Even among our staff there was some initial skepticism. "Is anyone really going to want to do this? Is there really that much to it? I climbed trees when I was a kid. How can we offer that as a college course?" What we know now is that for one reason or another, people love being in trees.
To be clear, what we're talking about here is a Physical Education class. Cornell requires students to take two credits of Physical Education in order to graduate. The offerings are diverse; also on the list are classes such as Archery, Filipino Kali, Belly Dancing, Yoga, Introduction to Hand Gun Safety, Bowling, and even Juggling. Placed on that list, Tree Climbing starts to sound a little less bizarre.
Again, to be clear, we are not simply climbing hand over hand into trees and swinging around in the breeze. We use harnesses, helmets, ropes, carabiners and ascenders to climb trees whose branches you cannot reach from the ground. Think "arborist" without the chainsaws.
Founded in 1972, Cornell Outdoor Education is one of the largest college-based outdoor programs in the country, providing over 130 physical education courses in a wide range of disciplines, freshman wilderness orientation trips, and teamwork training on our ropes course - approximately 30,000 program days annually. However, the 22 rock climbing courses COE offers on our indoor wall made the climbing program staff members feel like we should more appropriately be called Cornell Indoor Education. We found it hard to advance our environmental stewardship mission while climbing on plastic holds next to the aerobics classes. This was a major reason the administration was amenable when COE instructor David Katz first started advocating for a technical tree climbing class.
Programmatically, the prospects seemed good. Climbable trees are abundant in Ithaca. (Sheer cliffs are also abundant at Cornell, but the walls of our famous gorges are made of friable rock layers. Climbing them would be like trying to scale a stack of lawn chairs.) Tree climbing is less weather dependent than rock climbing. Compared with the congested climbing scene at the closest crag, a placid tree climb more directly supports our environmental mission.
Although the team of instructors we put together for our first class had significant rope experience, we had a lot work to do before we could run a reasonable program. In particular we had the following questions to answer:
Curriculum: Of the vast number of tree climbing techniques, which ones would be appropriate for a college level recreational tree climbing program?
Risk Management: Can we find procedures and policies that can safely accommodate groups of 8 to 10 students?
Gear: Can we create a tree climbing program using some of our rock climbing gear? What elements of tree climbing are best taught with tree-specific gear? What is the cost of that investment?
Impact: Can we offer climbing classes repeatedly in the same trees without damaging them?
With our best answers to these questions, COE ran its first tree climbing course in 2004. The student response has been overwhelming. We now run six classes PE per year in New York, in addition to private lessons, youth programming, and an international trip to the primary rain forest in Costa Rica. We have never offered a tree climbing class that did not end up fully enrolled.