Control and heights

In my experience, quite often in conversations people will talk about how they used to struggle with heights – or still do.

I think it is important to differentiate between the fear of height, acrophobia and the awareness of height. Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort. I do not believe that most of the time this is what people are talking about, as I struggle to imagine that someone genuinely suffering from this kind of condition would chose to work at height. Having said that there are certainly many variations on the theme: in my experience there are all sorts of reasons why people feel uneasy at height, such as feeling out of their depth, lack of faith in equipment, awareness of height due to an open canopy structure, to name but a few.

I actually find it reassuring to be dealing with someone who is aware of the inherent risk posed by activities at height, as this is something I can deal with. On the other hand someone who, without a foundation to be able to correctly assess and mitigate the risks, comes over all cock-sure and macho frankly makes me feel very uneasy. It is a fact that the subjective experience of height will differ from person to person. I have climbed with people where everything is fine… until the wind picks up and the tree starts to move, then they start to struggle. I always think of trees like aircraft wings, you only need to start worrying when they stop moving in a dynamic fashion, but this is probably not helpful as how we experience height can only in part be influenced by experience and training, there remains another part which seems to be hard-wired. This does not yet make it a phobia, it simply explains how perceptions can differ wildly and seemingly without rational explanation. And this is the kicker: these different experiences of height are indeed not rational, as this is your reptilian brain in action: this region of the brain is described as the oldest part of our brain, comprising the brainstem and the cerebellum. It regulates the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance, it is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive. This explains in part how we can try as much as we want to to rationalise things, yet the reptilian brain bypasses higher cognitive areas of the brain, leading to strong gut reactions in specific situations which we may struggle to influence.

What I have found helpful in challenging situations is to work through them systematically and to make sure that I retain control over the situations at all times. Take the climb in the photo above: This was on a job last week in a large London plane with a very unusual structure, a main upright stem and three others taking off into the blue yonder, the canopy was certainly as wide as it was tall, if not wider. The distance from where the access line into the canopy was installed to the outermost points must have been a good twenty meters. Add to this the fact that there was a lot of empty space below the traverses between the stems, points that were really hard to reach and the need to re-anchor on inclined limbs and then working above the anchor points made for quite a challenging mix. In fact there came a point that I found myself struggling to see how I was going to approach and solve this problem.

Not least because this kind of situation makes my awareness of height more acute, not in a paralysing sense but rather it gives the situation a kind of crystalline clarity: I need to get this right or I am in serious trouble. I find it helpful to break the challenge down into manageable increments, work my way step by step in a methodical fashion: Define the next point to throw the Captain hook to, traverse, make myself secure, redirect or re-anchor, to then assess the situation anew. This will involve all senses and equipment I have on me, constantly striving to optimise my work positioning, getting the most in terms of efficiency and safety out of the gear I am carrying on me.

But above all in situations like this I will have a mantra buzzing round my head which is I am in control. It is imperative that I remain in control at all times, that I dominate the height – and not vice versa. If you lose that sense of control and let yourself be dominated by the awareness of height, you end up in a state of paralysis and lose the initiative and come to a grinding halt

This is not rocket science, all it takes is a level of competence matched to the situation at hand, a bit of self-reflection, confidence in the tools you are working with and your anchor points – as well as spatial awareness.

Hydrating

Drinking enough during a work day can be a challenge.

Camelbak drinking backpacks are a good solution, yet I have to admit that I struggle to keep them clean, great when they are new (or someone else cleans them for you), but I will freely confess to being a Camelbak slob. So in the past I have jury-rigged an assortment of bottles into the tree, to varying degrees of success… as well as some spectacular fails.

Recently, a good solution I have come across, also made by Camelbak, is the Chute Mag. You can get them in various sizes, I have opted for the 1.2 litre version, as on a hot day this will see me through at least half the day to then top up. The bottle has a wide opening, which makes it easy to clean. The screw top is clever, as the cap is retained by a plastic flap, so you will not drop it out of the tree and when you fold it back it is located by a magnet to prevent it from flopping around. I did not realise I found this annoying in the older version of the Chute – until I used this version. Neat. Also incorporated into the screw top is a really beefy moulding which is large enough to clip a full size karabiner or a Vault into – with little risk of it tearing off.

Camelbak offer the bottle in two models, the standard plastic version as well as a thermos version, the Chute Mag Vacuum, which is made out of stainless steel. The latter is slightly heavier but is great as it will keep liquids warm in winter – and cool in summer. I hadn’t really cottoned onto the advantages of using a vacuum bottle when it is warm until the other day when I left my bottle lying by the foot of the tree on a warm day, in full sunshine… so when I came down out of the tree in need of a drink, I was fully expecting it to taste disgusting – as water in a plastic bottle does after having been left in the sun – to then be pleasantly surprised by the cooled liquid. The other version of stainless steel over aluminium is you do not need to worry if/ when it gets tonked, that some gross coating on the inside starts to peel off, as it will with the SIGG bottles. Been there, cannot recommend it.

I have found the integrated clip to be strong enough to clip the bottle to the harness with a locking karabiner or to leave it parked at the top of the access line, there when I need it.

Full disclosure, I do not receive any money from Camelbak to promote their product, I simply appreciate and enjoy using a well thought-out, durable product that offers a high degree of functionality.

700!

Who would have thought it back in April 2014 that five years and 699 blog posts later the treemagineers blog would still be going strong. Writing on all sorts of matters more or less loosely connected to climbing, gear and arboriculture – and a plethora of other topics on the way – remains interesting, stimulating and fun. In no small part this is due to the interesting feedback I receive when I meet people at events.

Thank all of you who bother to stop by regularly to see what has dropped out of my mind, who enter into dialogue on the topics discussed and who offer ideas for future posts.

Let’s continue to communicate!

Inconvenient truth #2

Following on from yesterday’s post, I would like to thank everybody who shared their thoughts on the matter on Facebook. The feedback was interesting and diverse. 

Isn’t it interesting how once you get talking about something that seemingly there is a consensus on, all of a sudden it becomes apparent that in reality there are all sorts of assumptions and assessments being made, some wildly divergent. Communication, as so often, is the key…

One of the points which a number of people commented was the fact that other practices also causing damage: This is uncontested and not the point I was trying to make. This is not a case of one over the other. I am sure we all agree, for instance that heavy mountaineering or forestry boots cause significant damage. But here is the kicker: in all likelihood we agree upon that. The question I was raising was what about instances where we are not picking up on damage we are causing using techniques or tools deemed to be fit for purpose? And to be clear: foot ascenders was but one example. Also, there are many variables, the species of tree being worked on, the work being performed, the model of foot ascender being used, to name but a few.

One person also raised the issue of damage at the anchor point when not using cambium savers. I agree this is a concern – after all, as an industry it has been a fair few years since we agreed upon the fact that it makes sense, as well as being technically feasible to protect the bark of the tree from abrasion damage at the main anchor point.

I think it is a moot point trying to prioritise one of these issues over others, it is a matter of considering them side by side: there may be a compelling argument to go ahead regardless of a degree of damage being caused, but where we can avoid and prevent damage, why not do so? The key here is not shying away from examining issues even if they involve tools and techniques which are dear to us. After all, often it will not be a question of ditching something outright, but rather of analysing the issues to then identify solutions.

Craig Johnson made me laugh when he wrote that the reason he removes his ascender is due to muscle memory: climbing with foot ascenders reminds him of climbing with spikes, so he found himself trying to spike with his ascender 😊

But on a more serious note, musculoskeletal disorders or repetitive strain injuries, as with all other techniques, also are worth considering in this discussion – on the pro as well as the con side of the argument… in regards of loading, unlike footlocking, the use of a single foot ascender could potentially cause quite asymmetrical loading and, as Kay Busemann pointed out, considerable load on the outside ligaments of the foot. But then again, footlocking imposes other loads and stresses on the body. In both instances there are fixes: maybe by alternating left and right foot ascenders or using a knee ascender, or by modifying your footlocking technique in differentiating the moment you push up to reduce the lateral force being exerted on the knees when bent. The reality though is probably that there is not such thing as a silver bullet: that one technique that ticks all boxes for everybody simply does not exist – bodies differ and so will appropriate, viable techniques.

Anyway, interesting stuff and food for thought, thank to all who shared their thoughts on the matter. Let’s carry on talking.

Inconvenient truth

You may remember Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, which documented former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming. Well, there are any number of uncomfortable and/ or inconvenient truths out there, truths that fly in the face of convention, comfort or lifestyle choices, to name but a few – so why should tree care be exempt from this kind of phenomenon?

A number of developments and trends of recent years puzzle me.

Take foot ascenders, for instance. I have no issue whatsoever using foot ascenders for ascent, on stationary lines in combination with ascenders, or as an assist in a doubled running rope system to replace the onerous body thrust. However, when I reach the top of my ascent I will invariably remove my foot ascender, as during my climbing and work positioning the inside surface of my foot will constantly be in contact with the tree, clamping, stabilising, creating friction or sliding. Subjectively therefore, for my climbing style, wearing a big lump of metal on the inside of my foot is really not a viable option due to the damage it would inflict on the bark of the tree – not to mention it being clunky and cumbersome.

So here is what I do not get: at some point it would seem it became standard practice to wear foot ascenders, during ascent, work positioning – and during lunch break. I actually have less issue if someone chooses to keep their foot ascender on during lunch break, it is not likely to cause any damage there. However, the inconvenient truth here is that it is impossible to ignore the damage which foot ascenders cause – in fact it would seem to me that instead of shrinking some of the newer models have actually become even more voluminous. To my mind this is more than a practical issue, rather it is an ethical question: similar as when hiking in the bush, we try to leave no, or at least minimal traces after having climbed a tree – and should be choosing our equipment accordingly.

I understand that foot ascenders in some instances may be an integral, central part of a climbing system, for instance if a person has physical impairments that would render climbing impossible otherwise – this is not what I am talking about. I am thinking more of the unquestioned consensus that it is normal and acceptable to use foot ascenders all the time and under all conditions – and to ignore or overlook the damage that this practice may be causing.

Quite opinionated, you say?

Well, maybe you chose to use a foot ascender and have adapted your technique accordingly to avoid damage. If this is indeed the case, then pardon my ignorance. But if is not, you opt to use it all the time heedless of damage, I would have to ask you the question whether tree care is not supposedly about the very opposite, i.e. about respecting the tree and preventing harm whenever possible – or at least mitigating it to a minimum. The way I see foot ascenders is that they are one tool in our pallet of equipment, to be used discerningly and wisely – not simply as a matter of course, without any reflection.