It ain’t over ’til it’s over

I was writing the other day about the necessity to be diligent and attentive to details, which brought to my mind this situation… You may remember how last winter we were working on that alignment of large London plane trees?

They were big beasties, with long ascents and posing interesting work-positioning challenges. At the beginning of such a project I find myself a bit tense, wondering whether I have priced sufficient time in to get the job done. For this concrete project, the weather at the beginning was pretty atrocious, wet and blustery, with ice on the trees in the morning. Yuck. But we stuck it out and worked our way through the alignment, everything working out just fine in the end.

On one of the last trees we had a freelance arborist join us for a day, as we were a bit short-staffed.

After an uneventful day, we had just finished the last tree for that day and were busy packing up. Round the other side of the tree, X was busy pulling down the access line, packing it away into its bag, when all of a sudden, I heard a rather ominous uh-ohh.

It transpired that he was so focused on stuffing the line into the bag that he had overlooked the fact that the last ten meters or so of the line were tangled up into a huge rope ball, and that this ball was now dangling a good ten meters off the ground.


Sooooo, we break the cubes and throwlines out of the vehicle again and start trying to snag the rope ball to pull it down, which, after a bit of fiddling around, we managed to do.

Whilst in and of itself this story is very undramatic, it does illustrate what happens when your focus narrows down, for whatever reasons, and you miss stuff going on around you. In this case, I would suggest that mentally X was already into job-done-mode, goal achieved (this being a further variation on the theme of target fixation). When in actual fact we were not quit done yet, missing the tangled rope meant we had to do another lap before finishing up. To my mind this demonstrates the importance of holding focus and attention right up until the very last step of a job.

Truly, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Recommended reads #7

The crew at Hévéa have produced a stunning book, Grimpeur d’Arbres, Suspendus entre ciel et terre, a lovingly craved oeuvre, which follows in loving detail the development of tree climbing techniques from a historical perspective, zooming in closer to examine the developments of the past forty years. The book is beautifully produced, very high quality imagery with great attention to detail. You can flash the pages with a dedicated mobile app to access further background materials, such as rare video footage, documents or imagery.

The book traces how arboriculture emerged as a profession in France, the founding of associations and emergence of collaborations. It touches upon extended applications of tree climbing techniques, such as for canopy research purposes in the tropics, for recreational or pedagogic purposes, it also traces the development and role of tree climbing competitions, from Lahnstein in 1993 onwards, from their humble beginnings, acting as a conduit of information and one of the very few networking opportunities, to where they are today.

Where the book really shines though, in my opinion, is where it mentions individuals and groups who made significant contributions towards making tree climbing what it is today. It is good to see these untold stories documented for posterity and credit being given where due.

The book does a good job of reflecting the rich tapestry of modern tree climbing in an arboricultural context, the team who put this all together put a lot of time and effort into this very fine tribute to climbers’ culture – a big thank you to them for that! There a limited number of copies available, so if you do happen to stumble across one, you can certainly spend €45 on many worse things! You don’t speak French? Ok, but actually it is worth it for the images alone – and you’ll get the genreal gist.

Comes highly recommended.


What’s in a name?

This message from Mik here in PNW made my day.

Yet that is only part of the story, my understanding of what treemagineers can represent is not set in stone. It is not a brand which is very rigid and defined, rather in can evolve, mirroring our development over time or developments within the industry, also new insights or technologies.

Yet there is a red thread through all of this, which is inclusive, tolerant and based upon reflection and inquiry. Feel free to join us for the ride…

Oh, speaking of which, post-Charlotteville, let it be said, once again, loud and clear: let’s keep our houses, communities and towns clean and put the garbage where it belongs…



Chain of events

During last week’s rigging workshop in Oregon I was discussing chains of events which lead to system failures. Oftentimes the actions of the person involved in the accident are merely the final straw in a long enchainment of causalities which end in catastrophic failure.

In this respect you can sometimes almost say that the person is set up to fail.

One of my favourite examples to illustrate this effect is the story of British Airways flight 5390.

Flight 5390 was a scheduled passenger flight between Birmingham and Malagà in Spain. On 10 June 1990, Tim Lancaster was due to pilot the BAC 1-11, his co-pilot was Alastair Aitchison, plus a crew of three flight attendants. After an uneventful take-off, the cabin crew was just busy preparing the in-flight meal, when at a height of 5’300m, passing over Oxfordshire, the left cockpit window explosively blew out of its frame without any warning. Lancaster, who had unfastened his harness, was sucked out of the window due to the sudden decompression, his feet snagging on the flight controls. This resulted in his torso being pressed down by the wind against the fuselage outside the aircraft, with only his legs in the cockpit. Flight attendant Nigel Ogden grabbed Lancaster’s legs to prevent him being sucked all the way out. The decompression had caused the door to the flight deck to blow out, which was now jammed against the throttle, causing the aircraft to continue accelerating whilst descending.

Lancaster, after the event, went on record as saying that when he saw the tail fin of the plane, he knew that something was really wrong. Well yes, you can’t fault that reasoning.

The poor chap was being battered by 550km/h winds at temperatures of -17° Celsius, rapidly loosing consciousness in the thin air.

Atchinson initiated an emergency descent. Due to the noise of the wind rushing past the cockpit, he was struggling to establish two-way communication with air traffic control, in order to inform them of the emergency.

Meanwhile Ogden, still holding onto Lancaster, was also developing frostbite and was exhausted. He was relieved by the two remaining members of the flight crew. Lancaster had at this point been pulled a further fifteen to twenty centimetres out of the window. The crew assumed that Lancaster was dead, now mainly holding onto him to prevent him from being sucked into the engine, potentially causing an engine failure.

After a twenty minute ordeal, Aitchison finally managed to land the plane safely in Southhampton, the passengers were evacuated and the emergency crews rescued Lancaster – who, amazingly, apart from some frostbite, bruising and shock, as well as fractures to the arm, thumb and wrist, escaped otherwise unscathed from this extraordinary incident.

The post-incident investigation revealed that the window which failed had been replaced 27 hours before the incident. However, 84 of the 90 windscreen retention bolts were 0.66 mm too small in diameter, while the remaining six were 2.5 mm too short. This was due to an earlier botched repair on the window, where wrong bolts had been used to fix it in place. During this repair, like had been replaced for like, so the faulty bolts went undetected. Furthermore, the inquest revealed a design quirk in the 1-11, whereby the window is bolted onto the airframe from the outside rather than from inside, which exerts further pressure on the bolts when the external air pressure is low.

The inquiry panel identified a number of action to be taken as consequence of this incident, such as the need for British Airways to review their quality assurance protocols, that the Civil Aviation Agency should consider the need for periodic training and testing of engineers or that, if prescribed, aircraft engineers should use corrective glasses when undertaking engineering tasks.

This case illustrates how a couple of millimetres can literally make all the difference – it also drives home the importance of being attentive to details and diligent when it comes to safety critical systems and to not let mistakes slip by unnoticed or to become self-perpetuating, but rather to identify and deal with them.

Sometimes I cannot help but wonder

Knut pointed this one out to me… I cannot help but feel deeply perplexed and more than a bit irritated by it.

Really? Arborist gear is heavy? Thanks so much, I would never have noticed, so that is why I have been schlepping myself stupid all these years?!

But seriously: Arborist gear is heavy exactly because it is has safety factors designed into it to compensate for the wear and tear of professional use – unlike sporting equipment, which is designed with other parameters and standards in mind. The original post of which I have inserted a screen shot above links to a video detailing how you can supposedly convert a rock climbing harness to do exactly what a treeMOTION does (no, I will not be posting the link, thank you very much).

That someone should actively suggest or promote adapting a sporting product to an industrial application… where to start?! To put it charitably, this speaks at the very least of a profound lack of understanding of the topic.

Ultimately I cannot make these kinds of calls for someone else, if they see fit to apply this kind of logic to the way they select equipment for their work, so be it – yet should something go wrong, they would very likely find themselves in seriously hot water. I do however object to promoting this to others as being acceptable practice. It is not. There is absolutely no way that a manufacturer of a rock climbing harness would accept this kind of adaptation of their kit to a totally different area of application. What makes it all the more puzzling is that there are products out there that do exactly this job, were in fact designed to do so – so why would you chose not to use them? Or how can you justify a decision to use one over the other? This is what would commonly be referred to as “a very, very bad idea”.

Not to mention the whole process of bringing to market the products which, unlike what is being proposed here, are actually fit for purpose: the years of design and development process, the investment of time, money and effort, the validation, the testing and certification, the specialist manufacturing or the quality assurance…

And why is this DIY approach preferable? Because it is so much more comfortable? Or cheaper? Really?

I rest my case. This is simply waaaaay beyond my comprehension.

Truly, in this glorious day and age of social media all you need to be an expert on your very own soap box is a Facebook or YouTube account – and a keyboard.


Tree huggers vs. tree slayers

After last week’s rigging session in Oregon there was some banter back and forth about whether or not it is right to train people in these techniques – or whether ultimately they serve the solve purpose of destroying trees and should therefore not be instructed but rather in their place teach how to cherish and embrace trees.

I have to admit to having been puzzled at this black and white take on an important topic. Not to mention that I think that the social media platform is totally not conducive to having an balanced and constructive discussion. All the more so as I do not consider myself troll fodder.

As I stated in the last blog post, part of what interests me in teaching is identifying problem solving techniques and skills. The other aspect that I feel strongly about is about empowering people, as often as not we will be working with people who are not exactly at the top of the pile, who can do with being told that their behaviour makes a difference – at many levels.

As an arborist, I believe it is a no-brainer that I strive to conserve trees, where- and whenever possible. Yet as a professional I also cannot close my eyes to the fact that there are instances where this may not be possible, due to the risk the condition of the tree poses or due to damage a future development would cause – amongst other reasons. There are some trees I will fight tooth and claw over, in other instances I will weigh up the negative side effects of an unhappy compromise versus the longer-term viability of a well placed and planted young tree. Of course this is in not way an equal replacement, or at least not until many years have passed, but sometimes I feel this is a more honest route to follow, rather than sustaining an unhappy, unviable quasi-solution, where the care being administered to the tree is almost palliative.

Does that make me complicit? This probably depends upon the eye of the beholder.

What I know is that I am always very aware of dealing with a living being and therefore go to great lengths to apply the highest degree of diligence and professionalism possible. Decisions on how to proceed are never taken lightly or on the spur of a moment in view of both ethical and legal implications.

I am clear in my mind that there comes a point where the removal of a tree may become necessary, in such a case this ought to happen in a safe, respectful and professional manner. I am also convinced that an empowered, trained person is better equipped to work through the processes I describe above, preserving trees for as long as possible, finding viable compromises and solutions, able to argue in favour of a tree, rather than simply chopping them down at an owner’s whim. And when they do need to come down, they are able to do so without endangering themselves or others – or damaging surrounding trees. And that is where training comes into the picture.

Feel free to state that you would never do this, that or the other – from an argumentative point of view it will allow you occupy the moral high ground – but ultimately you are not helping to find solutions on the front line.

I see myself neither as tree hugger or tree slayer (or maybe as a bit of both), but rather as someone who passionately believes in the value and preservation of trees in urban environments for as long as possible, going to great lengths to mediate viable and sustainable solutions to do so.

Oregon Workshop

Just finished a two-day rigging workshop with Phil Kelley in Hood River, OR.

Once again we were exploring the sadly underused HSE Rigging Research document I have written about a number of times before. The spine of the workshop were the eleven generic rigging scenarios which this document identifies, the nine A scenarios with an anchor point above, and the two B scenarios with an anchor point below the mass. I have learnt a lot from running these courses and believe that it is important to understand these as the foundation for any rigging-related discussion. They are similar to what the ABC is for communication: without an understanding of the constituent components, we cannot combine them to form the phrases we would like to create, to describe the thoughts we want to express.

Apart from this, what made this session special for me was the location: we were graciously hosted by the folk at Rahane, a woodland community based in the hills above Hood River. I am deeply interested by people developing alternative visions to what is regarded as the way it is – after all, it is not as though we were making a terribly good job of it. Alternatives are therefore something we urgently need… whilst this off-grid community may not be every persons’s cup of tea, I certainly found what I saw of it very inspiring and stimulating. A big thank you to Ryan and the Rahanians for their warm welcome and gracious hospitality.

The group was, as is often the case, a mix of various levels of competence and experience. I hope that by spinning diverse topics off the various scenarios we were able to offer something to everybody. In groups like this I am very aware of the fact that some people may already have heard a fair bit of what is bring presented. However, we also need to consider those with less experience. To be honest, I love watching other people present, even if it is on a topic I have already given a lot of thought  – or maybe then even more so – as I am interested in seeing where they apply their emphasis, what analogies they use, what insights they may have spotted that I have missed. And you cannot help but enjoy watching someone doing a good job of presenting a topic (I am not saying that that is what I did, but I certainly give it my very best).

Ultimately, what interests me about this topic, similar as to aerial rescue training, is that inevitably we will end up discussing problem solving skills. And these can be applied across the board – to all walks of life.

Thank to all who attended and to Mik Miaz for the photos. A big thank you also to Teufelberger who generously provided and shipped Sirius, arborWINCH and tREX rigging lines for the workshop.

Figure of speech

Talking about rockets… back in DC during this year’s ITCC, Phil Kelley and Tony Tresselt from Gravitational Anarchy pointed out an interesting fact:

When confronted with tricky situations, I often tend to attempt to calm myself by repeating, mantra-like, that whatever I am attempting to do is not rocket science, after all. Like helping to run a tree climbing competition, for instance.

So, mused Tony and Phil, conceivably somewhere out there, hidden deep down in their labs, there are probably NASA rocket scientists puzzling over a problem, saying to each other: Come on, lads… after all, it is not as though this were tree climbing!

Stranger things have been known to be true…


Strange Daze

After having spent the past few days in Seattle, yesterday I drove down  to Mount Hood in Oregon, where I will be delivering a rigging workshop with Phil Kelley tomorrow and the day after.

I believe a lot of the drive would have been quite spectacular, landscape-wise, especially driving up the Columbia river gorge, east of Portland. You can imagine the views of Mount Hood and the Cascade mountain range, the many waterfalls, all of this under a deep blue sky.

Why only imagine?

Because at the moment this whole region is smothered in a haze of smoke from forest fires up in British Columbia. The atmosphere these past few days has been very strange, it was forecast to be very hot with clear skies, yet it feels like as though the weather were about to change, slightly oppressive and surreal, with much lower temperatures due to all the smoke and ash in the atmosphere.

Don’t worry, I am not about to go native here, like a seasoned Seattelite, moaning about traffic and weather – the point I am trying to make is different one…

What this brought home to me is how helpless we are in face of forces of nature and how profound a consequence the atmospheric conditions have for us down on the ground – it also brought home to me what effect a major volcanic eruption could have, potentially globally on the climate. Looking to the past, think of the Year Without Summer in 1816, when global temperatures decreased by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F) due to a massive eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, resulting in major food shortages across the northern hemisphere.

Then, a bit earlier this evening, I caught up with the news on the BBC World Service web page… and saw two small men threatening each other with their Doomsday weapons and can’t help but feel chilled and deeply concerned. They are talking about war, in one of the most densely populated regions of the world, where geopolitical powers face each other across demilitarised zones in a hair-trigger situation.

One cannot help but feel sceptical about the very concept of a limited nuclear strike, the probability of repercussions of such an act going global is high – and the spectre of a nuclear winter rears its ugly head, making the BC forest fires pale to insignificance in comparison.

How anyone can conceive of this as being a good idea is beyond my comprehension. And here was me thinking that great power brings with it great responsibility. It would appear not, as these two spoilt brats are demonstrating.

Duck and cover, indeed! From a strange haze to be living under – to strange days to be living in.

Barking up the wrong tree?

A question one could ask oneself after the Aerial Rescue post the other day is whether Aerial Rescue should not simply be about… demonstrating rescue skills and casualty handling – as the name implies.

To that I would reply that in my opinion, the whole topic of Aerial Rescue, regardless of whether it is an tree climbing championship context or some other – revolves around applying problem solving skills. Unforeseen circumstances force operators to to rapidly adapt to the situation, without much time for thinking through options or for prior rehearsal. With this I am by no means suggesting that it is impossible to train for emergencies, au contraire, it is possible to do so – in fact, it is important to do so. But let’s be clear: if the first time you are giving the matter some thought is once an accident has occurred, this is obviously not the right moment to start doing so – and that should this be the case, there is a high likelihood that you are setting yourself up to fail.

Regardless of all that, in such situations you may be applying your problem solving skill set to various areas, of which rescue skills and casualty handling are but two examples. The challenges which present themselves are manifold and may have to do with the structure of the tree and the climbing skills involved, they may have to do with medical aspects or present rigging challenges in the case of a scenario where a climber is trapped under a rigging system, to name but a couple.

Therefore I believe it to be essential to bear this in mind when training for emergencies or setting scenarios for tree climbing comps, to not limit oneself simply to one type of scenario but to strive for the highest level of competence possible in all of these areas.

I have stated this before, and will do so again, that this is one of the aspects I find so interesting about this line of work, is that it forces you to continually expand the tool box in your head: it is not sufficient to have one tool which you try to apply to all situations, rather you develop a systematic approach with a range of suitable problem solving tools in order to be able to adapt to rapidly evolving situations in as flexible and safe a manner as possible.