Sometimes you cannot help but wonder #2

When it comes to making women feel welcome and included, I would suggest that the tree care industry has a problem. Bearing in mind that roughly 50% of humanity is female, there is a clear under-represantation of women in tree care.

The reasons for this are manifold, as was demonstrated at this year’s Climbers Forum in Augsburg. The discussion there was intriguing, ambiguous and there was a wide range of views expressed when it came to what exactly reasons are, whether there is a problem at all – and if so how to mitigate it.

One thing that really gets me going is inappropriately used imagery. In view of the imbalance I strongly object to a sex sells-pitch to promote brands or gear. Do not get me wrong, I have no issue whatsoever of images showing women behaving in a professional manner, on the contrary, I think this can send a very powerful, positive message.

However, the image above really had me scratching my head.

C’mon, Stihl, you can do better, surely?

I mean, what is even the narrative here? Is the lady going to ride off into the sunset, wielding the MS661 in one hand and the axe in the other in gay abandon? I don’t get it, certainly not selling me on their product.

For the future I would really wish for this industry that we manage to portray the arborist profession in a inclusive fashion – and will be able to leave this kind of cheap marketing behind us on a along with all other biases and stereotypes.

Sometimes you cannot help but wonder

A couple of months ago I was instructing a level two course.

These courses can be a bit tricky, as often as not you get groups with quite mixed levels of abilities and competencies – which can in turn make it challenging to ensure that you are not boring one half of the group whilst going way over the heads of the other half. I tend to simply stick to the syllabus of the course we are instructing, this seems to me to be transparent and fair, a sort of what you see is what you get-kind of deal.

And let’s face it, it has never hurt anybody to hear something twice.

This course was no exception, one of the participants obviously felt we were really wasting his time – despite the fact that in climbing it became apparent that there were significant gaps in his knowledge. Oh, it had never even occurred to me to think about it that way. No shit, Sherlock?! Ignorance, as they say, truly is bliss. And if you never ask any questions, yes, indeed you can comfortably recline in your fuzzy bubble of omniscience – as there are no questions to answer. But this is a long way from being proficient in an activity, or having a deep understanding.

Similar type situation the other day: we were working on a tree overhanging one of those outdoor street gyms. Soaring levels of testosterone and cheap chat-up lines à gogo. Not my scene, but hey, who am I to judge? Anyway, one of the guys “coaching” one of the women takes a break to approach me during the tidy-up – with a roll-up hanging from the corner of his mouth – and says that what we are doing looks pretty chill.

Errr, does it?

Yeah, he says, you would not believe all the things I have done in my life – without any formal training. I reckon I could do this. Formal training is all about making money, never about learning.

Gotta go, I said.

Both of the above are examples of the Dunning Kruger effect in action.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about this bias:

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. On the other hand, people of high ability incorrectly assume that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for other people.

The other day I was struck while watching an interview with John Butler, a highly talented Australian guitarist, of how it  illustrated the other end of the spectrum: the person conducting the interview said how he was under the impression that the musicians of the John Butler Trio were genuinely enjoying playing together. John confirmed this and went on to describe how he felt for the first time that he was slowly getting the hang of this performing in front of an audience business, in contrast to the first ten years of his career, where he had been terrified of being rumbled as not being good enough or a fraud.

Now you would have thought that a person who is obviously as proficient at what he does as John would not need to doubt himself like that – but the contrary is the case. The guys in the first two examples are less competent at what they do, this lack of knowledge and experience leads them to overestimate their actual level of ability, while a deeply competent operator like John has much more accurate tools to gauge his level of ability – and will therefore be less prone to stumbling into the Dunning Kruger pitfall.

Whilst being competent leaves place for self-doubt, it also equips you with better tools to assess your true level of competence.

Job opportunity

Besides being involved with treemagineers, I am also co-owner of baumpartner, a tree care co-op based in Basel, Switzerland.

From 1 October onwards we have an opening for a climbing arborist. Not too fussed about qualifications, we are more interested in finding someone who fits well into the team.

baumpartner has been up and running since 2000, almost all of the work we do is within a 20km radius, the work is a mix of residential and communal contracts. One of the attractions of working this way is that often you will be returning to trees you have worked on before and can assess the effectiveness of earlier measures performed on the tree. The work ranges from tree protection on building sites, all aspects of pruning and bracing, technical rigging, crane removals, tree planting and consultation.

Basel is in north-western Switzerland, right on the border with France and Germany. The city offers lots in the way of culture and entertainment, is easy to get around on a bicycle. The central location in Europe means you can hop in a car and get to loads of interesting places in a couple of hours.

There is a lot of cross-over from the other projects I am involved with, the company re-invests in new equipment and we have an interest in offering employees a dynamic, supportive and interesting work environment. baumpartner from the get-go has fostered a culture of level hierarchies, as well as a spirit of solidarity and looking out for each other, which is core to our vision of how people ought to work together.

As I mentioned above, we are not necessarily looking for the best of the best, rather someone who is dedicated and committed to delivering high-quality tree work, enjoys working in a team and is keen to broaden their horizon.

If you are interested or would like to know more, please feel free to send me a mail at

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

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.