, I pushed
back off again and wrapped around three or four more times,
until it was time to pose for the last picture, thirty-six feet
off the ground.
When I rappeled to the ground, it was definitly time to relieve
my bladder, so I stepped over to a convenient bush. I heard a
challenging voice say to Jerry, "Where's your commercial
photography permit? ". Well, Jerry had mentioned that he had
told some friends where we would be climbing that day, so I
assumed it was them. Wrong! It was a resident park aide, who
was apparently out of things to do at the moment. Since there
is no procedure for dealing with errant tree-climbers in his
guidebook, I guess he figured that he better invent one. At the
time, I felt like turning around from the shrubbery and
answering, "I've got your permit right here! ". But I finished
up, and let him say his piece. He was concerned that falling
limbs that we had dislodged could possibly injure hikers, since
we were on state parkland. A valid issue, since we had no
support from a ground party to secure the area (a major fault).
After checking our ID, and some more posturing to demonstrate
his authority, he went away.
After some figuring on the calculator, Jerry computed the cubic
volume of wood from our measurements of the tree. At the going
market rate for clearheart redwood lumber, this tree would have
brought more than a quarter of a million dollars at retail
price. It's a good thing it's located in a park reserve, and is
protected by law. I hope it stays that way.
I'm still looking for my next fun climb up a monster tree, in
Oregon, California, or anywhere. I've got my eye on the Big
Pine (the worlds tallest Ponderosa Pine at 250 feet) near my
home in Southwest Oregon. Or, maybe it'll be a tree in your