Whatever happened to easy?

The other day I was bragging about the fact that I have yet to work between Christmas and New Year – although I think calling it bragging is somewhat uncharitable, it was more just stating a fact about something I feel quite strongly about, namely that I do not want to work in that period – call this random if you like, but that is simply the way it is.

Be that as it may, the reality is that I found myself having to do various things over in the yard every day this week, just quickly do this and just quickly get that done, so you might want to take the above with a pinch of salt…

One of the small chores I wanted to get sorted was to take the VW Crafter in to be serviced. I thought this would be a good idea as it is less disruptive than doing so during work time and hey, it’s easy! I thought. So I fixed an appointment last Tuesday to take  it round to the garage – shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, I thought.

There has been a switch with the local VW dealership, so it is a new garage we are dealing with, but that is not a problem, I looked it up on the map and drove round (The Crafter, I have to add, is about the size of a smallish aircraft carrier, I have considered painting a big H in a circle on the back so that the helos know where to land). So anyway, I found the garage in an industrial estate just outside Basel, and fiddled the vehicle up a number of tight ramps and twists and turn in order to get to the service area. I rock up to the desk and explained the lady I have an appointment for a service on this vehicle. She looked at me, totally non-plussed. We went back and forth for a couple of minutes, just for me to realize I was suffering from a major onslaught of fuzziness and had come to the wrong garage – the one I wanted was 200 meters further along the road. Duh. I sheepishly extracted myself from the office to make a speedy getaway.

Well, I say speedy… when in actual fact the getaway started with a thousand-point turn to point the Crafter in the right direction. Once I had managed this, it was back down the ramps and over to the other place.

The garage I wanted was the Grosspeter garage. Gross Peter? Sounds like a guy called Pete with… a big wart on his face (whoops, I probably should not be making fun of people with big warts on their faces in view of Motörhead’s Lemmy just having passed away, RIP). I pulled up on their parking place a bit self-consciously, feeling a bit of a twit – but hey, they don’t know I have just been on a cruise to the wrong garage, so I collected myself and went in and repeated my spiel about the appointment to the lady behind the counter. A mechanic came over and told me that they cannot service the aircraft carrier here, as it is too big. The receptionist explained to me that this is why they ask customers to send the papers, so that they can decide where to do the work. I DID scan and send the papers, I replied to this, on the same day that we made the appointment – but it transpired that no, the e-mail had never arrived… probably still whizzing around somewhere in the electronic wasteland we call the internet. Ahhh, the joys of our modern communication technologies! They make our lives so much easier. Not.

So anyway, next I drove the vehicle over to the place they service commercial vehicles, where finally they could get to work. I, meanwhile, cycled home through freezing fog.

These antics took up a bit more time than merely one hour.

The following day I went round to pick the Crafter up. I drove it back to the yard and parked next to one of our other vehicles. No no, I think, that is a little bit too close, so I reversed out again – and as I was doing so, I managed to clip the plastic part of the wing mirror and the cover broke off. Arghhhhh! Wing mirrors! Who needs them, totally over-rated anyway. Thankfully I as alone in the yard, being an idiot… because after all, NOBODY ELSE WORKS BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR! ? The damage was not too bad, just the plastic threads of the cover snapped off, blinker and mirror were ok.

I considered this… a duck tape special

So I phoned the folk at the Grosspeter garage, very sheepishly by now, to say that, yes, indeed I had just been there and that I now had just had a teeny weeny incident with a wing mirror and could I come by. So yesterday afternoon I went round again and ordered the part.

Guess what? This morning I am going around AGAIN to fit it.

Hello? Whatever happened to easy?!

Thank goodness I do not work between Christmas and New Year, I would have struggled to fit any work in around my busy schedule of blunders and fuzziness!

Oh, the places you’ll go

I would like to start this blog post with a quote from the Theo Geisel aka Dr. Seuss’s very moving final book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”:

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…

I was thinking today about the places in which we have had the opportunity to speak and run demos so far and there have been quite a few.

Here is the list so far…

I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the individuals and organizations who have made this possible by organizing workshops, demos or events.

Should your country not be on this list and you think there might be an interest in us coming and chatting about… stuff, don’t be shy to get in touch (you can do so via the contact form on the web site). We love to meet new people and by doing so, contributing our small part towards growing this tree climbers’ culture.

News from the fruit bowl

Remember Carrotzilla?

Well, you can imagine how concerned I was when I realized that we are not done with fruit bowl antics… I walked into the kitchen the other day to find the Kiwis and Oranges whooping it up – but not just that, they blissfully unaware of the fact that they were being stalked by Pirañana!


Apart from that I wish everybody a happy silly season and hope that you can enjoy some time off and rest. One of my claims to fame is that I have never yet worked between Christmas and New Year – and I do NOT intend to start doing so this year!

So there you go… as I have said before, 2016 is looking frantic, so I for one am certainly enjoying this break.

Bit of an early Christmas present…

I received this message a couple of days ago – and must say that I was very moved by it.

The reason being that recently I have been questioning the relevance of the tree climbing comps. Are they after all merely a public service – or rather a service to the competitors – that all the volunteers involved in the event provide? Or are they part of a bigger picture, contributing something meaningful towards climbers’ culture within greater arboriculture?

My feeling has always been that above all, Aerial Rescue has the potential to be very meaningful, offering the opportunity to discuss and evaluate current issues and incidents and to formulate suitable responses.

At ETCC we have attempted over the years to distinguish between technical-based scenarios and others that are more patient handling-based, to then choose a scenario that is fitting for the trees available on the site with an emphasis either on the one aspect or the other. Also we have gone to considerable efforts to make the storylines coherent and logical, with the aim that people are not having to assume all sorts of things, but rather are being scored on their actual ability to take charge of a situation that is as close to a real-life incident as possible.

This year we had one casualty during AR in Monza: Ken, the rescue dummy’s lower leg dropped off after the morning of preliminary events, this called for a spot of quick surgery during lunch break…

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

Hearing about a volunteer being able to put skills acquired during such an event to use in real life is therefore immensely meaningful to me and validates all the time and effort invested into organizing and running these events.

Dates for next year’s ETCC in Prague, Czech Republic, have not yet been set, but in all likelihood it will be first weekend of July. We will start working towards the event in the new year with the Czech crew and will confirm location and exact dates as soon as possible.

Diversity? Certainly, but let’s get the balance right

Diversity is good, so they say.

Care for an example?

If you are investing in a portfolio of stock, you will probably want a degree of diversity that will act as a shock absorber in case of economic turbulences. The same holds true for ecological systems: biodiversity protects against single pathogens or pests that a monoculture would be defenseless against.

Having said that, over-diversification has its own pitfalls: if you over-diversify your portfolio, your return on investment may no longer be viable. A garden in which one is attempting to create habitat with too great a bio-diversity may in actual fact become less attractive. So, for example, planting three purple milkweed plants amongst many other species in a garden might attract some Monarch butterflies, but planting three dozen of them is much more likely to do so. Planting one or two turtlehead plants might attract a Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, but planting a hundred square feet of turtlehead is much more likely to be an attractant. Therefore, in a nutshell, planting a little bit of everything does not in itself ensure the creation of viable habitat.

So, as is true so often, there is a sweet spot in the balance between too little and too much diversity.

Why am I rattling on about butterflies and stock portfolios – both topics about which I really do not have much of a clue (none whatsoever, in fact)? Well, here in my world of tree climbing, I believe that we face a similar dilemma when it comes to the diversity we are encountering in ascent systems. During courses and workshops I have started focussing on the variations of ascent configurations that people bring along – and guess what?

Yep, no two are the same!

Is this a big deal? Well, if you compare it with other areas of work at height it is, to say the very least, a striking contrast. Other operators working at height are much more restricted when it comes to making choices of ascent configurations and tools, but not so in tree work. Here, the sky is the limit.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Do not get me wrong, I am all for allowing space for innovation. But there needs to be a degree of accountability and guide lines to ensure that systems are safe.

This is not what I am seeing.

Some of the configurations are, to be charitable, sketchy. Sometimes this may be due to being under-dimensioned, other time gear may be misconfigured, the result in both cases being a considerably reduced safety margin. And often as not, the climber is blissfully oblivious to this fact, as (and I have stated this before), we are not experts in systems failing.

What kind of issues am I talking about here? Well, here are a couple of examples…

No connector in the top hole to assure that the line runs fair into the rope channel, despite user instructions explicitly declaring this to be a necessity. On top of which, in a cluttered environment such as a tree canopy, this would seem to make a lot of sense to me.

For some reason, people seem to be prone to mixing up which hole to attach what into. Often as not, you will find the foot loop attached into the hole for the attachment lanyard – and vice versa. This does not make sense, as obviously the lanyard attachment hole shall be load bearing, whereas the foot loop attachment point, is… well, the foot loop attachment point. Manufacturers are obviously aware of this issue, so for example the new Petzl Ascension ascenders (in the image above, on left) only have one attachment hole, resolving this issue.

How to attach into the ascender? Girthing webbing slings (like the white Dyneema sling in the image above) into the eye is not a good idea, as the contact surfaces of the ascender are not very textile friendly and may well induce failure at quite low loads.

Using lines that are not suited or incompatible with ascenders, such as lines with very low elongation, e.g. HMPE lines, made of fibres such as Dyneema or Spectra. Due to their minimal elongation, in case of shock loading resulting from anchor point movement, slippage or failure, these lines can respond in a very different way from semi-static EN1891-type lines, leading to dramatic results, such as the cover shearing and the climber sliding all the way to the ground, or the line being completely severed, this also resulting in a fall to the ground.

The use of tools in a fashion that they were not designed to be used. The classic example for this being the use of Rocker/ Buddy-type devices in the stead of a chest ascender. This is not correct use of these devices, as, according to the user manual, they shall be able to freely run up and down the line – whereas in the chest ascender-type configuration, they are de facto being held high with a neck tether. From a standards point of view, this type of device will be certified to EN12841 type A, a back up device in a rope access system, EN358, a lanyard adjuster or EN353-2, a guided type fall arresters on a flexible anchor line. But NOT as an ascender!

This list is non-exhaustive and could go on. And on.

So is the range of these various configuration suffering from over-diversification? I certainly feel there is a lack of clarity regarding which boxes exactly we are attempting to tick when configuring these assemblies and systems. Which criteria do we apply, where are the reference points and best practice guidelines we are striving to conform to? Once we have gained greater clarity in regards to these questions, I believe we will be in a better position to redress the balance towards a healthy diversity, rather than being inundated in an apparent plethora of choices.

So whilst I am all for improving the way in which we work by making it more efficient, easier, more ergonomic and user-friendly, let us at the same time be diligent that we are ticking all necessary boxes by verifying that we are in-line with manufacturer recommendations, that we are considering correct configuration, neighboring component compatibility – and by doing so, assembling safe and reliable systems.

If in doubt, RTFM.

Now THAT is what I call tall!

After a day of quite intense climbing we decided to go an check out a very large Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) in the nearby Margarethen Park, my favorite park here in town, hands down. The reason for this was that during the past few days we had been discussing how tall Hornbeams can grow and Stef had read an article that referenced a Hornbeam measuring 35 meters.

This is monumentaltrees.com‘s list of champion Hornbeams in Europe…

So anyway, all this got me wondering about the one in Margarethen… so today we decided to measure it.

It was a long ascent into the tree – with an anchor point at about 27 meters – from there it was not far to the very top. The tree was stunning, just so impressive and beautiful. The tree had grown on a slope uphill from a stand of very large Beeches. Part of the reason for the exceptional size of the trees on this slope is that there are spring all along the hillside that provide a constant trickle of water. This Carpinus has a lot of spectacular, weathered and slowly decomposing deadwood in itwhich reminded me of Nev Fay‘s passionate appeal to recognize the value and above all to leave deadwood in trees when- and wherever possible.

I actually found climbing on this tree really humbling, there is an inherent beauty and dignity to such an old tree and I feel it is a privilege to be able to interact with such a fascinating being by climbing on it.

Oh yes, what was the height, you ask?

Weeeeell, we measured 33.75 meters, ground to tippy tip. Which is… well, very tall for a Hornbeam. As you can see from Monumental Tree’s chart it is less than a meter off being Top of the Pops. Having said that though, by the end of the day I did not really mind, being able to climb this monumental tree with a bunch of friends more than made up for any missing meter!

Tenacious? You reckon?

Working on a Plane tree the other day got me thinking about its fruit – and about how tenacious and clingy those pesky balls can be – sometimes you will have whole gorilla nests-worth of limbs hung up on one single ball!

Somewhat randomly I was also happened to be thinking about steam catapults used to accelerate and launch fighter jets off the decks of aircraft carriers… then I wondered whether there might not be an opportunity of combining the two?

So here is my plan: I am absolutely convinced that the stem of a plane tree fruit is sufficiently strong to hold a fighter jet in place with the jets firing at full blast– then all you would have to do is to sever the stem with a handsaw in order to send the plane off hurtling skywards… easy breezy!

So start collecting those plane tree balls, I reckon there are any number of uses for them when it comes to retaining or holding massive loads!

And I should know, I have battled them all too often!

Finishing off the year

As 2015 draws towards an end, with the last full week of work, I find myself looking back and reflecting upon another year filled to the brim with a multitude of impressions, meetings and images. The pace just seems relentless… looking forwards to a couple of days break over the Christmas period.

Having said that, 2016 is filling up fast, there are a number of very exciting projects in the pipeline, stay tuned for further details in the course of the year.

The last couple of weeks I have been at home in Basle working with the crew, which is always good. Not much of a winter here – not that I am complaining, mind you – I reckon snow is pretty over-rated… at least in an urban context: Pretty for about thirty seconds, then wet, slushy and icky for the rest of the time until it melts at last.

Busy skies, makes you realize what they mean when they talk about congested airways. Contrails are admittedly pretty rubbish for the environment – but nice to look at. The planes in the pic above on the left were obviously involved in some kind of race…

This was a job we did beginning of this week, Pascal, Vito, Stefan and I, pruning four large Lombardy poplars by the river Rhine. I love climbing Lombardys – there I have said it now. There is something to the flow of the structure and the way you climb using the friction of small pressure points that I find very pleasing. Also we could traverse from on the the next, which is always fun.

I liked the way a bud is tickling the window in the forty second floor of the new Roche tower in the right-hand photo.

This was the next day, by the old town wall, reducing some weight off the canopy of the trees growing over the road. Great stuff, again, traversing from tree to tree using DMM’s new Captain hook, which just makes traversing so easy, but that is for another post…

And arriving at today, got damp in the morning, resulting in lots of gear to dry, including a bunch of throw line cubes. Would that be a gaggle? A herd? A pod? Certainly not a pride. I reckon it is probably indeed a pod of throw line cubes.

Weeks like this really make me realise how much I enjoy climbing and although the other projects I am involved with mean that I spend time away from home traveling, which has other perks (such as hanging around airport lounges), I would never want to miss it. After twenty five years, I find myself still not bored with it, believe it or not. In fact on the contrary, I find that I am still learning things on a regular basis, gaining small insights or re-visiting things I had forgotten.

Apart from anything else, I find climbing to be indispensable to establish a sense of balance between mind and body – not in an esoteric sense, but very concrete and tangible.

Talk about reaching for the sky…

I spotted this interesting example of mimicry a couple of days ago.

Made me laugh.

A Weymouth pine cunningly using ivy in an attempt to convince the Sequoiadendron gang that it  is ready to represent and to join their crew! What a cunning use of camouflage and mimicry… and talk about reaching for the sky. Or delusions of grandeur, depending upon your perspective.

You can just picture it…

Weymouth pine: Hey, gang, how are y’all hanging? 

Sequoiadendron: Errrr…. ok, I suppose. Who…. are you?

Wp: Duuuude, what is up with you? Can’t you see? We’re family! I’m one of you. Can I join your club now?

S: I. Errr. Dunno. Are you quite sure you are a Sequoiadendron?

Wp: Look, seriously, you are actually starting to hurt my feelings a bit here. Can we just crack on? When do I get my t-shirt and my membership badge?

S: But… what’s with your foliage? That looks a bit… different.

Wp: Yaaay, it the newest craze! A new variety… Sequoiadendron hederafolia!