Mixed feelings

It will be with mixed feelings that I travel to this year’s European Tree Climbing Championship in Thoiry, France.

The first ETCC I competed in was in 1999 in Valencia, in 2009 I joined the committee to help shape and run the event. Over all these years ETCC has become a fixed date in my annual agenda. But more than that, it has been a true privilege to see this event evolve and thrive, become a dynamic, vibrant expression of climbers’ culture within the greater arboriculture. Personally I have grown, faced with the challenges that running such an event brings with it, have made close friends for life and was able to experience many unique moments.

There were also difficult moments, frustrations and disappointments. At this point in time it almost feels as though the competitions are becoming a victim of their own success: people have very high expectations when coming to such an event. This in turn puts a high burden on the volunteers running it โ€“ de facto professional standards are being applied to a volunteer-run event. This creates a massive workload and brings a lot of stress with it.

I am sure, going forwards, that there are solutions to these problems, requiring new people with new visions to take charge of ETCC. Therefore this will be my last event as part of the organisation, leaving me very much with mixed feelings for the coming days, as is often the case when you do something for the last time.

But for now, I am looking forwards to meeting all the members of my arb family in Thoiry and am sure that we are going to experience a cracking event together.

Onwards to Thoiry!

What if?

I was contemplating this matter last week…

What if you were up a tree, in a remote location โ€“ on your own (ok, this is a stupid scenario, admittedly, but bear with me). Then you somehow manage to drop your mobile phone and your climbing line โ€“ at the same time. There are no limbs on the tree and no passers-by. How far could you descend with what you have with you?

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

I reckon by the time you tied together your lanyard, footlock lanyard, Dyneema webbing sling, multiSLING, trousers, boot laces, harness, bungee cords from your harness, your t-shirt torn into strips and the elastic from your underpants, you could make almost 20 meters (see below)!

Not saying this is a good idea, mind you, but worth a thought ๐Ÿ˜Šย Don’t try this at home, kids.

The paradox of choice

In his book The Paradox of Choice โ€“ Why More Is Less, published in 2004, the American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues how eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

Schwartz’ hypothesis got me thinking about ascent configurations used in tree care.

If ISA’s Ascent Event has demonstrated one thing, it is that there is a dizzying array of variations upon the theme of ascent systems being used in arboriculture today. This is also something I find reflected in workshops or when doing in-house training sessions for companies. Rarely will two climbers be using the same systems to access the canopy, the differences admittedly sometimes being minor โ€“ yet other times they can also be really significant in terms of equipment used, configuration or line set-up.

Frankly, this leaves me feeling somewhat perplexed and uneasy. It is often difficult, if not impossible to harmonise the wide range of systems used in the same crew, making emergency planning a challenge. Oftentimes team mates will not be familiar with each other’s set-ups, this is further exacerbated by the fact that when actually running aerial rescue scenarios, regularly it turns out that certain systems have a basic incompatibility, making it nigh-on impossible or at least very complex for team mates to rescue each other.

It is hard to counter this trend, as there is not really a benchmark to refer back to. In view of this plethora of systems, I sometimes cannot help but wonder whether how people chose to ascend is almost viewed as an expression of their individuality, rather than an expression of intuitiveness and efficiency.

In The Paradox of Choice,ย Schwartz outlines a number of steps in order to come to well-founded decisions:

  • Define your goal(s),
  • evaluate the importance of each goal,
  • lay out the options,
  • evaluate how likely each of the options is to help you meet your goals,
  • pick the winning option, and finally, if necessary,
  • modify your goals.

Based on what I am seeing, I doubt whether this process is applied consistently when people design their ascent systems, rather it seems to me that there are other factors and mechanisms in play, such as…

  • “I saw this on social media, everybody seems to be talking about it”
  • “The boss provided me with this piece of kit”
  • “I am going to use this piece of rope to attach to that ascender as I had it kicking around anyway”
  • “I pledged 50 bucks on Kickstarter towards this device”
  • “I think I saw someone use this set-up at a recent comp”

My intent is not to be negative here, but I cannot help but wonder whether we are not falling for the paradox of choice lock, stock and barrel โ€“ literally not seeing the forest for all the trees. Is the range of options, permutations and variations in fact obstructing the view of the parameters we are actually striving to achieve?

The good news is that getting there is not rocket science, but it will require a different kind of discussion, involving more deliberation and reflection, as well as a deeper consideration of underlying goals rather than simply the means of how to get from A to B.

Arborist’s sonar

I came up with this one a good ten years old, if not more. For some reason I had to think of it today, still makes me smile…

All the funnier in fact, since Paul Howard told me the story during the Augsburg set-up of the time when he was setting up the crew on site, left one of the guys in front of the property to fell a spruce, went round the back to sort out the rest of the work, when he heard the noise of a chainsaw firing up, following by the whooshing sound of a tree falling โ€“ followed by a weird sound, a bit like… plastic deforming. Upon closer inspection, it transpired the tree had been felled straight through a Port-a-Loo, cleanly (well, not really!) splitting it in two, with the content explosively voided up the side of the building.

Yuuurk! ๐Ÿคฎ

Now that is a pure arborist’s sonar-moment, if I ever heard of one!

Wheeeezes and validation fails

Did I mention there was a lot of pollen coming off those lime trees?

I kid you not, I have never seen anything like it, absolutely extraordinary. The ultimate irony being that the bees actually seem not to be very keen on silver lime blossom, when it would seem that there is rich picking there. Oh well… ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ

Oh, and then there was this… went to buy some lunch from the supermarket round the corner from the park, then had a picknick in the park. One thing I bought was a rice milk drink with added Macha green tea. What can I say? When I opened it I felt that Migros really need to rethink the styling of the product if they want this to go mainstream and not remain a niche product selling mainly to folks who have a fetish with drinking scummy snot.

Just goes to show how essential it is to validate and field test thoroughly before you go to market, regardless of whether you are considering a PPE product โ€“ or a rice milk drink. Just that if you get it wrong, in one case you are left with a slightly gross drinking experience, whilst in the other the consequences are potentially much more serious.

In the same vein I thought this was an interesting case: the other day I was looking at someone’s e-bike, seemed like a well kitted out unit. Unusually though the battery was integrated into the seat post, which other manufacturers usually do not do, the more usual format tends to be to somehow to integrate the battery into the frame around the down tube. The owner of the bike then told me that due to the width of the battery and the fact that it stands proud of the saddle, every time you pedal, your thighs chafe against the corner of the battery. Now that is what I would consider a foreseeable failure โ€“ and really something that again validation ought to have caught.


So there you go, welcome to the kind of things that preoccupy me whilst asphyxiating in a blizzard of lime tree pollen…

Spot the obvious

Nice day climbing today, pruning an alignment of silver lime, Tilia tomentosa.ย The structure of the tree makes for some interesting work-positioning challenges, you really get the impression the wood fibres are being maxed out, with long lever arms and lots of weight at the end in form of foliage. This results in some creative lanyard use, v-rigs โ€“ and some interesting rope angles.

Oh, and of course today was the new me: new access line, new climbing line, new RIG, new helmet, new harness. I felt like a total rookie! But just as well, the old gear was getting a bit tired. And I won’t even mention the helmet! I swear it made a growling noise at me out of my gear bag the other day! ‘Nuff said!

The dust from the blossoms and leaves had everybody hacking away like troopers. Let me put it this way: if I were a bee, today would have been a score! There was pollen absolutely everywhere! Still, on the upside, the fragrance was quite something.

Felt a bit bad after cutting of this chappie (see below): even after having been cut in half, he was still smiling.

But back to the job… the lads from the council were on ground work duty.

As the park is in the middle of town, this is actually really important, as on a sunny day the park is absolutely heaving with people. Fairly early on it became apparent that the guys assigned to us were not the most… dynamic. Their work process involved lots of sit-downs and smokes. Umm, yes. So I could not resist documenting this situation, try and spot the blindingly obvious. No prizes for this one, keep your postcards for harder quizzes.


Jascha about to ascend into the tree, the last lot of trees not cleared, the boys on a more or less well-earned rest. But they are safe: their rest zone is all taped and barricaded off. Which could not be said for our work zone. I let Jascha handle this one, by this time I was ready to blow my stack.

In the end they moved the barricade after a bit of coaxing. Memo to self: never take anything for granted, even โ€“ or especially โ€“ the apparently blindingly obvious.

Memos to self

Slightly stuck on the rescue dummy theme, I realise. Do not worry, I will move on to others, but I could not resist sharing one more…

I was on the road a couple days this week, running a aerial rescue session in eastern Switzerland. Don came along for the ride, he behaved and all went smoothly โ€“ maybe more about that in some future post.

I manhandled Don out of the van this morning, in a stroke of genius I strapped a skate board to the bottom of the spine board, which is great โ€“ so long as no one tells the kids!

Memo to self #1:ย Do not attempt to haul Don down the steep driveway to the cellar by yourself wearing the klumpen (wooden clogs) you were given after last year’s ETCC in Netherlands, or else DEATH BY KLUMPEN IT SHALL BE!

Memo to self #2: Do not unload Don just as your lovely, but also rather frail 94-year old neighbour is going out to do her shopping. You will most certainly give her a nasty old fright โ€“ QED.

Resilience, again

A couple of days ago, Nat and Stuart Witt dropped by for a visit, over from BC in Canada. We had a nice day together with loads of coffee and lots of chatting. One of the things we did was that we traipsed up the tower of the Mรผnster, the cathedral in Basel. Considering it was built in the twelfth century in a earthquake zone, it has weathered the passage of time pretty well. OK, granted, during the great earthquake of 1356 the third tower fell in the river Rhine โ€“ but apart from that, I mean…

We were up the tower at noon when the bells start ringing. Stuart pointed out that the whole tower was moving, which I rubbished. To then realise… that the tower was moving! Quite noticeably so in fact. The movement of the bells cause the whole stone structure to move from left to right. For this reason, amongst others, the building was constructed with grouting which was softer than the red sandstone used for the construction of the cathedral โ€“ in the wind the towers sway up to a meter from side to side. Quite impressive considering they are 65m high, that is some oscillation!

I cannot even imagine how a medieval engineer or architect would have calculated all this, but it would seem they got their maths right.

Similar to aircraft wings or the towers described above, the movement of trees in the wind serves to dissipate energy. Rather than the movement being being unnerving, on the contrary, were the structure to be immobile and rigid there would be cause for concern. All the examples above are strategies in resilience, allowing the structure to deform under load and thereby withstand it, to thereafter return to a state of relaxation, the original form.

Like the aircraft engineer or the medieval architect, when the arborist considers an anchor point for rigging or climbing, for instance, he or she will be estimating the range within which the structure will be able to withstand load before irreversible or catastrophic change occurs.

After all, we want those towers to sway nicely, not fall in the river, metaphorically speaking!ย ๐Ÿ˜‰

Ken has left the building

In my experience, rescue dummies very much live a life of their own.

Take Ken, for example, my stalwart Simulaids rescue dummy of the past years.

Every time I was getting ready to go someplace, everybody around the house seemed happy to lend a hand… until lugging Ken out of the cellar into the car came into play. He had a knack of inappropriate behaviour. One time one of his hands managed to come lose just as we were manhandling him past a box full of old crockery which was due to be taken to the flea market. Well, after Ken’s passage that crockery was reduced to lots of little bits. I suppose you could have always sold it as a puzzle! With a tube of super glue…

This was also one of the things I liked about Ken: he weighed in at a realistic weight. It drives me nuts when aerial rescue demos or training sessions are run with a dummy weighing 50kg (100lbs). I mean, really?! The risk being that solutions and techniques are identified which under real circumstances, with a average weight climber plus their gear, will simply seize up or prove to be otherwise non-viable. On the downside it did make him quite a lump.

So yes, Ken and I have been through a lot together. Any number of TCCs, workshops and events…

There was also that dramatic moment during ETCC in Turin where we ran a AR scenario where the casualty was stuck on a pole on spikes, meaning poor Ken spent his weekend on spikes on a pole. Which later on turned out to be a mistake, but more of that in a moment… anyway, in Turin, just before lunch break, Ken dropped a leg, making a touch of dramatic field surgery necessary.

Thinking of rescue dummies at comps always reminds me of one of my favourite stories in this department which happened during a comp a while back, when the climber blazed up the tree, slapped in an anchor point, bombed down to the dummy, established a load-bearing connection โ€“ to then snap his anchor point! The anchor point came screaming past him and the dummy, narrowly missing them… but fear ye not! The dummy rescued the intemperate climber.

Dummy 1, climber 0ย ๐Ÿ˜Šย And so the tables can turn!

Then there was that time when Ken joined us for the ETCC party in Monza. Come morning he had vanished. We found him again quite a fair way away in front of Mat Glenn’s tent in some weird yoga position. The less questions asked the better.

Things really started going bad when recently Ken started shedding limbs as a matter of course. In the Czech Republic workshop a couple of weeks ago he got legless. I hate to think what would have happened had someone been standing underneath as it came down…

It turned out that over the years Ken’s joints have really gone to hell. I replaced three knee joints, now both hip joints were shot, as well as the joint between pelvis and torso (don’t bother checking, you don’t have one there, this is dummy-specific). So I decided that enough was enough. Time for Ken to move on.

Roll over Ken, welcome… Don!

Unlike Ken, who is a Randy 9000, Don is a bog-standard Rescue Randy. The difference being that the Rescue Randies have a steel frame under the plastic. In theory the ball joints on the 9000s reduce the risk of pinching fingers in joints, but in practice… well, see above.

Ahh yes, the charmed life of rescue dummies!