Out of step

A man leaps into the void off a cliff top and spreads the wings of his wing suit. As he glides towards the valley he is filming himself and his two mates, also in wing suits, with his helmet cam. They skim treetops and go flashing past tourists taking panoramic pics from lookout points on a serpentine road on the mountainside. Once they have cleared the flank of the mountain they deploy their parachutes and glide to the ground. After they have packed up their parachutes they head back home in their car. On the way they decide to stop off for a break at a motorway service station. After getting a bite to eat they grab a coffee for the road and take off again. As they accelerate to rejoin the flow of traffic on the motorway, one of the guys reverses his styrofoam coffee beaker and spills the hot coffee over his legs, scalding himself badly. As there was not warning that the content of the beaker was so hot, he decides to sue the company running the coffee bar at the motorway service station.

True? No, I made it up.

But the point is that it could be true . The ambivalence in the story above clearly illustrates to my mind the fact that our society has a deeply unbalanced and skewed view of risk, the taking of risks and protection therefrom.

Organisations such as the UN recognise that people legally have a right to risk, the fact that you have the right to make choices regarding risk is a basic tenet of freedom. One does however need to differentiate between “good” and “bad” risk, this is according to Werner Munter. Munter is an internationally renown expert for Alpine safety, he is an Alpine guide and in 2007 was recognized by the Swiss Alpine Association as “the founder of modern Avalanche awareness in service of Alpinists”. The 3×3 rule (3×3 Lawinen. Risikomanagement im Wintersport) that he defined helps backcountry skiers and people pursuing other winter sport activities assess risks with guidelines that are easy to comprehend and apply – and has reduced the number of casualties due to avalanches in Switzerland by half!

Interestingly though, when skiing himself, Munter does not wear a helmet, use an avalanche “balloon” that will keep you on the surface of the snow mass of an avalanche or an avalanche transceiver. “People”, says Munter, “want 100 percent safety and think they can buy it”, but this is deceptive and and is the wrong path to follow: “Life is dangerous, from birth onwards, the only thing that is dead-certain is death itself”.

All the devices and security measures we surround ourselves with create a false sense of security and can lead to risk compensation: a consequence of the  false sense of security we lull ourselves into is that we are prepared to take higher risks. The reality, however, is that 25% percent of the avalanche fatalities are not due to people being asphyxiated by the snow masses, but rather because they collide with obstacles such as trees or rocks. In such an instance the protection offered by an avalanche balloon would prove to be useless.

According to Munter, rather than to rely solely on equipment and technical aids, it is preferable to learn to handle risks. From an evolutionary point of view, risks have allowed and forced humans to develop their skills and abilities.

The question whether a risk is “good” or “bad” is ultimately decided upon by a society’s acceptance: How many fatalities are acceptable and where we draw the line decide whether a certain activity can be performed. Nowadays, what would be considered a “good” risk would be one that causes one fatality per 100’000 person days. Person days, mind you, not per person. So for Alpine risk assessment this would mean the number of days that alpinists spend in the mountains overall.

Statistics indicate that over 200’000 people in Switzerland regularly ski off-piste. Assuming that 240’000 people go on five backcountry ski tours per year, this would equal 1.2 million person days per annum. Divide this by the risk factor of 100’000 you arrive at 12 fatalities. This would be viewed as an acceptable level of risk – and corresponds with the 22 avalanche fatalities for the years 2012 and 2013.

This to me rings true: relying not only on technical aids to reduce risk, but rather to learn to recognize it and to define what acceptable levels are and what remedial actions are possible to reduce it, should it prove to be too high.

Ach, you say, all this talk about risk, I will just stay in bed today, that way at least I am not exposing myself to any risks. Not so, suggests a growing body of research into the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle: inactivity represents a major health hazard, so doing nothing is no solution either – and short bursts of activity, e.g. an hour in the gym, do not seem to do anything to remedy this fact either.

Evidently, the line we are treading is finding a balance between a sanitized, germ-free, risk-averse society or blundering blindly into each and every risk that presents itself. We need to approach risky activities, and without a doubt work at height entails an inherent degree of risk, with open eyes and ears – and make reasonable, founded decisions. The process of actually coming to a decision is something that no degree of regulation can take away from the person working through a situation.

There comes a point in a process where you need to make a decision: you need to commit to the anchor point you have chosen, you need to make the jump or snatch the length of stem with the rigging system… you need to take a risk. But before doing so, let us just consider whether the risk we are taking is “good” or “bad”, failing to do so can after all have serious consequences.

The good news is that this is not rocket science: let us not over-complicate things, but rather create clear, generic guidelines that we can follow that help us operate in a safe and responsible fashion – and actually apply and abide by them whilst at the same time being aware and responsive to what is going on around us.

This is certainly the way I feel, as I love working in and around trees and intend to do so for as long a time as possible…

THAT time of year

I love this time of year. January is done and dusted, we are steadily moving in the right direction, i.e. Spring.

OK, this may seem just a wee bit pre-emptive to the folks stuck out on the eastern US seaboard in the midst of a fierce old spell, but still, the fact remains…

But more to the point, this is also the time of year when at treemagineers we are busy sorting through themes, topics and stuff that is going to be presented in the course of the current year.

One of the things that I really enjoy about presenting is that it lets me dive deeper into topics I would normally not think twice about. So this time of year sees me going through notes I make during the year, going through articles I have collected and reading up on topics.

Some themes are pretty hands-on and obvious, whilst others can be rather more… eclectic.

At the moment one of the themes I have been doing some research on are Super Balls or SuperBalls.

Doing research. Seriously!

Super Balls were invented by Norman Stingley, a chemist in 1962. He discovered a highly elastic polymer made up out of polybutadiene as well as hydrated silica, zinc oxide, stearic acid, and other ingredients. This mixture is then vulcanized under high pressure. Stingley initially offered his discovery to the Bettis Rubber Company, whom he was working for at that point in time, when they declined he took it to Wham-O, of the Frisbee fame, who produced and marketed it, creating one of the longest standing fads ever.

At the peak of their popularity, Wham-O was producing 170’000 Super Balls per day! That is… a lot of balls.

In the late 1960s Wham-O made a “giant” Super Ball, roughly the size of a bowling ball, as a promotional stunt. It fell from the 23rd story window of an Australian hotel and destroyed a parked convertible car on the second bounce. Whoopsie… sorreeeeee!

The chemical formula, CH₂=CHCH=CH₂, gives a clue as to why this material has such a high degree of elasticity: Butadiene is made up of a chain of carbon molecules with high atomic cohesion, making it behave like a spring when compressed and accordingly decompression with high energy, causing the rebound.

Wham-O maintains that Super Balls are made from a material called Zectron™, which is of course baloney, but they felt it sounded better than the real thing… fair point, I suppose, certainly has more of a ring to it that polybutadiene. Come to think of it, I reckon Zectron sounds like a toothpaste that a Transformer would use to brush his or her teeth with (not sure if Transformer do gender?):

Transformers! Optimus Prime recommends Zectron for that shining white smile!

So there you go, the humble Super Ball gives you plenty to mull over.

Other things I have recently been reading up on, without boring you with details, is for one, how tall buildings behave in earthquakes and for the other about the characteristics of Aluminium alloys and the effects that annealing has.

What the…? How does this all fit together?

Ah, now that, of course, would be telling. If you really want to know, you may have to come along to hear for yourself – for instance to the Climbers’ Forum at the German Tree Care Days…

Bit of trivia to impress your friends with

Just thought I would mention that today, Shrove Tuesday, has been the International Pancake Day. Ta-daaaa!

Err… no link to the arb world, really.

Just tickled me. Probably some sinister conspiracy by a big, corporate pancake mixture manufacturer behind it (there is not – It is the last day before Lent, actually), but be that as it may: if I want to up my popularity score with our girls, it is hard to top a big stack of pancakes. So there you are.


“Excuse me, did you realize that today is the International Pancake day?” is probably a better way to break the ice and to kick off a conversation than to go round telling the cow’s tail joke.

Believe me, I have been there. Still feeling just ever such a little bit paranoid in regards to white Volvos (corporate tie boy’s ride).


I have been re-reading some stories in Paul Susman’s fantastic book, Death by Spaghetti.

Paul used to write a regular column in the Big Issue, a UK magazine published on behalf of and sold by homeless or vulnerably housed people. Sadly the book is out of print, but if you are lucky you may be able to pick up a used copy in you local friendly bookshop.

What can I say?

In my opinion Paul Sussman is a true visionary, I reckon Death by Spaghetti to be the defining tome when considering urban myth in all its facets…

In the chapter “Stuck”, for instance, Paul shares this occurrence with us:

One of the most frustrating things about being stuck, apart from the fact that it often chafes your skin, is that nine times out of 10 people don’t realize you are stuck, and therefore don’t come to your aid.

Few cases demonstrate this truism more dramatically than that of Mr Gunther Burpus of Bremen, Germany, who remained wedged in his front door cat-flap for two days because passers-by thought he was a piece of installation art. Mr Burpus, 41, was using the flap because he had mislaid his door keys, unfortunately getting stuck halfway through and finding himself quite incapable of going either forwards or back.

At this point he was spotted by a group of passing student pranksters who, despite his vehement protests, removed his trousers and pants, painted his bottom bright blue, jammed a daffodil between his buttocks and erected a sign on his front lawn saying “German Resurgent, an Essay in Street Art. Please give generously.”

Passers-by assumed that Mr Burpus’ protestations and screams were part of the act, and it was only when an old woman complained to the police that he was finally freed. “I kept calling for help,” he explained, “but people just said, “Very good! Very clever!” and threw coins at me.”

(OK, I realize that this story references, once again, body painting as was already the case in a post a couple of days ago when discussing the treemagineers fantastic tree climber kit™. For the record: I do not have an unhealthy fixation with body painting. I do not. Really.)

This in turn reminded me of a story that Dan Kraus told me years ago of some unfortunate soul in the Seattle area who, whilst doing tree work in an ill-fitting harness slipped and fell. The fall flipped him up-side down and caused the harness to slip over his waist, at the same time pulling down his trousers and underpants, leaving him in the rather awkward situation of being suspended, fully exposed, in public and upside down with his harness and his trousers somewhere down by his knees.

You can just picture it…

“Madam, excuse me, do you think you could… no! But, no. Don’t walk away. Ack! Sir, Sir, sorry, do you think you could call… D’uh.. Heeeeelp! Somebody? Anybody?”

In the end someone finally had mercy on him and called the fire brigade who liberated him out of his most awkward predicament.

So the lesson to take away from this post, dear reader, is to adjust your harness properly and to leave cat-flaps to cats.

Cycling and moments un-Zen

I attempt to be a balanced, calm and reflected person. Sometimes this works more, and other times less well.

Cycling and road rage are a classic.

Those of you who have not ridden a bike in a while may be less able to empathize, but those who regularly cycle in a busy town, I am sure you can understand what I mean. Now of course it takes two to tango, but I do feel it is up to the party with the advantage to look out for the weaker party. In traffic this would mean that a person cocooned in a vehicle weighing two tons of course is inherently less exposed and at risk than someone riding a bicycle. This does not mean that not everybody should be equally aware of what is going in around them, but the consequences in case of a collision are potentially much more serious for the cyclist.

Do not get me wrong, I love riding my bike, for me it is the ultimative, hassle-free way of getting round town. It is fun, easy and you are not ramming your ________ (insert currency of your choice here) down some Russian oligarch or Saudi autocrat’s throat, we do that often enough as it is!

So, the other day, after work I had to go and look at a job site that had not been running well, there were builders on site who had been really obstructive and generally a bit caveman-ish and I was annoyed . So I cycled into the road, past a car reversing out – and the car honks its horn at me.


OK, I could have cycled on, I suppose, but I was intrigued as to WHY the guy (of course) in the car deemed it necessary to give me a sonic indication of some wrong-doing on my part. So I cycled back and inquired in a perfectly civil tone through his open window what the problem seemed to be. The guy was a suit, some company rep who was obviously more than ready to go home and was also grumpy. He told me that I had been really lucky just now. Huh? Why? Because he had been reversing. Now this I did not quite understand, as he was driving a smallish station wagon, not some forty ton juggernaut, which I then pointed out to him and said that I assumed that as he was reversing he was looking in the direction he was driving in and therefore did not quite see where the danger lay.

Anyway, without boring you with the details, this, admittedly pointless, discussion dragged on for a bit, then I decided it was time to lighten the mood a bit and break the ice.

Me: I’m sorry if I am changing the topic, but do you know the difference between a cow’s tail and a tie?

Corporate boy (slightly red in the face): Ggngngng… no?

Me: The cow’s tail covers the whole ar**hole.

He did not like my joke.

OK, I realized then that he was wearing a tie. Well, maybe I had realized it just before I told him the joke. Anyways, rather than the ice being broken, things went a bit downhill from there and a budding great friendship deteriorated into a car vs. bike chase through the streets of Basle. In such instances bunny hopping onto kerbs and one-way streets become a cyclist’s friend.

My wife was somewhat annoyed with me. She felt this kind of behaviour did not reflect well upon my forty plus years, but hey! My theory is that if someone is behaving like a twat it is ok to let him know, that has nothing to do with my age! But of course – as so often – she is right, I probably ended more irritated than corporate boy. But still, I love the idea of that joke rattling round his head, a seed that will grow, every time he puts on the tie in the morning he will think of it and his shoulders will sag just that wee bit. Vindictive? Me? Never!

Towards the end of our ill-fated encounter he wanted to know my name in order to take me to court. For a moment I was tempted to do so, just to see the cow’s tail joke in print in the court protocol (Mr. Bridge, is it true that you told the plaintiff following joke...), but then decided against it, felt like more hassle than it was worth just for a giggle. And judges wear ties.

So, I will attempt to be more adult next time and calmly walk away from such a situation. Karma, being the fickle lady that she is, will probably turn round and hit me between the eyes with this one when I expect it least, something like: I am up in the mountains, get surprised by an avalanche, manage to extract myself out of the snow, to then realize that I am now stuck without equipment and getting severely cold in the middle of nowhere. As I am stumbling along, semi-snow blind, luck would have it that I arrive at a hut, lit from within and welcoming… it is a life-saver! I crawl up to it and just manage to knock on the door, which opens… revealing: THE COMPANY REP! Yikes!

(that is the sound of a pregnant silence)

Sorryyyy about the cow’s tail joke! Can I come in now? Please?

OK, I will attempt to do better next time, promised. Definitively. Maybe.

Thin veneer vs. solid foundation

A couple of days ago I wrote about some of the challenges that training and working with people starting out in tree work can pose – ok, it was a little bit tongue in cheek – but still, it got me thinking.

In many ways, the situation in that instance is very clear, making it easier to work with: you are dealing with beginners, a cliental with little or no experience in work at height, striving towards increasing their competence. So in many ways you know where you are at.

A rather more challenging situation in my experience is when dealing with people who already possess a certain degree of competence, but you are not sure of the extent and depth of this. In a work situation this might manifest itself in a person who gives off all the external signals of being a competent person, they have all the right gear and use the right terminology. Obviously he or she is up to speed on all current developments, keeps an eye on the relevant forums and sites and can hold his or her own ground in any discussion.

Yet when it comes to solving real world problems, improvising on site when things are not going exactly according to plan, consequently forcing us to move from plan A to plan B, C or D, demands are placed on people in the team to dig deeper into their mental toolbox in order to find appropriate tools and solutions – and this is when you realize that the person is really struggling to fulfill their designated role and is obviously not understanding what is going on.

Which can be puzzling, because as I wrote before, it is diametrically opposed to the signals that the person is emitting – that is, until I realize that the aura of competence is in actual fact quite a thin veneer, a thin coating, so whilst I may indeed not be dealing with a beginner, the actual depth of their knowledge is a lot less profound and well-founded than I had initially been led to believe. Led to believe not in the sense of deliberate deceit, but rather as consequence of a misunderstanding.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but can actually lead to quite disconcerting situations leaving both sides with a sense of frustration and feeling misunderstood. I have no easy quick-fix recipe on how to counter this phenomenon (sorry), but maybe something as simple as being aware of the mechanism is a first step on the way to countering it: I cannot assume that what is blindingly obvious for me is equally so for the person opposite me – and vice versa. As so often a degree of empathy, putting yourself in the other persons place, can be very helpful.

Lastly, base you expectations regarding a person’s competence on actual, shared experience rather than on assumptions. I suppose that ultimately this is about being aware of each others strengths and weaknesses, which in turn helps you to respect the other person’s comfort zone, while at the same time allowing them to contribute their abilities.

How to be a fantastic tree climber (but don’t tell anybody)

The other day I briefly touched upon how to be a fantastic climber, without really going into details (read about it in the linked post in the paragraph above the unicorn, also, if you continue reading this post you will find out why there is a pic of a unicorn in that post!).

So I have decided to remedy that omission and let you all in on the secret, but do not go spreading it too wide. I will be giving you a sneak preview of the soon to be launched treemagineers’ fantastic tree climber kit™, so hold on tight…

It is not really rocket science, the basic ingredients are:

  • a rainbow assortment of x-formula body paints
  • polychromatic glitter
  • a rubber glove

Above is a page out of the technical manual, but it is really quite easy: First, remove all clothing and apply the special secret x-formula rainbow body paints (1). Then apply liberal amounts of glitter – do not hold back on this (2)! And finally, and very importantly, put the rubber glove on your head – and… hey presto!… you are all set, nothing stands in your way anymore to becoming a really fantastic tree climber™!

Sounds like utter baloney?

May seem so, but partially the amazing effect of this combo is down to a powerful secret component in the body paints, for obvious reasons I cannot divulge too much here, but I can tell you this much: one of the active components is a very rare excretion from a unicorn’s pituitary gland, very rare and rather expensive.

Obviously, there are all the extras you can order on top of this basic kit, such as the zebra-pattern leotard, the hollow-braid, Technora deadlock extensions, the teflon-coated flip flops, the Dyneema sweat bands – but this is all extra, we recommend that you get started with the basic kit and see how it works out for you.

Once you are kitted out with all of this, the only extra you need to be a hero is a GoPro!

Patience and Attitudes

Basic training courses can sometimes be challenging.

You never know what kind of people you will have in a course, how they will interact, who the alpha creatures will be and how they will influence the atmosphere in the group as a whole. I am actually often surprised by how often we actually end up with interesting, nice groups – but you will always have those one or two people who are out to challenge you.

This can be for various reasons.

As so often in the tree care world, the courses tend to be strongly XY-biased, i.e. a high proportion of guys, so it is not unreasonable to assume that a key reason is a cocktail made up of insecurity, machoism and over-estimation of one’s own abilities. Usually I find that by approaching people in as open and honest a fashion as possible, recognizing competence in them and by not creating hierarchies, you usually manage to break the ice – albeit after an prickly getting to know each other phase.

But with some it does not.

On the third day during one of the recent courses we were training Aerial Rescue Techniques. I had two guys, A and B, in my group who have worked together in the past and were reaffirming each other’s stance in an attempt to hide their insecurity…

Me: Ok, boys and girls, it’s your turn now, give it a crack in groups of two and remember: step by step, no need to rush, make sure you know what you are doing. Also, please remember to keep your lines outside of your legs, not between your bodies, so as to make sure you have no tangles of rope jamming up your hitch or end up stuck on your stopper knot.

A: Duh, I’m not thick, I’ve got it already.

Me: Gngngn… ok , fantastic, in that case this should be a doddle for you two.

So I walk over to the other side of the tree to go and check on one of the other groups – to come back and find A and B in this position:

Me: Guyyyys? What seems to be going on here? Bondage? Macramé? You building a cocoon?

B: Hnnnnnn. Stupid, bloody rope…

Me: No, it’s not the rope that rapped itself round you, it was you who did not take the time to tidy it. You remember what I said? Keep. The. Rope. On. The. Outside. Of. Your. Legs. Now, please, disentangle and give it another go.

I take it as a test of my patience to stay calm and polite in these situations. Do not get me wrong, I am not poking fun at anybody here, the whole reason that people attend a course is to improve their competence, good for them deciding to do so, but when lack of experience is paired with attitude and something like this happens, I have to admit having to hide a smile.

So much for “this is easy, done it all before”… huh, indeed.

Mainstream, side stream, counter stream or who-gives-a-monkey’s stream?

Treemagineers started out as the three of us, Beddes, Chris and myself, getting together, discussing questions regarding how we work and sharing a sense of frustration over how stagnant the development of equipment for the arborist industry had become and decided to try to do something about it. The first projects we worked on were a friction hitch-based work positioning system, later to evolve into the Hitch Climber, and the treeMOTION harness. Initially, of course, that all still lay in the future: first off we had to traipse around talking to a wide range of potential partners and manufacturers, not an easy proposition without a track record and not really any precedents for this kind of alliance in the industry.

In this process we were using benchmarks to measure what we were doing or aiming to achieve up against: folk such as Petzl, ArborMaster, François Dussenne and Fred Mathias and Comet… as these were some of the established players in the arb equipment field at that point in time and where innovation was coming from or had come from in the past. Obviously, as the new kids on the block, you measure yourself up against established companies or persons.

A lot has happened since. Things have moved on, the choices a person starting in tree care today has to make when selecting techniques and equipment have increased manyfold, leading to a bewildering array of choices today, whereas in the day they were pretty straight-forward as there was much less diversification.

All of this got me thinking…

Where does this leave treemagineers today?

Have we sold out, become part of an established mainstream? There are voices that would suggest that the industry has once again become stagnant and are pushing to introduce new techniques (a view I do not share without reservations, but that is for another time), are they going to position themselves against treemagineers, viewing us as part of the establishment? Certainly in the past we have been targeted with considerable animosity for rather opaque reasons, which could indeed be explained by the mechanism described above: these guys are mainstream, so they represent a legitimate target. Maybe this is an inevitable process, a pendulum swinging from side to side…

To that I say: Nuts!

For us, this project has always been about the opportunity to do things together that we find interesting, gaining deeper understanding – and also having fun whilst doing so. It was never a declared intent for it to focus solely on product development… my observation regarding this would be that it goes in phases. Sometimes there are issues that have obvious product-based solutions and these in turn lead to knock-on products – and other times the focus is elsewhere.

There came a point, once treemagineers had been going for a couple of years, where we were under the impression that treemagineers was perceived as being elitist, that the products we were associated with were by definition high-end. The multiSAVER, a product that I love to this day and that is central to the Teufelberger rope tools range, was in direct response to this in an attempt to redress this wrong impression: the focus is not per se towards the high-end of the market, but rather towards finding good, well-coordinated solutions — these can be either basic or complex, depending upon what is appropriate and addresses the problem.

If you were to ask me what I felt that one our main achievements was, I would reply: we are free of any debt, we are independent and can therefore do as we see fit, are under no pressure to deliver x-amount of product per year and we can follow any whims we chose to… and ultimately, if all of this ceases to be fun, we could end this all tomorrow without anybody being any the worse for it.

But that is not the point we are at… there still remain any number of interesting leads to follow up, questions that are begging answers and topics to dive into deeper.

So, I think the answer as to which stream treemagineers are swimming in is: it does not really matter to us.

Often as not this is in the eye of the beholder anyway – and that we cannot influence – so we prefer just to get on with it and do as we see fit. If there are people who agree with our approach, that is great, as these are the folk who validate our concepts – and those that do not agree? Also fine, as that is what diversity is about: there is not one size that fits all, we do not all need to be of the same opinion.

Today, I will not annoy anybody

Right, so for today I thought I would try something new and, after splashing out yesterday, write something that would not put anybody’s nose out of joint.

If you are anything like me, you struggle with organizing stuff in vehicles, I tend to default to zip ties, Araldite and Duck tape. Until I cam across RAM’s mounting system

Great stuff, well made out of heavy-duty materials that allows you to really clamp stuff down hard and allows for the wear and tear of a working environment. It also offers you about a zillion options for how and where you want to attach a device or a tool.

I find gear like this pleasing, where you can tell that someone has put considerable time, thought and effort into making a good, functional product.