Tree Time in Atlanta
Be a kid again and learn to climb -- or sleep in -- an oak.

By Carol Clark
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2003

I had to climb 20 feet before I reached the lowest branches of the 100-year-old white oak. Suspended by a climbing rope hooked onto my arborist harness, I swung my feet onto a branch the width of a balance beam.

"That's it!" my tree-climbing instructor, Tim Kovar, shouted from the ground. "Now let go of the rope and you can limb walk."

He looked up at me expectantly, a large, rugged man with the head of Satan tattooed on one of his forearms and the image of a leopard wrapped around the other. I couldn't bear to disappoint him.

I released the rope from the grip of my sweating palms, transferred my full weight onto the branch and took a few tentative steps. Suddenly I felt as graceful and buoyant as a pixie. A light breeze rippled the lush canopy surrounding me. Through a gap in the greenery, I could see the tops of two Atlanta skyscrapers, about five miles distant.

One of the things I love best about Atlanta is its profusion of oversized trees. The city's sunny, humid climate spurs oaks, elms, maples, hickories, poplars and pines to grow like the Incredible Hulk. But I never imagined that I would be clambering along the branches of one of these giants until a friend told me about Tree Climbers International. Founded by Atlanta tree surgeon Peter "Treeman" Jenkins in 1983, TCI uses professional arborist equipment and techniques to allow lay people to visit the upper reaches of old-growth trees.

TCI, which describes itself as "the world's first organization dedicated to recreational tree climbing," has trained instructors who have opened chapters, known as "groves," in northern Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado. The concept has also spread to Japan and Europe.

The nirvana for the sport, however, remains Atlanta. Serious enthusiasts come from around the globe to join TCI's intensive tree-climbing courses. The two-day curriculum includes instruction in tree-to-tree traverses (think Tarzan) and tree surfing (riding the wind in the upper branches).

"Surfing is best done in an 18-inch-diameter loblolly pine. They have a lot of movement, like an antenna," Jenkins said, when I called to ask about the course. "When you're on top of a 75-foot-tall pine tree, in a 15- to 35-mile-per-hour wind, you get 10 feet of swing on either side."

I opted for one of the more sedate introductory climbs. These afternoon drop-in sessions, held the first and third Sunday of every month, attract people of all ages and athletic abilities who want to experience what Jenkins calls the "Peter Pan effect." An added bonus was the chance to spend the afternoon in Little Five Points, an old hippie neighborhood not far from downtown Atlanta where TCI's Founder's Grove is located. I drove past quaint wood-framed houses with lush, overgrown yards and eclectic touches like a pink mailbox, a giant peace sign and Tibetan prayer flags.

The Founder's Grove consists of a pair of nine-story-tall white oak trees, set near a pond and a fenced pasture. I felt like I was entering a 1960s version of "The Secret Garden." Two emu heads periscoped up from behind a tangle of shrubs and wildflowers to spy on a little girl in a blue sundress who was feeding a handful of grass to a goat.

About a dozen people, ranging in age from about 6 to nearly 60, milled around a picnic table beneath the oaks. The group was a mix of locals and out-of-towners, including a couple who had traveled from New York to spend the night in treetop hammocks, a TCI option known as "Zzzzs in the Treez."

Kovar, decked out in a jungle camouflage hat and a company T-shirt with the slogan "Nurturing the Nut Within," told us that the two oaks, named Diana and Nimrod, were the most-climbed trees in the world. He used a giant slingshot to send the ropes flying into the air and to loop them over branches as high as 80 feet.

He was assisted by Elliot Su, who had come from Taiwan to spend a month studying at TCI. A photojournalist who took early retirement, Su said he planned to open the first recreational tree-climbing school in Taiwan.

"I wanted to focus on doing one special thing with my retirement and I decided this would be it," he said.

Kovar gave us a few ground rules while he led us through some stretching exercises. "Tree climbing is what we call a challenge-by-choice activity. Everyone goes only as high as they want, as fast as they want," he said. "Just because a rope is 70 feet high, that doesn't mean you have to climb it all the way."

Each rope can hold up to 7,000 pounds, Kovar said, adding that TCI has never had any injuries in its 20-year history, beyond minor rope burns and blisters. "But I have given a couple of bad haircuts, when people have caught their hair in the ropes."

We strapped on helmets and stepped into padded harnesses. Kovar clipped one of the ropes to the metal ring on a 7-year-old boy's harness. He told the boy to bend his right leg so he could put his foot into a loop tied into the rope, then sink his full weight into the loop as he used his hands to push a Blake's hitch knot upward. The boy followed the instructions and rose about one foot off the ground. Kovar explained that the Blake's hitch was a friction knot that allowed a climber to go up or down, but automatically holds the climber when weighted.

The young boy was halfway up Nimrod by the time I got the hang of the odd inch-worm motion and began ascending Diana in earnest. The technique required more coordination than strength. I rose slowly but steadily, concentrating so much on my efforts that my fear of heights didn't kick in until I was dangling alongside Diana's lower limbs. I paused to mentally regroup.

All around me, other climbers were suspended at varying heights. At 30 feet, a 10-year-old girl lay back in her harness and giggled with joy, letting her long, blond pigtail twist like a prehensile tail. At 50 feet, a grinning middle-aged man flipped upside down to perform the "bat hang."

"Take my picture! Take my picture!" shouted a giddy gray-haired woman, waving from Nimrod's foliage to her companion on the ground.

Some people come repeatedly to the Sunday afternoon climbs, and I marveled at their skill. Quick as a squirrel, a barefoot young girl scooted past on a nearby rope, then disappeared through a Y in the branches above me. It was like a flashback to my tomboy past.

Anyone who is reasonably fit and 5 or older can master tree climbing, Kovar said. But children tend to be best at it, he added, because they are lighter and "more fearless."

My own fears faded away as I gained my balance on Diana's strong, elegant limb and began walking -- feeling wonderfully free yet secure in the knowledge that I was still connected to my climbing rope. Sunlight turned the treetops into the greenish color of an old-fashioned Coke bottle. I closed my eyes, inhaled the intense, woodsy aroma and listened to the sounds of birdsong, laughter and murmuring leaves. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out up there but, after an hour, it was someone else's turn to use my rope.

Su held my rope from the ground to help with my descent. I pulled down gently on the Blake's hitch and slid slowly back to Earth.

"I like to watch the adults come down," Su said. "You see something in their faces like joy, but more than that. It's like something from their childhood."

Carol Clark last wrote for Travel about Milledgeville, Ga.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company