treemagineers – a selection of recollections and observations 1/3

The following article was first published in the Kletterblatt of the Munich tree climbing school in December 2022.

Like many things that develop into something good, treemagineers had a humble and unpromising beginning: three friends messing around with ropes and hardware in a kitchen. To be precise, this was in 2004 at my place in Basel, Switzerland, Chris Cowell, Bernd “Beddes” Strasser and others had come to Basel after a very heavy, wet snowfall which had caused a lot of damage in the region, especially to birch trees and Scots pines. We took the opportunity to gain clarity on how to proceed with a number of discussions we had been having. Was there enough substance to develop it into an actual project or enterprise? Was there an opportunity to actually do something to improve the deficiencies we perceived in the equipment we were using at the time – or were we doomed to whinge about it for years to come?

At this point Beddes had been working on a concept for an arborist harness for some time, Chris and I had been discussing configurations of hardware and ropes during work which were commonly used for arboriculture work – and how they could be improved – whilst we were working together. 

The discussions in the kitchen were punctuated by copious amounts of coffee, as well as a plethora of pieces of hardware and rope (which would later become the pulleySAVER) scattered everywhere, draped over the extractor fan piping. The result? We concluded that we should give it a shot – because after all, what did we have to lose?

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

In retrospect, I sometimes wonder whether we would have dared to take this step into the unknown had we known how much time, effort and energy the whole thing would cost. But it’s probably good to approach such ventures with a degree of naivety – otherwise no one would ever take a risk. 

For us, at any rate, the decision was to have a profound and lasting impact on the years – and decades – to come.

The origins of treeMOTION

Around the turn of the millennium, the development of climbing harnesses in arboriculture was pretty much stagnating. The last push of innovation had come from François Dussenne and Fred Matthias with the harnesses they had developed in a collaboration with Comet: the Vert, the Evolution and the Butterfly, as well as the climbing harnesses ArborMaster had developed with Buckingham. 

Enter Beddes with his ideas of how much more a harness could be. 

Beddes is one of those rare people who have that creative, ingenious spark that allows them to see things in a way that others miss – whether it’s in the approach to a climbing sequence or the solution to a technical problem. 

The harness concept he was working on was based on a novel type of hardware that would connect the upper and lower parts of the climbing harness. This allowed the webbing to move freely, resulting in a more ergonomic harness with greater range and freedom of movement. For the first prototypes of the harness, Beddes used hardware he had made from wood. In addition to the innovation of the complex ring as front hardware, the use of a stiff yet supple base material was another step that allowed for a radically new type of harness construction. 

This new approach to harness construction meant that the pressure exerted on the climber’s body is distributed over a much larger area. Until then, it was common practice to counteract pressure points by padding the harness straps. Beddes’s solution, however, was to distribute the weight over a wider area with several layers of parallel webbing to reduce the pressure. All of this resulted in a climbing harness that took a radically new approach – that was innovative, a departure from what had existed up to that point. 

While this was all well and good, the obvious shortcoming was that there was no manufacturer in sight for it at that point in time time. We had a working, exciting prototype that we believed in, we had a name, treeMOTION, a look – but lacked a way to produce it and to bring it to market.

The origins of the Hitch Climber

The roots of the Hitch Climber date back to discussions Chris and I had while working, reflecting upon how we configured lanyards, friction hitches and climbing lines. During this period, all sorts of equipment was used for work positioning in tree care, employing a range of cross-used components from a wide variety of fields that were – more or less – fit for purpose. The classic Prusik loop and the twisted three-ply ropes of the English school were by and by replaced in the mid-nineties by modern kern-mantle lines and the Valdôtain Tresse friction hitch, but the interface with the connectors had perhaps no yet been thoroughly considered. As a rule, a wide HMS carabiner was used for this purpose, preferably with a flat roof, to which the two legs of the friction hitch cord, a Prusik lift, such as the Petzl P05 Fixe pulley and the termination of the climbing line were attached. This resulted in a load configuration that left a lot to be desired, with a very wide load distribution as well as a high load towards the nose of the carabiner. 

Our discussions revolved around the question of how this problem could best be solved. Was it simply a matter of adapting the techniques or was there a piece of specialised hardware missing for this purpose? As time went on, we came to the conclusion that the solution was indeed a specific hardware element, but this was yet to be designed. This (and the complex ring on the treeMOTION) was to be treemagineers’ baptism of fire in terms of hardware development – but here, too, things were going nowhere fast without a manufacturer. 

To be continued…