Occasional pursuits – tree climbing


They make very strong rope these days. The kind I use is rated for a load of 6,500 pounds, a typical strength for the purpose.

To keep the rope from getting tangled up, the best way is not to coil it, but simply to "flake" it into a convenient container as slack becomes available. They make special bags for the purpose, costing about $40. I use a Whole Foods reusable shopping bag, which cost me $0.99. If you'r not impressed with organics, you could get one from Piggly-Wiggly or whatever your local supermarket chain is.

I keep separate lines for various purposes. Ropes that are used for rigging and dropping may have stress injuries from sudden pulls, and I want the rope that is holding me up in the air to have an entirely clean history.

Climbing saddle

A climbing saddle is very much like a soft rubber playground swing, with straps so it doesn’t come off. Since it’s a nuisance to get way up in the air and not have some needed piece of equipment, saddles come with all kinds of hooks and snaps for attaching things.

Blake’s hitch

To pull yourself up a rope, it is extremely helpful to have arrangements so you can readily move up, but not down. If you can accomplish that just by knotting the rope, that makes things even simpler. The knot commonly used for this is Blake’s hitch. It slips very conveniently along a rope when the rope is loose, but grabs securely once there’s tension. It’s quite easy to tie, once you get the hang of it. One might imagine that a handy trick like that would have been around for centuries, if not millennia. Not so. The first record of it dates to 1981.

There are alternative knots, such as the Prusik loop, and mechanical clutch devices that serve the same function.

Throw bag

How do you get the rope up in the tree? There are a few ways. Mostly, you take a kind of bean bag with a long piece of string on it, and throw it over a convenient limb. For longer climbs, you may repeat the process after hauling yourself up from the toss you’ve just made. It can be challenging, especially if the canopy is dense and you can’t get a good clear shot at your target. A certain amount of mumbling and cussing is par for the course, as when the line for the throw bag gets hung up by some freakish accident in a wayward twig or strange nick in the tree bark.


Mine is about eight feet long. It shoots the throw bag very high. It saves an enormous amount of time.


Paul Nordberg, aloft

Most people can’t lift their own body weight for any sustained period of time. There are various ways climbers cope with this issue. A common one is basically very much like walking up the trunk of the tree, often using the 2:1 mechanical advantage of a doubled rope. Another one, called foot-locking, lets you stand with the rope looped around your feet while your arms shift up to a new position. I’m not very good at that.

No matter how you slice it, tree climbing is a strenuous activity. There are various mechanical and power devices that make the problem almost trivial. But I’m talking about climbing, not taking an elevator up.


There is a marvelous instructional series from Cornell University on YouTube, with very explicit warnings and disclaimers that people should learn from experts, not by watching these videos. I suspect many people pay as much attention to the warnings as I did.