Pandora’s Box?

When comparing tree work with other on-rope activities, take for example industrial rope access , I am always struck by the contrast in the range of tools and techniques used: rope access technicians are limited to a few tools and a fairly narrow, well defined range of techniques.

Tree work presents a considerably different picture… a dizzying array of gear and ways in which it is configured and used. To use an analogy, it almost feels like comparing a diverse, natural-growth forest with a monoculture. Which is a bit flawed, as that might sound judgemental, but still, the image holds true… on the one side a narrow well-defined set of technique that are taught and practiced, with little end-user involvement versus on the other side a plethora of ways to get a job done, many of them evolved by end-users themselves – or at least with a strong end-user input.

On the surface one is tempted to say that diversity is good as it allows for each and every person to decide exactly what is good for their requirements and the situation in which it is going to be used. Having said that I am slightly concerned that the degree of diversity is such that it may turn out to be an arboreal equivalent of Pandora’s Box.

A couple of weeks back at the Austrian tree climbing competition the scenario was that the casualty was suspended on their access line, attached by ascenders. Out of the whole field, merely a handful of climbers managed to detach the casualty — and of those only two or three managed get it to the ground within the set time.

This is worrying.

The scenario was a fairly typical rope access rescue scenario, the sort of thing that rope access technicians train for. The fact that whilst on the one hand mechanical systems in ascent have become so ubiquitous in tree care, yet at the same time arborists struggle with a fairly standard rescue situation would suggest to me that the depth of understanding – being able to respond in case of an emergency or other unforeseen events constituting part of that understanding – that arborists have of these techniques is actually quite shallow. Fine so long as things are all normal – but when things go bad they struggle to respond in an appropriate time frame.

And it does not end there, this is not just about planning for emergency.

I am also concerned about some of the configurations people are coming up with. An example? The practice of backing up ascenders with a Rocker or Buddy-type device below the hand ascender. If you look at the Buddy user instructions these clearly state that the device shall be able to run up and down the back-up line freely. Further, they state that for ease of function the line may be weighted with a 1kg mass. Yet the way in which this device is being used by arborists in access both these points are not given: the Buddy or Rocker are held high by a bungee cord (essentially in the position a chest ascender would be in) – and the line is weighted with your body weight every time you are standing in your foot ascender. Is this good practice? As I am not the manufacturer, I am not really in a position to make a definitive statement, but what can be said is that this device is not being used according to manufacturer specifications.

And so the list goes on.

Do not get me wrong: I am certainly not claiming that all is doom and gloom or attempting to scaremonger – far from it! Without a doubt many very interesting developments, devices and techniques have evolved out of this process of trial and error. But there comes a point where – as an industry – we need to take the next step and decide what boxes we are trying to tick with our ascent systems and define best practice requirements.

Booooring, you say? This is going to stifle your style, you say?

It need not, in my opinion.

Best practice guide lines should be just that: generic performance criteria that define parameters that assemblies and systems shall fulfill. In such an instance you still have the freedom to decide how best to achieve those goals or which solution best suits your style or the structure you are working on – albeit with guidance regarding the benchmarks you should be aiming for.

The Victorian Tree Industry Organisation document written by Joe Harris, Scott Sharpe and Grand Cody on single rope technique went a fair way towards this goal. The only comment I would make regarding that document is that here and there it is quite specific, whereas I feel that a purely generic document might be more helpful and have a longer shelf life, i.e. takes longer to become outdated. But again, do not get me wrong, I think the guys did great job, I am not aware of anyone else having done such a thorough review of arb-specific ascent techniques.

What brought all this home for me was watching Ronny Epple’s ascent during Masters’ Challenge in Monza last month. He used a Rope Walker systems – similar to the one he used during his climb at the Masters’ Challenge in Pittsburgh back in 2005 (I think). Back then Ronny’s rope walk caused quite a stir – whereas now it has become very much part of the course.

There is no doubt: mechanical systems as a tool to ascend into trees are here to stay – so let us ensure that we have a thorough understanding of them, that we use the tools in the fashion they were designed to be used in and ensure that we are able to respond in case of an emergency.

Eeeek! Pterodactyls!

Bumped into these guys today up a tree.

Gave me a right fright, I was really worried that all of a sudden a large shadow would blot out the sky and that mommy Pterodactyl would swoop and start trying to peck out my eyes! No, hold on, not Pterodactyls – it can’t be – after all, this is not the late Jurassic period.

Maybe extras from the new installment of the Star Wars franchise? Or maybe a bit of mystery, methinks.

What? …

“Pigeons”, you say?

Ha-haaa! Very likely, how improbable is that?!

(Mumbles) Pigeons… huh. That was a good one! Whatever next?

Coming up next in Unlikely Things I Found In a Tree: The day I found a pig’s ear up a tree (true actually, but that is for another time).

So you think you have everything under control?

Yes, I would consider myself to be a reasonably rational, coordinated individual – most of the time that is. On top of that, in a professional context, anticipating how things might go wrong and defining appropriate responses and/ or remedial actions are very much part of what I do and try to communicate during workshops or training courses.

So yes, as far as possible, I attempt to be in control of things that are controllable as much as possible. Goodness knows there are enough things you cannot influence, residual risk and unknowns, so this attitude makes sense to me. Rather than making me a control freak, to me this has more to do with awareness of your surroundings

How thin this veneer of rationality truly is though was brought home to me by a very menial incident a while back…

I was up in our attic making up a poster for Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg back in May, which involved writing on big sheets of white paper with a fat Edding marker. The marker had dried out, so I refilled it… as I do not believe doing such things in half measures I filled it to the brim, just to make quite sure. When I attempted to continue writing, the whole thing sort of… blew up in my face, in a wet, squelchy fashion. One moment everything under control, the next… everything covered in black, indelible ink!


What did I do?

Of course, I rushed down to the loo on the second floor with the marker in my hand, dripping black ink, turned on the water in the wash basin and stuck my hands and the marker under the water. The net result? Everything turned black, walls splattered, tiles, me… reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ seminal kid’s book  Cat in the Hat Comes Back, where through a chain of events the Cat in the Hat, while attempting to clean away a small pink spot manages to turn a whole landscape pink! That is exactly what I felt like!

A frantic cleaning session later, I had managed to remove most of the damage.

Sheepishly I told my wife about what had happened. She just gave me that long-suffering look and asked me why I had not simply left the marker in the attic.


Good point, that.

I don’t know.

I guess… I just got a bit stressed out and panicked. Well, I say panic, it was pretty low-level stress, just a bit of ink. But still, it brought home to me how when we are stressed, the first thing that gets chucked over board is rational thought – and you are not even aware of it! In a sense this makes sense, bearing in mind the fact that the processor we have in our head (i.e. our brain) is not super-fast, so the mechanism of bypassing higher thought processes in high-stress situations enables fast-twitch, instinctive reactions with considerably faster response times.

From an evolutionary point of view this arrangement has rendered us good services. Having said that, what worked a charm in the African savannah in the Pliocene era against saber-toothed tigers may not work so well in our modern world.

Australopithecus obviously did not have much dealings with leaking Eddings!

In hindsight of course it would have made more sense not to go running around the house juggling a marker haemorrhaging ink, but that thought never even occurred to me! Now imagine a real emergency situation and replace indelible ink with blood. Up a tree. With your colleague hanging upside down, injured.

This really brings home the need for training for this kind of situation – both mentally and technically – , continuous critical self-reflection and understanding that no one is safe from irrational actions in high-stress situations.

I now have a couple of spots of black ink on the door of the upstairs loo to remind me of my own fallibility, should I ever be tempted to forget.

vertical connect

On 4 and 5 September vertical connect will be taking place in Meiringen, in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland.

vertical connect is a two-day event, discussing various aspects of work at height from an interdisciplinary point of view. The first day will be focused on work positioning, the second on planning for emergency and rescue techniques. During the mornings, formal, indoor presentations will be delivered, whilst in the afternoons, presentations will be practical and outdoors.

I am very excited by the wide range of speakers we have presenting during this event, ranging from areas such as industrial rope access, alpine rescue, intervention, high angle rescue to helicopter rescue, tree work, all the to legal considerations, health and safety or ergonomic aspects. We have a fantastic, highly competent group of practitioners presenting, so this should make for a very interesting couple of days.

Add to this the location, which is stunning. The training centre of the SBZ that the SBZ is very generously allowing us to use for vertical connect offers a wide range of infrastructure, from indoor spaces, as well as climbing structures to work and run demos on. There is catering on site and on Friday evening there will be party on site. The camp site is about 300m away, parking on-site. There is a choice of hotels in Meiringen. Getting there is easy enough, either drive up or use public transport and catch a train up from Berne main station.

So often we get bogged down, discussing issues that relate to our specific niche that we work and think in. I believe that such a interdisciplinary approach can shake things up by offering a new angle or an insight, enabling a new approach to an issue. Certainly I am convinced that we all stand to gain from casting the net wider and creating networks to people confronted with similar challenges in different environments. Or, come to that, totally different challenges in similar environments.

If you are kicking around at a lose end beginning of September, why not come and join us in Meiningen. Talks will be delivered in German and French, but should the need arise, I am sure we can arrange some impromptu translation.

Things that puzzle me, continued: fun in the sun

Following on the train of thought from yesterday, here is another one that puzzles me: toplessness and men.

Why is it that an integral part of guys bonding seems to involve ripping off their t-shirt and drinking copious amounts of beer? Optionally this can involve football (or some other sport of your choice). Or carbonising lumps of meat on a barbecue.

And: why is it that as a rule of thumb, the uglier a guy is, the more prone he will be to succumb to the urge to expose himself (well, his torso, at least)? Surely, you might suppose that the opposite would make more sense…

OK, those were somewhat rhetorical questions. Really, the one that gets me is working topless business. I just do not understand the motivation. Here are my issues with working topless:

  • It is so stereotype. The tree grunts working in the garden, topless. Just fits the stereotype bill so perfectly! That alone would be a motivator for me to avoid it at all cost.
  • Risk of injury. You are exposing a large area to potential injury, e.g. insect bites, thorns, scratches or contact with plants that cause skin irritation. This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that working with your t-shirt off does not drastically increase cooling.
  • Risk of sunburn. This is a serious issue. Skin cancer is a killer and causes a significant number of fatalities amongst UK construction workers. According to the UK’s HSE, in 2004 2’773 construction workers died of cancer linked to asbestos, 841 to solar radiation, followed by Silica-related cancer that caused 707 deaths. The number linked to sun exposure is all the more tragic in view of the fact that it is relatively easy to protect yourself from UV by applying sun screen and, wait for it, keeping your t-shirt on!

I thought this article was interesting that reports on a UK building contractor’s zero tolerance policy regarding working topless on their sites:

A construction firm has banned its workforce from going topless on its building sites in a bid to protect them from skin cancer and other workplace hazards.

Somerset-based Bluestone already operates a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for any employee caught working on site without proper protective safety clothing. This has now been extended to staff who do not cover up in the sun.

“We want all our people, including our sub-contractors and suppliers, to have the same safety sense when it comes to sun and skin protection as they have for wearing hard hats and protective footwear,” said John Rawlinson regional managing director.

“Apart from the risk of being splashed by caustic materials such as plaster and concrete mixes, construction workers who strip off under the sun and don’t use sun block are exposing themselves to harmful ultraviolet radiation which not only burns, but also causes skin cancer,” he added.

Skin cancer cases have more than doubled in the UK over the past 20 years, with construction workers being one of the highest risk groups. More than 40,000 new cases are expected this year in England and Wales.

And no, before you can say it, I do not think I am being up-tight or prudish about this, rather, as I stated above, in combination with work at least, this practice just does not make much sense to me.

Unless you are a professional cliff diver.

So there you go, I rest my case.

On gender

After ETCC I was thinking about the way we split the field into male and female competitors. This in turn got me thinking about gender.

From a very early age on we take it for granted that which gender you belong to determines any number of things: acceptable behavior, activities, tastes, career choices to name but a few. Boys toys are blue, girls toys are pink – so far the stereotype.

But one has to ask oneself whether that one chromosome difference is the be all and end all. It is not as though we were two completely different species attempting to communicate across an abyss!

But gender-based differentiation is ubiquitous.

Open up a catalogue selling you clothing and it will be divided up into male and female ranges, rather than according to size, types of clothing, seasons you use it in, colour or something else. Again… what is it with this rigid divide? Why should the jumped-up apes with the Y chromosome have power over the other bunch of the same ape, albeit with a double X chromosome configuration? In which way does this – let’s face it – not massive difference justify suttee, genital mutilation, gender-based discrimination, eating and psychological disorders due to frantic attempts to conform to a distorted ideal of beauty, young women getting boob jobs to correspond to some pneumatic, bikini-ad ideal, hatched out of male teenage fantasies?

Sometimes I wonder whether the truth is that differentiation based on gender is not simply totally random, whether in another society the divide might be conceivably be between people with freckles, curly hair or some other distinction?

Differentiation based on sexual orientation? Don’t get me going.

Interestingly last month the Academy of Science in South Africa published a study on human sexual diversity that came to the conclusion that human sexuality is naturally varied and discrimination therefore unjustified. This is a strong signal in a time when other countries in Africa, such as Uganda, Burundi, Cameroon or Nigeria are passing draconic laws targeting the LGBT community, where same sex relationships can be punished with a life sentence. Also, of course, last month a US supreme court verdict legalized same-sex marriage in the whole of the US.

Pffff. What a big to-do based solely upon a couple of dangly bits and swellings that you have on your body – or not.

Let’s take a deep breath and take a look to trees. They seem to get less tripped up over this whole gender business (ok, I am anthropomorphizing here, I realize): Some are male, some are female, some are both… whatever. Some can switch. I recall a story I heard from when they planted up Munich airport, I think it was, with an alley of Ginkgos. These came from the nursery certified as male, to avoid the hassle with the fruit that the female would shed onto the pavement. After a number of years, pretty much 50% of the trees were producing fruit, which implies that they switched gender.

Either way… this whole gender barrier thing is not an unsurmountable hurdle – rather it is a gentle incline that is easy to step over. Let’s stay calm, get over it and sort out some of the more pressing issues of our times – plenty of those around!

Let’s learn a lesson from the trees and embrace diversity.

TCC Aerial Rescue scenarios

The quality of Aerial Rescue scenarios at tree climbing competitions is decisive as to how competitors are able to perform. Apart from that, a good scenario and set-up will also have an educational element – which is obviously a good thing.

For me, working towards a scenario goes a bit like this: I will look back at the current year and try to recognize clusters, or unusual occurrences, to then consider whether these might offer an interesting theme to attempt to turn into a scenario for a comp. By doing so, you encourage further discussion on how best to handle such a situation, so I firmly believe this is one valid way as an industry to try to gain a better understanding of appropriate responses to given situations – even if this is “only” taking place in a competition environment.

The incident being simulated shall be as realistic as possible and not demand of competitors to imagine all kind of things. Set it up the way it is! Give competitors options. Set-ups that are biased towards one specific solution will not introduce much spread into scoring and tend to be a bit monotonous to watch. Again, same as with the Speedclimb post from Tuesday, my message would be: get creative!

Next there will be discussions with the event head judge and tech, especially if the implementation of the scenario needs tweaking to be in line with the event rules.

Obviously the prime objective is for the event to be run in a safe and professional manner. This can encompass considerations regarding in-tree technician placement, visibility from the ground, line placement, back ups or belays.

For this year’s ETCC in Monza we decided to do an on-spikes stem rescue, something I have been itching to do for years (for the scenario, see image below).

One obvious worry was the risk of injury to the competitor from the spikes worn by Ken, the Simulaids dummy we were using as the casualty. Secondly there was the issue of the damage caused to the tree by the spikes and thirdly, as we wanted people to be able to perform a pick-off rescue, we needed to have Ken on a belay.

To mitigate the risk posed by the first to concerns, I asked Bernard Pivot, the rather lovely blacksmith in our yard to make up some blunt spikes out of rod – for the end result, see the picture below. Very humblingly, Bernard declined payment when he found out they were for ETCC, so thanks go out to him for that.

Come to think of it, I probably ought to try and market these as the ultimative training aid for powerful climbers. The spike that never needs sharpening! The spike that will never injure you or your climbing line! The best spike to use on really rotten trees! 😉

Next we ratcheted blocks of wood to the stem, two for the spikes that we drilled corresponding holes into to locate the spikes (non-spikes, I suppose I ought to say!) into, and a third block to place the lanyard over, ensuring consistent positioning of the casualty.

We had a belay running of the dorsal attachment of the full body harness Ken was wearing, this ran over a series of re-directs down to the belayer. We initially used a I’D, because of the rescue load rating is has on it, but realized that depending upon descent speed, there was a risk of the dummy clamp jamming and stopping the descent. Therefore we switched to a RIG, which is rated up to loads of 200kg, with the Petzl caveat of “for expert use only“.

The dummy was suspended from a steel-core flipline with a macrograb as a positioning device on it, so the competitors had to lift the casualty to release the lanyard prior to descending. Ken, despite the sand he spent the weekend leaking, weighs in at a hefty 90kg.

It turned out in the course of the prelims that Ken’s plastic knee joints were not up to him standing on them when he dropped a lower leg at the end of Johan Pihl’s run (luckily this only happened once they had reached the ground). This lead to some over-lunchtime field surgery to get him ship shape for the rest of the day…

Doctor Van Bouwel doing a spot of field surgery, ably assisted by nurses Bridge and Künzler

After strapping up the knees with webbing slings, he handled the rest of the day without a problem.

All in all, this scenario made for a challenging and interesting event for competitors and spectators alike, as the action took place close to the the ground and was easy to follow. Thanks to the team on Aerial Rescue for running a tight ship and for getting the job done competently and safely.

Ken later joined in the partying during the announcements on Saturday evening, overdid it – and had to be retrieved from a field on Sunday morning.

Monza video

Stihl and the Smaragd crew do an outstanding job – once again – of documenting ETCC 2015 in Monza. I am always surprised how year for year they manage to find a different feel, angle or focus for the final production.

Let’s hear it for Speedclimb!

Speedclimb sometimes seems to me to be like the kid at school that everybody picks on and bullies. Admittedly, out of all the events that make up a tree climbing competition, superficially at least, it has least connection to real-life tree work. But I have decided the time has come to stand up for Speedclimb and to say no to the bullying.

Every event is designed to represent one, or multiple, aspects of tree work. Or a skill set required to perform these. As such, I will admit that Speedclimb sticks out a bit like a sore thumb. But only until you start thinking about it. What can you actually demonstrate with Speedclimb? A lot is down to set-up, which I will come back to in a minute, but essentially the competitor shows his or her ability to climb a structure on-sight in a safe, efficient manner. Climbing the structure is a key concept and was the reason we started using artificial climbing holds or stumps ratcheted onto stems in cases where the designated tree had a suitable limb structure in the canopy but the stem below was bare. Traditionally this was bridged by adding in bits of rope or allowing the climbers to pull themselves up on the fall of the belay. However, this totally changes the character of the event, turning it into an assessment of upper body strength rather than agility.

The message I would have to teams setting Speedclimb at the comps is: get creative! Consider what would be a fun climb for you. Start the competitors upside down, switch trees half way, use trees with unusual structures. Introduce an element that makes your Speedclimb unique. At the European TCC in Thun in 2013, for instance, we used a tree with a strong lean over the lake, the competitors started on the lower side of the tree from a rowing boat, then spiraled around onto the top side to finally hit the bell. This made for great imagery AND two climbers fell in the lake to boot!

Having said that the set up shall obviously also be safe. To illustrate this risk assessment process I would like to run through the set up of this year’s Speedclimb for the Euro TCC in Monza.

Photo © Moritz Sellmann

I got into the tree, a lime with a height of about 30m, with my friend Renè on Wednesday morning, the first day of set-up. After some pretty light pruning, essentially removing the dead wood and some light thinning to open up the spectator side a bit, we decided the tree was workable. Also, it became clear that it would require quite a few handholds to bridge the lower part of the stem to allow competitors access to the canopy. Once there, it was a breeze the rest of the way up.

*Sigh* Been there before…

But then I happened to look across and saw that right next to the lime was a cherry tree. So we started toying with the idea of creating a 8m long traverse at about 18m height between the two trees. This would require a floating anchor and extensive rigging.

So we got to work.

We rigged a double line, made up of 14mm double braid, for the floating anchor, we re-routed them through pulley at the high points to anchor them lower down, thus compressing rather than bending the high points. The pulley were backed up. The floating anchor consisted of  a pintoLOOP, attached with a Prusik around both lines, again backed up with a sling and a karabiner. Then we used the same 14mm rigging line to create the upper and lower traverse. Obviously, one of the worries when rigging floating anchors like this is the open angle you are creating and the load on the anchor points. When we loaded the floating anchor, the movement was not excessive. However, despite that we decided to guy the cherry out the back, through an adjacent oak down to a ground anchor. This further reduced movement. On Thursday, by which time Dirk, the SC head judge and his team were on site, we decided to replace the rigging lines with ratchet straps, as otherwise there was going to be too much movement and slippage in the course of the day, meaning that the climb would not be the same for everybody.

The floating anchor was placed in such a way, that from the moment the competitor stepped onto the traverse, moved across and stepped up the the bell, the amount of line remained more or less the same, making for an easy belay. The belay team was placed so that they have a full view of the climb all the way up. Additionally there was a in-tree technician just above the traverse point over to the cherry. Worst case, if someone were to slip and fall off the traverse, they would swing into open space.

In the end, this climb assessed the competitors ability to navigate through the handholds, climbing the structure, moving through the canopy, traversing to the cherry and moving up to the bell. The climb had distinct different parts to it and required climbers to switch from one mode to the other.

Watching competitors during the preliminary events made me reflect upon how we are naturally attracted by fluid, elegant movements. I suspect this is because they are at the same time efficient. So if it is efficiency we are attempting to showcase, I say that Speedclimb is a viable option – if you invest a bit of time and effort into your set-up and get it right.

More than that, it can be a fun and creative process on the way.

Big thanks for this one go out to Renè, Dirk and the rest of the Monza Speedclimb posse (who of course were not only Belgians, as the drawing above might make you believe, apologies to Nobuko and Gildas).

P.S. Before someone else mentions is: Yes, the belay in the drawing above would not work. Call it artistic liberty. The slings on the left hand cherry stem and the belay were on the back side, so on the side the climber traversed on. It was easier to draw this way… 😉

Post-ETCC touch down

Promises, promises. No, I did not keep you updated, sorry about that.

The truth of the matter being that days around an event like ETCC start early, pass by in a frantic blur and end up comatose, to be repeated the next day… until you are spat out the other end. Exhilarated, befuddled, impression-rich – and at the same time with a slight sense of emptiness, slightly deflated.

ETCC was – once again – a rich experience for me.

A unique opportunity to spend time with friends, to interact with the very special group of people that our arborist tribe is and to create something where there was nothing before. I love the ephemeral structures we create during these events, the admin base  camp, the catering area, the various events that gain such relevance for a couple of days, just to be dismantled afterwards for the park to return to its original state again, with hardly a trace left by the event that took place there, maybe a faded marker-sprayed landing zone, some hi-viz dots up the Speedclimb tree, but that is about it.

What is not ethereal however are the connections between people that grow over the years. One of my most cherished memories of all these events is at the end of them seeing people leaving obviously happy and fulfilled – and wanting more. This is one of the key elements that drives something like ETCC. Powered by the people. Indeed. In that respect every person and every contribution matters and makes a difference, so consider yourself invited to join in.

I staggered into a few days holiday here in the south of France. But I made some notes of some items I would like to discuss in coming blog posts, so stay tuned. Meanwhile I will attempt to catch my breath before what lies in store for the next couple of months… ISA conference in Orlando, Vertical Connect in Meiringen, the NZ conference in Nelson in October, the A+A show in Dusseldorf – and a number of other things I ought to fit in around it all.


Time is flying – I must be having fun.