I Am a Climber

Sketch by Jerry King

I have lived the life of an athlete. I have lived for the climb. I am a climber.

When I started my training in the early ’70s with my father, he told me that as long as I could climb a tree, I’d have a job. Inevitably, age and injuries have caught up with me. I am no longer the star of the show; my understudy has taken over that role. I may be relegated to ground-worker duties, but at heart, I will always be a climber.

The memories of 40-some-odd years of climbing meld together, becoming a blur. I didn’t climb every day, of course. My father told me that if I wanted to work on a regular basis, I’d also have to learn to do bushes and other sundry tasks arborists are called upon to perform. I’ve done more than my share of buckthorning, weeding and such, but climbing has been and always will be my first love.

I remember those spring days – the play of the sun on the trees coming to life, the breezes giving me a rock-a-bye-baby ride in the treetops (Is my climbing line too loose or too tight?), being in the blue of autumn skies, coming down out of a tree with the setting sun. The exhilaration of swinging out to the tips of those long, lanky horizontal limbs, ’cuz “tips” is where it’s at.

I remember the feeling, those mornings riding to a tough job. My father spoke of that – the feeling when riding to a difficult one, knowing who’s been chosen. The character development of facing fear; the inner strength developed through acting in the face of fear and uncertainty; all alone up on top, your ground worker 60 feet below; ever-present spirit, the presence, the Force – what have you – your only companion settling down the racing, melodramatic mind; dropping down into the “zone,” the state of consciousness that football players and other athletes speak of.

I still get nervous riding to the tough ones. I’ve lived what my business partner will be facing. The “caught between the devil and the sea” moment in the tough ones, not liking any of the options on that difficult cut, those “this one’s for all the bananas on the table” moments. Take the deep breath, start the saw, say the prayer, act in faith and trust. Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat? Saying thanks when that tough cut is done, that feeling coming down out of the bad ones when the jobs are done, the restlessness that sets in while waiting for the next exciting mission.

Over the years, the role of us climbers has been significantly diminished. What with bucket trucks and tracked lifts, and now grapple-saw trucks, climbing has become a last resort. These machines are wonderful, no doubt about it, but they can’t get up to every tree out there, and they are not ideally suited for many pruning jobs, particularly when one has to really get “inside” a tree. That’s when the climbers are called upon. That’s our forte. That’s our niche. We will always be needed from time to time. We will be ready, willing and able.

A lot has changed for climbers regarding technique as well. I have photographs of tree climbers from my preceding generation at work. I realize now that the spirit that lived through those individuals has lived through me and now my partner, and lives through all the other climbers out there and will always have climbers to live through. Climbers may not be as prevalent, but climbers will always be essential. There will always be those motivated individuals who relish the character-building thrill, the test of the climb. There will always be those who live for the climb.

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

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