Climbers and Gear: What Matters Most?

arborist climbing
Photo: Unsplash/Getty-Images.

A lot has certainly changed in the tree care industry since I embarked on my climbing career in the early 1970s. Tools, equipment and techniques have all evolved.

Back then, manila ropes were in common use for climbing as well as lowering. The working strength of ½-inch manila rope was more than adequate for climbing purposes and routine lowering applications. Manilla was my favorite climbing line.

I’m old school. I still use the taut-line hitch. Manilla rope held that knot without tail creepage. Synthetic ropes can creep through a taut-line hitch, necessitating a stopper hitch on the tail. But then manila was phased out and synthetic became all that was available. Synthetic ropes are superior when it comes to lowering. With the loads they can handle, they beat manila, hands down.

Chain saws have come a long way as well. Back in the ’70s, there were no good small “topping saws” available like there are today. Increased power-to-weight ratios, easier starting, vibration dampening and quieter mufflers all have contributed to making the life of climbing arborists easier. And electric saws are a whole lot quieter. Only time will tell how powerful electric saws will get, and if they’ll ever run a 36-inch bar.

Climbing techniques and gear also have undergone refinement. Back when I started climbing, it didn’t matter how a climber got their keister up a tree, as long as they got it up there. Ladders were in common use, shinnying was an accepted climbing technique and the bowline on the bight was still favored as a climbing harness by some.

Actually, at one time, shinnying was a significant part of the test for City of Milwaukee arborist candidates. With mechanical ascenders and micro pulleys in vogue today, the foot lock and taut-line hitch have become passé for many, though not all.

Though throw bags and giant slingshots are popular today, ladders used in conjunction with the pole-saw rope-advance method need not be ignored. I sometimes wonder which is the quickest way to get 25 to 35 feet up a tree. Rope ascending definitely wins hands down when there’s 70 feet to the first branch union and no lift access. It can get rather time consuming, on the other hand, retrieving hung-up throw bags at the end of a climb.

In today’s world, there certainly is a whole lot of gear we didn’t have in bygone days. Sometimes it’s hard not to be a kid in a candy store. Good gear is essential to a point, no doubt, but are all the bells and whistles available really necessary?

Some climbers can get the job done with less. Too much focus and reliance on gear can be a confining box, leading one to overlook options that could get the job done as efficiently, if not more so, and at a significant savings to the client. With all the climbing gear available, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, when all is said and done, it’s the skill of the person that gets the job done.

It was true in yesteryear and still is true today. Good gear is essential and necessary to a degree, but keep the focus in the right place – on the climber.

Michael Hoppe is owner/operator of Michael Hoppe Arborist, a two-person operation based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

1 Comment

  1. I’m in the middle of the discussion of how much gear to have. Having started on Arborplex in the pre-split-tail days the slack tender was just becoming a craze, and then Jason Blake wrote about his hitch in Arbor Age.

    I still have some little jingly bits that I hardly ever used 20-some-odd years ago, but some of them came in handy in a pinch. A method is to look at what other people are using before making a purchase, especially with the plethora of climbing aids available today.

    Huge climbers such as I was (9ft 9, 250lbs) can’t use some of the gear lighter people use, some of my apprentices are on another corner of the Venn diagram and are way too light. Rings and blocks, slings and loops are all investments in excelling in the Trade. Some find having a splicing kit and a spool of Tenex can make a difficult job easier by whipping up a few loopies or a balancer.

    Every climber needs to expand their kit to allow themself to be as productive as possible throughout the day, and all week long. Having a second lanyard in the bottom of a bag might get the job done better. Some who specialize in removals will keep two pairs of gaffs, one kept sharper for working in hardwoods like hickory and locust.

    Before transitioning into the more Professional side of Arboriculture I found an arc in my Trade practice where I found the gear I liked and became more minimalistic over time. Some of the things I didn’t like I gave away or traded; many of them I kept because I knew that they could be valuable someday.

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