Fall Foliage

Instructor Helps Novices Climb Trees in Virginia

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

For a good half-hour, all I did was hang out, and for perhaps the only time in my life I can mean that literally. I was 30 feet up an 85-foot poplar in southwestern Virginia, dangling from cables looped around a limb, and as my instructor attended to another student, I had nothing to do but look around.

And what a view. Right above me, the poplar's leaves were just taking on a hint of gold. Next to us a sugar maple was becoming dotted with reddish orange. And farther out a cool fog was draping over tree-climbing instructor Bob Wray's 40 acres and beyond.

"All the problems in the world happen from here down," Wray said as he helped the photographer accompanying me adjust her cables and climb to a higher limb. "There's no strife up here, no holy wars. Only peace."

That prospect was exactly what had drawn me to Meadows of Dan, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, for a different perspective on fall foliage. The parkway's lack of commercial signage, electrical cables and street lights already makes it a haven for leaf-peepers, but I wanted to get closer than the distance between motorway and canopy. I could hike into the woods, of course, and I did, but once I was face to trunk with the source of fall's impending color explosion, I wanted to get closer still, to see the trees from a tree, by climbing up one.

Wray, 60, has been using rope and harness to scale trees for 10 years now, and teaching others to do it for five. It's both harder and easier than you might think. Unlike with the mesquite trees of my West Texas youth, whose limbs swooped down almost to the ground, there's no walking right up into trees whose first branches can be 50 or more feet up. Before our half-day "climbing experience" started, Wray had tossed ropes around sturdy boughs, tied the proper knots and otherwise arranged our gear so that we had little more to do than put on harnesses, clip in and follow his instructions.

From there, it was a decent but not impossible workout, as we learned to "foot lock": wrap a rope around one hiking boot, balance against the tree with the other, then stand up and quickly slide a knot up the rope, taking out the slack. We were careful not to grab the crucial Blake's hitch, which would send us in the wrong direction, but Wray had built in safety knots to catch us if that happened. A little at a time, we pulled ourselves up. The trickier part was moving to a higher limb, which involves throwing another line and -- gasp -- switching from one set of ropes to another. Wray walked us through it patiently, detailing which carabiner should go where and what to unclip and clip in which order. But for a first-time climber, it was a little nerve-wracking: Would undoing the wrong carabiner send me hurtling to the ground? Wray was watching closely, but I still couldn't help thinking of the situation as something of a cross between hooking up a DVD player and defusing a bomb.

The payoff came once I was high enough to actually rest on a branch. Isn't that what tree climbing is about? This is where I was able to take a drink of water and look around some more. The fog was rolling in, and the clouds were darkening. Was that a raindrop? No, thankfully just dew from some of the upper leaves. If Wray had thought we'd have thunderstorms, he never would have taken us up. Nobody wants to be in a tree if there's a chance of lightning.

Besides lightning, the other apparent danger is: What if a limb were to break? Unlikely, says Wray, because not only do you test the strength of a bough as soon as you start climbing up, but you're also pulling right where it meets the tree, at its strongest point, with no leverage to snap it.

It was time to give up the bird's-eye view and start down. Wray instructed us in hooking up to a micro rack, a friction device that allows the rope to slide through a little at a time as you hold it with one hand and keep it from moving too quickly. Among the cautions: Don't let anything (clothing, hair, a finger) come near the rack, because once it goes in there's no pulling it back. We learned this the hard way when the photographer, mere feet from the ground, leaned forward and got a few locks of hair caught in the rack; Wray had to cut her loose. He was mortified, but she was fine, as was her hairstyle.

As we helped Wray collect the gear, he said, "Once you climb a tree you'll never look at it the same way again. You'll be driving down the road and almost get into an accident because you can't take your eyes off the trees."

It's the curse of leaf-peepers everywhere, and here's the remedy: Pull over, get out of the car -- and climb.

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