Until the wheels fall off!

Yaaaay! Onwards, into the vertical-connect week!

Looking forwards to spending some time up in the mountains, getting this event off the ground and meeting up with friends.

Should you have nothing planned for the end of the week, consider yourself warmly invited. Our two day-topics for the 2017 edition are Risk (Friday) and Connections and Connectors (Saturday), this year again featuring a wide range of speakers from the many, diverse disciplines where work is performed on rope.

For more infos, www.vertical-connect.ch


“To err is human; to forgive, divine”, Alexander Pope famously wrote in his “Essay on Criticism”. 

Martin Holden of the UK Health and Safety Executive wrote in his 2005 article, “UK’s New Work at Height Regulations” about how one of the defining traits of a competent person is to be aware of the limits of their competence – and to be able to identify situations in which they need to call in technical support.

I will always go into challenging situations very aware of the fact that I make mistakes.

A howler happened a couple of months back, whilst teaching work safety during this year’s Swiss certified arborist course. For years one of the things I have harped on about is the differentiation between danger, engdangerment, risk and mitigating actions. People really struggle when asked to define these terms during the exam, for instance with the concept of mathematically expressing the probability of an incident occurring.

So this year I decided to do really thorough job when explaining that topic, I made up a new infographic which illustrates the definitions in great detail. When I presented this to the folk at the course, there ensued a polite silence… it transpired I had mixed up the high and low probabilities and their mathematical expression in the presentation. Whoopsie, talk about an egg on face moment… 😛

Well, there you go, QED: Mistake? Made!

I will be the first to confess to getting things wrong. It is one of the reasons I will really question myself when making public statements regarding complex topics, such as during the annual gear inspection technician briefing prior to the International Tree Climbing Competition…

I will go into sessions like this knowing that I may well get some things wrong – the trick being in my opinion to be sure about what you know – and not be shy to admit to not knowing things, this is a reasonable and honest position to take for which you cannot be faulted, after all. Sometimes it can also happen that a situation develops a dynamic in which you get sucked into making a statement, which on second thoughts you have doubts about. In this instance also, I believe it is perfectly in order to revisit that call – or to request more time to give a matter due consideration. This is especially relevant when you are trying to make fair, consistent decisions which you can back up with facts rather than opinion.

I am always a bit nonplussed by people who come across as being very forceful and assertive when stating their beliefs and positions. It makes me wonder, do they have no doubts regarding getting things wrong? Just totally sure they have got it all right? Probably in the end it is a question of personality, delivery and style – I write this free of judgement, simply as fact.

Be that as it may, I for one strive as much as possible to mitigate my mistakes, to be open and honest about them when they do occur – and to not repeatedly step into the same trap, making the same mistake over and over again.

Therefore, let me propose a toast: onward, to new mistakes! 🥂

Brute Force

After a rather pleasant, uneventful trip back from Seattle, I arrived into Basel airport yesterday end of the afternoon – and was not very surprised to find that none of the bags had made it through the transfer in Heathrow, which admittedly with a scant 50 minutes from landing to take off was a bit on the tight side. The plane left Seattle two hours late, so that made it all a bit breathless. Still, I always think to myself in such instances, the main thing is that I am home – and in a sense it is a double win, as consequently as the bags are delivered home, I don’t need to lug the heavy bags! Me likee.

(Actually, talking about heavy baggage tags: one time I was checking in bags with some airline, they insisted on tagging them with heavy labels – at 16kg! I asked the check-in person whether maybe their luggage handler were Oompa Loompas? Or hobbits? She was non-plussed. Oh well, I suppose it is all relative)

However, I was a bit dismayed when the bags did turn up early afternoon today: They were in a pretty sorry state. They had obviously been severely crushed. Everything in the bags was flattened. Maybe British Airways uses elephants to move the baggage around? Also, the handle on my North Face wheely duffle was cleanly ripped off the frame, the luggage tags had been torn off, the 10mm Sirius line I use to close up the roll-top Exped duffle had been removed. Grrrrr… Oh, and in each bag, one of the charming letters from US customs informing me that they had gone through my stuff. No shit, Sherlock? I would never have guessed.

When I phoned BA to ask whether they considered all this normal, the lady suggested it would probably be best if I took it up with my insurance. You what?

Sometimes I wonder whether it is robust bags which simply push luggage handlers over the edge – a blatant provocation, challenging their manliness or something like that. In my mind’s eye I can picture them picking up my duffles, chucking them in front of the wheels of a taxiing 747!

Obviously luggage handlers subscribe to Tony Tresselt‘s maxim (and I am paraphrasing here): If you cannot resolve a problem with brute force, it is simply that you are not applying enough of it!

Following the logic that robust bags are red flags to luggage handlers, it would presumable make sense in future to travel exclusively with pink Hallo Kitty or fluffy My Little Pony suitcases. That might do the trick! Just have to check now whether they do 80 litre supersized versions…

Signal to noise ratio

It was with considerable sadness and concern that I heard of the shit storm which resulted out of an article being published in a recent edition of TCIA Magazine. This time it was Phil Kelley upon whom the righteous anger and indignation of the internet pundits was unleashed for writing an article examining the pros and cons of aerial friction devices for rigging, based upon some testing they have done, and also for making some recommendations based upon their findings.

Phil is someone I value and respect for the dedication, passion and expertise he brings to our industry. After having watched him present and having run a number of events together, I am impressed by the level of commitment and kindness he freely offers to people on the courses. Phil is making a valuable and important contribution towards making the industry a safer and better place, going above and beyond what he needs to do.

I therefore find it highly offensive and unfair that Phil of all people should be exposed to this level of vitriol and abuse – regardless on what my opinion is regarding the article in question. All the more so as the criticisms are largely unfounded. I cannot help but wonder, having read some of the comments and attacks, whether the persons writing them actually bothered to read the article – or, dare I suggest it, made the effort to contact Phil to clarify whether they might have misunderstood his intent?

There is a common thread emerging here, which is if in doubt to cast facts to the wind, insinuate vested interest and a sinister conspiracy (did anyone say Info Wars and fake news?) and throw the supposed offender to the trolls – who interestingly enough themselves may have a degree of vested interest in the matter being debated. Ultimately this feels a bit like taking cheap shots at certain people who expose themselves. The sad thing is, of course, that we all stand to lose from this kind of behaviour, as the obvious conclusion to these kinds of shenanigans is to ask oneself the question of why risk exposing oneself in an attempt to offer something to the industry if this is the result. This in turn decreases the quality of discussion surrounding the techniques we employ and the tools we use.

Let me be clear: the language and behaviour being displayed during these shit storms are not normal or balanced. I am saddened to see voices of reason drowned out in this fashion. This is what happens when the signal to noise ratio tips against the signal – and all becomes noise.

Thank you, Phil, for your contributions. I for one appreciate and value them.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Truly, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Recommended reads #7

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

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

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

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

Comes highly recommended.


What’s in a name?

This message from Mik here in PNW made my day.

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

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

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



Chain of events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes I cannot help but wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tree huggers vs. tree slayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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