Looking forwards

Beddes, Chris and I will be meeting up for three days in Müllheim, in southern Germany, next week.

Apart from the fact that it is always fun and interesting spending time together, I am very excited at the prospect of moving the various projects that are in the pipeline forwards and being updated on current projects.

If you have not already planned it in, a number of these will be unveiled at the trade show of German Tree Care Days, which the Climbers’ Forum is also part of. So there are multiple reasons to join us there… the dates are 5, 6 and 7 May 2015 with simultaneous translation into French and English being available for Climbers’ Forum.

What we will not be unveiling in 2015 is the treemagineers’ anti-gravity work positioning harness and the trans-dimensional brush removal portal. I am looking forwards to this tech, but is in the very early development stages, you may have to be a bit patient for those…

Wear and Tear

This one has been creeping up on me a bit these last few months and has come to a head during the last week…

After a couple of heavy days climbing I have been finding myself really struggling with the tendons of both lower arms and my elbow joints. This is quite uncomfortable and in the evenings it can leave me feeling as though I have hands like a Lego man and can also result in a numb, tingling sensation in the hands.

I find stuff like this really worrying, when your body does not behave as it should, yet am confident it can be sorted out with care and attention. Part of it is climbing smart, not overdoing things and using ergonomic techniques and equipment – but also listening to signals that the body is giving you and giving it a physical break when necessary.

After twenty five years of intensive climbing all this does not come as a huge surprise, after all, wear and tear is to be expected in view of the type of work being performed. I am actually glad that it is not more than this, not to say that there is an inevitability to it, yet in my mind this does have to do with cyclic wear.

Cycles to Failure is an engineering term to evaluate the effects of material fatigue on the life span of a given material.

This is expressed in a S-N curve, Sª on the vertical axis representing the alternating stress amplitude, versus the horizontal axis which expresses the  number of cycles (Nf) to failure.

The higher the load, the lower the cycles to failure, inversely, the lower the load, the higher the number of cycles to eventual failure. This is complex stuff, not quite as easily summed up in rules of thumb as some would have you believe, yet the concept is simple enough: if you load a system close to failure, you can load it less times than if you always stay well below a critical loading point. However, even if the load is low, if the cycles are very high, in due course, this can also lead to failure, as has been the case with connectors in paragliding rigs for example.

One of the questions I have been asking people I meet who work with health and safety organisations and/ or have a medical background is whether the cycles to failure model is also applicable to the human body. Can the same concept of high loads = low cycles and low loads = high cycles be transferred to us?

Watching kids down in town doing Parkour, doing big jumps and other funky moves, I always wince a bit and wonder what sort of damage this is doing to their bodies and especially their joints long-term. Or have I got it all wrong, and actually it is all down to your genes and the way your body is built, some knees fail faster than others? I suspect it is a combination of both. But not just that… a key difference between a machine and a body is a body’s inherent resilience and an ability to repair itself.

the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
“nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
“the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”

Obviously, a machine can be engineered to have a defined degree of resilience, but once a point of maximum tolerable loading is passed, will suffer irreversible damage and/ or deformation. Once this point of no return is passed, the damage is permanent. Animal cells however have an amazing ability to regenerate. Obviously the same holds true here, continuous, repetitive movements can result in repetitive strain injuries or musculoskeletal disorders, or worse, a single extreme incident can lead to failure, but within a range of tolerance, a body is able to repair damage – which is quite amazing, if you stop to think about it. Even more amazing is the fact how we take this resilience for granted.

So… the answer is, I am not sure whether the Cycles to Failure model – or a variation of it – is applicable both to machinery as well as the human body, but will keep on pestering people and will let you know should I find out more.

In the mean time I intend to go easy on my elbows, looking forwards to a bit of rest over Christmas and New Year.

Bit of an issue

We had one of our regular instructor meetings for Baumklettern Schweiz yesterday in not-so-sunny Windisch.

We spent the morning indoors working through a number of topics – one that looms large at the moment being how to accommodate the new best practice guidelines that SUVA, the Swiss health and safety body, issued in 2012.

Rather unfortunately SUVA decided to attempt to establish common guide lines for a very broad range of activities, that address any form of work on and in trees, so in effect this applies to gardeners pruning ornamental tress, foresters installing winch lines or arborist pruning large trees as well as to industrial rope access folk felling trees in steep terrain.

As you can probably imagine, finding a consensus amongst such a diverse group of professions is nigh impossible.

Not surprisingly the end result is an unhappy compromise leaving many questions open. Without a  doubt, things like this are a process and take time to evolve. Baumklettern Schweiz was part of the consultation process for this first set of documents and will hopefully be able to contribute towards further refinements.

Consequently a new clientele of gardeners and landscapers are requiring training for the use of PPE to work in a secure fashion at height, including when they are on ladders. This is a one day course that will be mandatory as a part of their curriculum as from next year.

This is all very well in theory – but you catch yourself wondering how all this looks in practice.

Well, I have part of that answer:

There we were, discussing all I wrote about above ad nausea, when outside the window, what d’you know, there is a guy pruning the pollarded Plane trees outside the restaurant – completely unsecured, free climbing the tree. The situation got even more absurd in the afternoon when we went outdoors to discuss some practical aspects of these courses – so we were on one tree, all as should be, hi viz clothing, ladder secured and tied in – whilst in the background here is this other bloke free climbing the next tree!

Room with a view

In many way this brought home to me what we are up against here:

Insurance and health and safety organisations respond to accident statistics.

So if they receive a lot of claims related to tree climbing incidents, they will react accordingly, for instance by putting more restrictive regulations in place. The frustrating thing being though, that that fact who had the accidents is not factored into the equation:

Was is a farmer who fell out of the tree? Was it a forester, a gardener or an employee of a cleaning company? Was it the janitor or an odd-job man? Were they trained and qualified to do what they were doing? So often the truth is that the majority of incidents do not involve trained arborists, yet we are affected by legislation becoming more restrictive.

What to do?

That is not an easy one. If you see people working in blatant disregards of your local regulation, it might be worth considering reporting them. I do not really see this a grassing on the guys on the tools, very likely this is how they were instructed to do the work and they know no better – so it is really the employer who needs to be held responsible, which a visit by a health and safety inspector would achieve.

And I suppose, as I have written before, we need to make sure that as professionals we behave accordingly at all times, making tree care a reference point when it comes to best practice – and not just a another bunch of cowboys that need a guiding hand…

The Challenges of Training

A couple of weeks ago I started a post with this quote by Shunryu Suzuki:

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”

Then I was writing about some thoughts on innovation, last week I thought back to that quote in a different context. On the first day of a level two Basic Tree Climbing course we were working through the required knots with the students and checking their gear prior to going out into the field in the afternoon. I was talking about the possible misconfigurations of a Scaffold/ Barrel knot when one of the students said that is how he ties all his knots.

Umm, let’s have a look then…

When I checked his gear, it transpired that indeed, he had tied all his Scaffold/ Barrel knots in this fashion – essentially leaving him climbing on slip knots.

Here is the link to the IRATA PDF, as obviously you cannot open it from the JPG above and WordPress will not allow me to embed a PDF file.

Admittedly this is not a new problem, but it did rattle me, as I am pretty clear in my mind that realistically speaking I would not have spotted the knots in the student’s gear. They were pulled very tight and looked like the real thing – BUT the ends were fairly short, on an 8mm hitch cord, so who knows what might happen in case of shock loading or in a dynamic situation. I found this very disturbing – for a number of reasons…

There are the obvious safety implications for a start, but it is also indicative of a system failure in regards to the climber’s comprehension of the knots he was trusting his life to, the way in which he had been taught to tie them and the controls within the framework of the team that he is working in.

My intent is by no means to point fingers at anyone here, or to make fun of the student, on the contrary, I was very grateful to him for bringing the issue to my attention, because as I wrote above, I am pretty sure I would not have spotted it – but it does really drive home the need for relentless diligence not only during training but also generally when considering systems that prevent a fall. We will be discussing and debriefing this incident in greater depth next week, but one obvious solution is to use stitched slings for training, also in the future I will certainly be checking Barrel/ Scaffold knots with even greater attention than I do already.


To close the circle to the Shunryu Suzuki quote, part of training is foreseeing failure modes or things that might be done wrong or misunderstood by someone with less experience. The many possibilities that the beginner sees that Suzuki mentions may make him or her more prone to unsafe actions, as some of the possibilities may be more suited to the task than others. And the few possibilities that the expert sees may in such an instance blinker him or her to possible errors.

This was definitively such a case.

It demonstrated to me with great clarity the need in such situations to take a step back from expertise and assuming that things are clear: When training, it is essential to spell everything out – step by step – even if to the expert’s eye things may appear blindingly obvious, for the beginner or the trainee however this may well not be the case!

Anomalies and euphemisms

A couple of weeks ago Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed due to a mechanism designed to slow its descent being deployed earlier than intended. US officials are still working to determine the cause of the accident, which killed one pilot and severely injured the other. Also recently, Orbital Science’s Antares carrier rocket exploded a couple of seconds after lift off.

The bland term used to describe both these incidents is anomaly.

This may seem like playing things down a bit, especially as the incidents involve, literally, astronomically expensive pieces of hardware and in this case even more so in view of the fact that one person was killed and another injured. But spaceflight has a tradition of such euphemisms, think Houston, we have a problem.


Part of this stems from a mentality of not wanting to rush to premature conclusions, but is at the same time indicative of the mindset that any situation, even if it is dramatic, can be analyzed, understood and addressed.

Two things struck me about the above. First off, I will take anomaly on board as a euphemism to be employed when things go wrong…

Mark: Ma’m, I am afraid I have to tell you that we seem to have had a bit of an anomaly.

Customer: Anomaly? What do you mean?

Mark: Well, we just bombed the top of the Robinia we were felling through the roof of your car port and have totaled your 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster

Customer: Again?! We’ve only just had it sorted out after your last mishapOh dear, Mr. Bridge… I do believe my husband is going to be rather upset.

Mark (mumbling): Beam me up, Scotty!

Anomaly just makes it sound more professional and space-racey.

But jokes aside, I do think that the mentality of assuming that things can be worked through in a rational fashion is interesting. If things start to feel a bit sketchy, let us take the time to analyze what the issues are, assess what means we have to address them – by using different techniques, different tools or machinery or different personnel – and then in response to the problems encountered to develop an alternative work plan. What I like about this approach is that it puts the team on site firmly in the driver’s seat, rather than paralyzed in the headlights of the rapidly approaching car… the inevitability often as not stems from ignoring warning signs that could and should have been recognised and might have prevented the system from failing.

So here we go… being able to write this was actually the reason for this post:

This is really not rocket science, people!

Let’s think a bit more Apollo 13 and a bit less Costa Concordia! Let us take a pro-active attitude towards risk mitigation and not accept accidents and near misses with a sense of fatalistic inevitability.

Stupid and unnecessary

I make a point of checking the attachment of young trees.

Too often this has been neglected and non-perishable materials were used to attach the tree to the planting stakes, that then starts to damage the stem of the young tree. In such cases I feel that direct action is in order and do a ninja-number and remove it. Seriously though, this is not rocket science and ought not to be beyond the wit of man to understand that attaching the trees correctly is quite important to how the young tree is going to grow – or not.

I came across this the other day…

This is just such stupid and needless damage, which I find very upsetting as it is so easily avoidable. Perishable attachment material and regular checks to name but two possibilities.

Planting trees is a great thing to do, but then let us also ensure they are given a fair chance at growing and not fail a this early stage by beging choked to death.


Legislation à la française

I was with in Donzère in the Drôme in southern France last Friday, having been invited there to do a one-day event with and for Hévéa. I will write a bit more about this when I get some of the photos of the event, for now I would like to say this much: I was very impressed by the commitment and diligence with which the team at Hévéa interact with their customers. I was also deeply touched by the generosity of all there, making this a very humbling experience for me.

For all this, a big thank you goes out to Laurent, Sebastien and all at Hévéa and French Touch Concept for the invitation and the organization of the event.

What I would like to do today is to write about some of the quirks in French legislation relating to working on trees.

Without claiming to have a deep understanding of the matter, there are a number of strikingly different demands made of climbers by French legislation, such as the requirement to be permanently secured by two independent anchor points, climbing and rigging anchor points are defined by a diameter and characteristics (something that even people doing research into the matter hesitate to do). Further, anchor points shall be installed in a choked configuration or climbers are required to wear cut resistant lower arm protection when using a chainsaw.

The way all this came to be dates back to a period when there were a number of accidents (very few actually involving arborists, but rather farmers, foresters and landscapers) which caused the national health and safety organisations to look into the causes, followed by a draft document for proposed legislation – and without a prior industry review process this draft document was then implemented. Consequently, arborists find themselves in a situation which continues to this day, where in certain situations it is nigh impossible to work in accordance with legislation, e.g. when climbing a mono-stem conifer it is physically impossible to maintain two independent anchor points.

Hévéa event in Donzère, discussing positioning on a stem.

This is a strong warning against legislation attempting to micro-manage the way that an industry works. Legislators ought to lay out generic benchmarks, the nitty gritty details of how these are achieved however should be left to best practice guidelines issued by industry bodies, such as the New Zealand BPG that is published by NZ Arb.

In many ways, the situation in France seems to me like the worst of both worlds: There are regulations you are supposed to follow, yet they are, in some instances at least, disfunctional and self-contradictory. So, understandably enough, people do as they will in such a situation: they fudge it. Which is fine as long as all goes well, but of course if things go wrong, you may potentially find yourself in considerable trouble.

Having said all this, I return home with a feeling that as long as there are people such as the folk at Hévéa, people who care and understand the issues involved, not all is lost. After all, over the years there have been many very smart and innovative individuals within the French arborist scene who had a profound and far-reaching effect on how we work in trees today.

Regulations are not static and can evolve over time, but one thing is certain: to steer these processes, we, as an industry, need to have a strong and unified voice, we need to be eloquent and able to express our concerns and demands – and in this way I am confident that we can make a difference for the better.

Close encounters

Seems to be a bit of an alien theme to these last couple of posts…

Well, my close encounter today, to be quite honest, was not really of the Third Kind, but still decidedly weird.

I was driving through a multi-storey car park, when two men walked towards me.

All of a sudden I realized that one of them was wearing a treeMOTION harness. In a car park. What he was doing walking around the car park in his harness is frankly beyond me. Judging by their reaction I must have been a bit of a sight, driving by with my nose pressed up against the window! 🙂

Reminded me a bit of Don Blair’s story in his book Arborist Equipment, where he writes about the time when a really banged up pick up pulled up in front of his Sierra Moreno shop and a big Samoan man got out – wearing his spikes!

In both instances I suppose there is a logic to this behaviour: why bother taking kit off when it only means you are going to have to put it on again! Reminds me a bit of the old Arctic and Antarctic explorers who had to be cut out of their wooly underwear upon return to civilization – because their hair had grown through the wool. Yes, umm…

My car parking encounter was not wearing spikes. Maybe the chap was just taking his harness for a walk? After all, harnesses want to get out and about now and again, it cannot only be work, work, work…




Who put the Stihl calendar in the bin?

A: What the …?! Who put the Stihl calendar in the bin?! I was going to hang that up in the workshop.

B: No, you’re not. That calendar really ticks me off. Let’s see: How many women work in our company? 

A: Duh? Like, none. After all, it is a tree care company! Remember? Hard work, takes a real man to do tree work.

B: (slaps hand to forehead) That’s exactly my point. Think about it… In a heavily male-dominated industry a company selling power tools uses scantily clad women to sell their kit. More than just that, you actually have to look closely in the pictures to spot the tools. There is zero connection between the imagery and the product it is selling. You are falling for one of the most basic marketing ploys. 

A: Pffff, sometimes I really get bored with all your political correctness. It’s just a bit of fun, it’s not as though it’s hurting anybody, is it? Just try to loosen up a bit…

B: Loosen up? For starters I disagree with what you said before that tree work is necessarily men’s work – I can think of a number of female climbers who I have seen at climbing comps, like Jo from the UK or Nicky from NZ  to name but two, who out-climb all the guys in the field. Did you know that at the last European climbing comps in Poland, Anja from Switzerland placed first over all in Work Climb? Smoked them all, men and women. I saw her climb, it was bloody impressive.

What I am saying is that if I imagine being a woman considering a career in arboriculture and were confronted with such imagery I would find it really quite offensive and off-putting. Surely, we should be trying to encourage women to get involved in tree care? Having a woman on the team can totally change the dynamic of the group.

A: Yeah, well, I dunno. Chicks on rope? I think I would find that more distracting than anything else. We would have to look out for her all the time.

B: That is just such BS. Consider our team: We have men who are big and small, fat and skinny, fast and slow. Don’t get tripped up over the one chromosome difference, it’s not as though that makes a woman a space alien from a different planet. The gender hurdle is not an insurmountable obstacle, we can do this!

A: In Sir what?! … (grumbles) Try talking English!

B: Did you see that poster on the billboard by the entrance to the yard? The BKW one? Hold on, I’ll just try to pull it up on my phone… (a couple of swipes later) Here you go, have a look. 

See, the point I am trying to make is that I like images of a woman as much as the next guy. But take the photo in the BKW ad… the woman is properly kitted out, looks competent and able to do the job. She’s not just another pretty face used to sell a company’s kit. Sex sells, they say – and the calendar just goes to prove that point. 

A: Well, actually, just looking at the pic of the work at height girlie… did you notice that the karabiner of the shoulder straps is not installed on the loop as it should be, not closed correctly and she’s got her leg loops all twisted? Doesn’t look like someone who knows what she’s doing to me.

B: That is different matter again. You’re right, that is a stupid and unnecessary oversight. But I don’t think that reflects upon the woman, more on the creatives in the graphic agency who are responsible this campaign for BKW. How hard would it have been to have the image proofed. I mean look, it took a knuckle-dragging tree guy a couple of seconds to spot the blindingly obvious…

A: Heeeeey! You calling me a knuckle dragger?! (throws a soggy, smelly Showa glove in B’s direction)

B: (dodges the glove) But jokes aside. I think photos of women behaving in a professional manner are great and they can help move things along. However in an industry where the gender ratio is so out of balance, to use images of girls in tight bikinis to sell a product just seems really shallow. That is why I put the calendar in the bin.

Apart from that this discussion is not about the two companies: I love Stihl’s saws, I’ve got their full range from a 201 through to a 660 and think they’re great tools. BKW, on the other hand, is an energy provider running, amongst other things, ageing atomic power stations that should have been turned off years ago, so no love lost there! No, this discussion is about the way in which they market their product.

A: Ack! Whatever. I think I just felt a trickle of blood coming out of my left ear.

B: Trickle away. I rest my case, your honor.

This discussion is fictional and did not take place during our lunch break, any likenesses are therefore unintended and purely coincidental. 


I was thinking about going to watch Interstellar later today, but decided against it, as I find that Hollywood’s visions of a dystopian future hit uncomfortably close to the mark.

If I were a visiting alien from another planet, I arrived on Earth and opened up a newspaper (preferably before the Men in Black nabbed me!), it would not take me long to realize that not all is well.  A potent mixture of continuous, rampant growth, unequal distribution of wealth, conflict over natural resources, population pressure, rapid urbanization, a fatal dependence on fossile fuels and shifts in climate patterns leave the future of our planet looking very fraught.

Of course, not all is bad – but still I find this fascination a bit morbid, so no Interstellar for me today. In fact, I will save it up for the next flight – which is not without its own irony: Sitting in a plane flying round the planet, blowing my carbon footprint out of all proportion –or maybe actually all the more appropriate.

Talking about doom, gloom and impending disaster…

Got the next Asian Longhorn Beetle monitoring session coming up week after next until Christmas. On the one hand I actually find the work itself very interesting from a climbing point of view: It is very steady climbing, you need to access all parts of the tree and really inspect it down to a millimeter scale, a scale you are normally not operating at. So from a climbing and work positioning point of view, if you are going to do it thoroughly, this work is quite demanding.

Yet at the same time, the implications, should something be found are grim, an entomological Sword of Damoclese.

No further live beetles have been found in our area with its two Rhine ports since the initial finds in 2012.

There are however some major infestations in other areas in Switzerland, one of the hotspots right now is in Marly, in the canton of Fribourg, where the first infestation was confirmed ten years ago and then swept under the carpet. Not a very sustainable strategy, as now the consequences are far-reaching and very, very expensive. Also in the canton of Thurgau Citrus Longhorn Beetle has been found, probably transported there in nursery trees from northern Italy.

The mobility of goods is a major factor in all of this. A lot of these bugs are traveling in packaging material, such as in pallets. Or in the ballast water in ships’s tanks, that are emptied at the destination. This way invasive species such as the Golden Mussel (Limnoperna fortunei), the Monkey Goby (Neogobius fluviatilis) or the Killer Shrimp (Dikerogammarus villosus) were introduced into new habitats where they quickly became pests by outcompeting indigenous species with their aggressive behavior or high population densities .

Or Emerald Ash Borer.

Like ALB, this beetle was transported from Asia to the US in pallet wood. In Europe this is not a pest that we are dealing with – yet. Russia has a major infestation and nothing has been done about it. The beetle is spreading about 40km per year, but of course this can leapfrog at any point in time by hitching a ride on a truck, or in a load of firewood, or in a pallet… So it is really a question of time. Add to that the fact that according to research by Professor Don Cipollini of Wright State University the invasive green beetle has apparently begun to attack white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), a relative of the Ash wide-spread in the US, growing wild from New Jersey south to Florida and west to Oklahoma and Texas. It is also a popular ornamental tree that has been planted in other parts of the country. This demonstrates that EAB can switch species at need. Ho-hum.

All of this has the potential to really change whole landscapes and arboreal populations. Interesting times ahead, for sure.

No, I am definitely not going to watch Interstellar today.