Location, location, location

Sometimes knowing where you are is easy, especially in an urban setting: you simply use an address. Yet sometimes things are not that easy, you might be working out in the boonies – or you might be trying to identify that one, specific tree.

The folk at What3Words came up with a rather clever system enabling them to pinpoint locations worldwide with… three words (yes, the name is a bit of a spoiler). The location information is based upon a 3m x 3m grid, i.e. you can pinpoint a spot to within three meters, which is not bad – not the same accuracy as with GPS/ Galileo/ GLONASS-based coordinates, admittedly, but the What3Words system is very user friendly, you can install it on your phone, which makes it fast and easy to use.

The location of the Masters’ Challenge tree of this year’s ETCC in Thoiry (France), for example, is pots.rejoin.rocket.

The exact position of the Climbers’ Forum drop tower at the German Tree Care Days in Augsburg is right on the join between held.bricks.coaster and graduated.remember.trading.

You can simply enter the three words into the app, which is available in Apple’s app store or from Google play – or you can go to What3Words’ website and enter the three words there.

My impression is that far from being a mere gimmick, this has actual practical applications when a 3x3m resolution is sufficient to identifying objects with, where an address may not be available, for example, or the available description is not accurate enough.

I have no affiliation with what3words Ltd., I merely thought it was an interesting concept worth mentioning here – and that it might even be of use to someone…


I have mulling over the question of collective biases – shared inclinations or beliefs – for a while now. I think in regards to our industry, a good example for one such a bias is the way we consider knots.

Take the Valdôtain, or the Valdôtain Tresse, for example, ask around at a trade show or another industry event how people view this hitch. You will probably get answers in the direction of that it is a sporty hitch, not very reliable, touchy-feely or that it is mainly for competition climbers. It is also often even referred to as the Suislide Hitch, which is a bit sinister! All of this enforces the bias that this hitch is somehow only borderline safe.

Back when in the early days when I was competing in tree climbing comps, I would have probably agreed with this assessment. It was what I encountered using a VT, you were constantly managing the hitch to get just that sufficient amount of friction, that sweet spot to juuuuust about hold you, yet also to feed smoothly through the hitch during ascent. Often as not, you were having to massage the hitch into position before loading it to ensure half-way reliable grab function.

For years in our basic training courses we have instructed on the basis of the Hitch Climber configuration, but of course not using the VT, as this was not seen as being a beginner’s hitch, preferring to use the Distel or the Swabish in its place.

Essentially though, all of this was acting like a self-fulfilling prophesy and was feeding the bias that painted the VT is an unsafe hitch. In terms of numbers, the Teufelberger/ treepartner/ treemagineers testing on hitches did not show this to be the case. On the contrary, in the range of hitches which were tested, in fact the VT proved to be a highly reliable hitch with good grab function, passing the test criteria (23kN/ 3 minutes) we had defined for those tests with flying colours – this is on top of the test criteria already defined for CEclimb.

All of this is of course highly dependent to how the hitch is tied. The CEclimb user manual defines a VT tied with a 90 cm eye to eye sling with four coils and four wraps. This results in a highly reliable knot – under almost all conditions. Yes, evidently it has a higher base friction, but you are not sacrificing safety for short term gain. The function of friction hitches bases upon… friction, after all (duh).

Once you start considering an issue in this way, you start to realise how the views of a group of competent people can be tainted by bias: Take the business of training on a Distel or Swabish, for instance. Truth be told, when we opened up the discussion in our group of trainers, it became obvious that the novice climbers had been struggling with these hitches as the were not grabbing reliably. In the end we decided that an appropriately configured VT offered a much more confidence-inspiring, reliable basis to train on than the options we had been using up to that point.

So it turns out that the truth of the matter is that the VT is a knot whose performance is highly dependent on how it is configured – and that the industry was using it in a way which was biased towards minimal friction and maximum slack feeding ease. Which does not make for a very reliable hitch.

This all goes to show how biases can create blind spots and group think-dynamics that are not conducive to balanced, open discussion – and therefore ought to be challenged.

Images Swiss TCC

Vito did a really nice job of filming and editing a clip of the recent Swiss tree climbing comp in Lausanne…

One of the things I thought he captured well was the varied textures and colours you encounter when working around trees, as well as the people involved.

A refreshingly different take from the seemingly innumerable hours of wobbly helmet cam footage uploaded to YouTube and co.

Thank you for your work, Vito.

That was a gnarly Masters’ Challenge, by the way: a stand of Scots pine, not tall, but presenting a real challenge in regards to the busy structure, rope angles, brittle wood properties etc. Just goes to show that the Masters’ tree need not be the tallest on the site, on the contrary… choosing this kind of object allows the audience to get up close and personal – and gain a better understanding of the skills involved in what we do.

ETCC Thoiry/ Paris 2018

Back from this year’s ETCC, gear unpacked and stored away, with a week to reflect upon and digest last weekend. I was able to take away a lot of good moments with me from Thoiry, I met new people, as well as refreshed old acquaintances. The site was a cracker, when we arrived on Tuesday it looked a bit rough, but come game day on Saturday, it really looked the part. The 23 meter Ascent Event was a bit of a challenge, in my opinion, as well as the Speed Climb that started out along a long horizontal limb before the contestants took off up the vertical. All events worked really well in the trees they were set up in, this is in large parts due to the great team of volunteers involved in set-up. Thank you to all of you who were there.

One of my personal highlights was meeting up with Lionel, a friend who had a very serious accident four years ago. He is still in the process of rehabilitation. I am moved as well as incredibly impressed by his courage and determination with which he faces the challenges his injuries brought with them. One of the things I found very heartening is that despite his body being very damaged, the mind which inhabits it remains as beautiful as it was before. I also thought it was brave of him to come to ETCC – and was thankful of the opportunity to meet up with him and be able to catch up.

Another highlight was Florim receiving the Spirit of the Competition award. This was highly deserved, Flo turned up two days ahead of the event, spent the whole time interviewing people to then moderate the two days of competition. His commentary was informative, whitty, kind and funny, having something to say about just about everybody on site 😊 – and was in French, German and English, on top of all of that!

ETCC was hot! In fact it got hotter by the day, culminating in a sweltering 35°C on Sunday. Thankfully there was a bit of wind all the time, so this meant it was bearable.

In view of the time, effort and dedication invested into such events, all on a voluntary basis, it is all the more disappointing when things happen such as the KASK tent being burgled on Thursday evening or people breaking into the neighbouring zoo, damaging the kid’s train as well as enclosures and scattering their rubbish all over the place. To whomever it may concern: This kind of behaviour does not make you welcome at our events, take it somewhere else – and do not come back!

On a positive note, I would like to thank everybody who joined us in the spirit of the event: the volunteers, the climbers and the spectators. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend a couple of days together…

Next year’s ETCC will be hosted by the German ISA chapter on the island of Rügen, dates to be announced.

Images 8, 10, 11 and 12 © Stihl

Mixed feelings

It will be with mixed feelings that I travel to this year’s European Tree Climbing Championship in Thoiry, France.

The first ETCC I competed in was in 1999 in Valencia, in 2009 I joined the committee to help shape and run the event. Over all these years ETCC has become a fixed date in my annual agenda. But more than that, it has been a true privilege to see this event evolve and thrive, become a dynamic, vibrant expression of climbers’ culture within the greater arboriculture. Personally I have grown, faced with the challenges that running such an event brings with it, have made close friends for life and was able to experience many unique moments.

There were also difficult moments, frustrations and disappointments. At this point in time it almost feels as though the competitions are becoming a victim of their own success: people have very high expectations when coming to such an event. This in turn puts a high burden on the volunteers running it – de facto professional standards are being applied to a volunteer-run event. This creates a massive workload and brings a lot of stress with it.

I am sure, going forwards, that there are solutions to these problems, requiring new people with new visions to take charge of ETCC. Therefore this will be my last event as part of the organisation, leaving me very much with mixed feelings for the coming days, as is often the case when you do something for the last time.

But for now, I am looking forwards to meeting all the members of my arb family in Thoiry and am sure that we are going to experience a cracking event together.

Onwards to Thoiry!

What if?

I was contemplating this matter last week…

What if you were up a tree, in a remote location – on your own (ok, this is a stupid scenario, admittedly, but bear with me). Then you somehow manage to drop your mobile phone and your climbing line – at the same time. There are no limbs on the tree and no passers-by. How far could you descend with what you have with you?

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

I reckon by the time you tied together your lanyard, footlock lanyard, Dyneema webbing sling, multiSLING, trousers, boot laces, harness, bungee cords from your harness, your t-shirt torn into strips and the elastic from your underpants, you could make almost 20 meters (see below)!

Not saying this is a good idea, mind you, but worth a thought 😊 Don’t try this at home, kids.

The paradox of choice

In his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, published in 2004, the American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues how eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

Schwartz’ hypothesis got me thinking about ascent configurations used in tree care.

If ISA’s Ascent Event has demonstrated one thing, it is that there is a dizzying array of variations upon the theme of ascent systems being used in arboriculture today. This is also something I find reflected in workshops or when doing in-house training sessions for companies. Rarely will two climbers be using the same systems to access the canopy, the differences admittedly sometimes being minor – yet other times they can also be really significant in terms of equipment used, configuration or line set-up.

Frankly, this leaves me feeling somewhat perplexed and uneasy. It is often difficult, if not impossible to harmonise the wide range of systems used in the same crew, making emergency planning a challenge. Oftentimes team mates will not be familiar with each other’s set-ups, this is further exacerbated by the fact that when actually running aerial rescue scenarios, regularly it turns out that certain systems have a basic incompatibility, making it nigh-on impossible or at least very complex for team mates to rescue each other.

It is hard to counter this trend, as there is not really a benchmark to refer back to. In view of this plethora of systems, I sometimes cannot help but wonder whether how people chose to ascend is almost viewed as an expression of their individuality, rather than an expression of intuitiveness and efficiency.

In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz outlines a number of steps in order to come to well-founded decisions:

  • Define your goal(s),
  • evaluate the importance of each goal,
  • lay out the options,
  • evaluate how likely each of the options is to help you meet your goals,
  • pick the winning option, and finally, if necessary,
  • modify your goals.

Based on what I am seeing, I doubt whether this process is applied consistently when people design their ascent systems, rather it seems to me that there are other factors and mechanisms in play, such as…

  • “I saw this on social media, everybody seems to be talking about it”
  • “The boss provided me with this piece of kit”
  • “I am going to use this piece of rope to attach to that ascender as I had it kicking around anyway”
  • “I pledged 50 bucks on Kickstarter towards this device”
  • “I think I saw someone use this set-up at a recent comp”

My intent is not to be negative here, but I cannot help but wonder whether we are not falling for the paradox of choice lock, stock and barrel – literally not seeing the forest for all the trees. Is the range of options, permutations and variations in fact obstructing the view of the parameters we are actually striving to achieve?

The good news is that getting there is not rocket science, but it will require a different kind of discussion, involving more deliberation and reflection, as well as a deeper consideration of underlying goals rather than simply the means of how to get from A to B.

Arborist’s sonar

I came up with this one a good ten years old, if not more. For some reason I had to think of it today, still makes me smile…

All the funnier in fact, since Paul Howard told me the story during the Augsburg set-up of the time when he was setting up the crew on site, left one of the guys in front of the property to fell a spruce, went round the back to sort out the rest of the work, when he heard the noise of a chainsaw firing up, following by the whooshing sound of a tree falling – followed by a weird sound, a bit like… plastic deforming. Upon closer inspection, it transpired the tree had been felled straight through a Port-a-Loo, cleanly (well, not really!) splitting it in two, with the content explosively voided up the side of the building.

Yuuurk! 🤮

Now that is a pure arborist’s sonar-moment, if I ever heard of one!

Wheeeezes and validation fails

Did I mention there was a lot of pollen coming off those lime trees?

I kid you not, I have never seen anything like it, absolutely extraordinary. The ultimate irony being that the bees actually seem not to be very keen on silver lime blossom, when it would seem that there is rich picking there. Oh well… 🐝🐝🐝🐝

Oh, and then there was this… went to buy some lunch from the supermarket round the corner from the park, then had a picknick in the park. One thing I bought was a rice milk drink with added Macha green tea. What can I say? When I opened it I felt that Migros really need to rethink the styling of the product if they want this to go mainstream and not remain a niche product selling mainly to folks who have a fetish with drinking scummy snot.

Just goes to show how essential it is to validate and field test thoroughly before you go to market, regardless of whether you are considering a PPE product – or a rice milk drink. Just that if you get it wrong, in one case you are left with a slightly gross drinking experience, whilst in the other the consequences are potentially much more serious.

In the same vein I thought this was an interesting case: the other day I was looking at someone’s e-bike, seemed like a well kitted out unit. Unusually though the battery was integrated into the seat post, which other manufacturers usually do not do, the more usual format tends to be to somehow to integrate the battery into the frame around the down tube. The owner of the bike then told me that due to the width of the battery and the fact that it stands proud of the saddle, every time you pedal, your thighs chafe against the corner of the battery. Now that is what I would consider a foreseeable failure – and really something that again validation ought to have caught.


So there you go, welcome to the kind of things that preoccupy me whilst asphyxiating in a blizzard of lime tree pollen…

Spot the obvious

Nice day climbing today, pruning an alignment of silver lime, Tilia tomentosa. The structure of the tree makes for some interesting work-positioning challenges, you really get the impression the wood fibres are being maxed out, with long lever arms and lots of weight at the end in form of foliage. This results in some creative lanyard use, v-rigs – and some interesting rope angles.

Oh, and of course today was the new me: new access line, new climbing line, new RIG, new helmet, new harness. I felt like a total rookie! But just as well, the old gear was getting a bit tired. And I won’t even mention the helmet! I swear it made a growling noise at me out of my gear bag the other day! ‘Nuff said!

The dust from the blossoms and leaves had everybody hacking away like troopers. Let me put it this way: if I were a bee, today would have been a score! There was pollen absolutely everywhere! Still, on the upside, the fragrance was quite something.

Felt a bit bad after cutting of this chappie (see below): even after having been cut in half, he was still smiling.

But back to the job… the lads from the council were on ground work duty.

As the park is in the middle of town, this is actually really important, as on a sunny day the park is absolutely heaving with people. Fairly early on it became apparent that the guys assigned to us were not the most… dynamic. Their work process involved lots of sit-downs and smokes. Umm, yes. So I could not resist documenting this situation, try and spot the blindingly obvious. No prizes for this one, keep your postcards for harder quizzes.


Jascha about to ascend into the tree, the last lot of trees not cleared, the boys on a more or less well-earned rest. But they are safe: their rest zone is all taped and barricaded off. Which could not be said for our work zone. I let Jascha handle this one, by this time I was ready to blow my stack.

In the end they moved the barricade after a bit of coaxing. Memo to self: never take anything for granted, even – or especially – the apparently blindingly obvious.