By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
John Clark for The Wall Street Journal
Recreational tree climbing is now largely "technical tree climbing," or climbing with ropes, as professional arborists do.
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Everyone should feel on top of the world at least once. Even if you have to haul yourself up. And climbing a tree's not a bad way of getting there. It's available to anyone with a modicum of equipment. Including, of course, a tree. I went up in a 120-year-old red oak at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx a couple of weeks ago, with the help of two of its climber/pruners, Corey Link and Zev Reuter. Like most adults, I hadn't climbed a tree in years. My first thought upon getting back down on the ground was to go back up. It's that good. Recreational tree climbing is now largely "technical tree climbing," or climbing with ropes, as professional arborists do. "Free climbing"—what you did as a kid—is discouraged as a sport, because of the danger it represents to the tree. "Rec" tree climbing has its heroes, like Peter "Treeman" Jenkins and his wife, Patty, who established Tree Climbers International, the activity's primary organization. It has its Boswells, like the author Richard Preston, whose book "The Wild Trees"—an ascent into the world's tallest trees—was a result of Mr. Preston's own interest in climbing. It has its Einsteins, like Margaret Lowman, who pioneered the science of canopy research, and calls the vast realm of tree tops the "eighth continent." There's James Cameron's "Avatar," which did for life in the boughs what "Titanic" did for the bottom of the ocean. To get started, it's probably not a great idea to throw a bunch of new gear into a shopping bag and march into the woods by yourself—you need the right instruction. Schools and informal clubs are scattered across the country (see sidebar for a few suggestions). Learning to tie the right knots—the basic technology that takes you up the rope and lets you back down (at a reasonable speed)—is not something you want to master from watching a DVD. And fitting yourself to your gear safely shouldn't be second-guessed. The pleasure of being up in a tree is the lack of cares and the escape from gravity, not the fear. That's why you'll feel like you're seven again. Next, you'll need a tree. Tree-climbing is illegal in national parks, but not national forests. Check rules in local city parks. "A good climbing tree has fairly simple access and lots of relatively evenly spaced branches," Mr. Reuter said. "You have to stand back and view the entire tree as one organism that you're dealing with, as you would in seeing if a ladder is safe."
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Mr. Reuter checked our red oak at the ground, walking around the trunk to inspect its general health: Severed roots could compromise the root plate that tethers it firmly to the ground and mushrooms could indicate decay. Then he eye-balled the trunk up to the top, looking for large wounds, cracks and deadwood in the canopy. With the throw weight and line, we set my rope at about 50 feet. I stepped into my harness and Mr. Link suited me up, secured me to the rope, did a spot inspection on all points of potential breach and left me to lift myself off the ground. It's hard. "You've got to have a good strength-to-weight ratio," Mr. Link said. "The initial ascent is the hardest. But once you're in the tree it's a lot easier." And fun. A liberating fun that seems like the best sort of travel—to a place that doesn't seem to exist until you enter it. Ms. Lowman's eighth continent above, around and below you. Full of wonder. Mr. Reuter's last piece of advice: "Always have a cellphone." Just in case. And you'll want to get a picture anyway.
In addition to gloves, rope and some muscle, you'll need to gear up to climb properly. Arborist supply sites like SherrillTree (sherrilltree.com), WesSpur (wesspur.com) and TreeStuff (treestuff.com) offer basic packaged kits. Here's some of the stuff you'll get.
These super-strength metal clasps secure your rope and gear to your harness. Rock Exotica Pirate, $17,wesspur.com
Helmet and Goggles
Wear an arborist's helmet, not a bike one. They're rated for strength at the top of your head for falling branches. The goggles protect your eyes from debris and insects. Kask Super Plasma helmet, $135, kaskstore.com; Bug-Eyez mesh goggles, $23, wesspur.com
Designed to sit in comfortably, this is your ride up into the tree. Elevation tree-climbing harness, from $221,sherrilltree.com
Attach this to a lightweight rope called a throwline, then toss it into the tree towards the branch you want to suspend from. When the weight goes over and comes down, you can attach the rigged throwline to your hauling rope and pull it up and over your branch. 12-ounce HighBall throw weight, $17,sherrilltree.com
School Trip: Learn the Ropes
You may have scrambled up trees like a squirrel when you were a kid, but adult climbing is "technical" climbing, involving lots of equipment. A professional should show you the ropes -- literally -- before you swing yourself 60 feet up in the air. You can find instructors and classes across the country, including:
New York Botanical Garden (nybg.org) The Bronx garden has weekend recreational tree-climbing workshops in November; the last one is on the 19th.
Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (pacifictreeclimbing.com). The Eugene, Ore., outfit offers guided tree-climbing expeditions in tall forests in the Pacific Northwest, for all age groups and levels of physical ability. (And yes, the trees are bigger out there.)
Tree Climbers International (treeclimbing.com) The Atlanta-based organization offers a variety of classes for beginners and advanced climbers.
—Dan Neil's Rumble Seat column will return next week.
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