The Sharp End of the Rope

Last year, “Top Gun: Maverick” graced theaters, and it took many of us back to the original movie and its storyline. The original movie was so motivating to folks in the ’80s that the Navy would post-up outside of movie theaters to recruit. We watched as pilots moved at breakneck speed, executing maneuvers that looked impossible and exhilarating. The newest addition to the movie series is no different, just a slightly more modernized pilot with some tear-jerking memories. But the end result is much the same. We leave inspired by true masters at their craft who execute their mission in an almost effortless way.

So why am I recounting a movie about naval pilots in a tree care magazine? Well, it’s where I drew inspiration for the presentation I gave on this same topic at TCI EXPO ’22. Since my start in this industry, I’ve had a few questions running on repeat. “Why do we climb?” “Why do we go where others won’t?” “How do we deal with fear and also problem solve along the way?” I wanted to know the answers to these questions, and I hope discussing those answers might help others who have wondered the same things.

Adam Baggett climber apprentice in tree
We love pushing our bodies
and thinking of creative
solutions, says the author.
Shown here is Adam
Baggett, climber apprentice
with Truetimber Arborists.
Photo by Jeff Inman.

United, yet different

To be fair, I feel like these questions and their answers will vary from person to person and change a bit over time. But the questions nagged at me enough to ask. So I polled a group of arborists from around the world for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, each of whom brings different and unique mindsets to the table.

We arborists pride ourselves on going into the aerial playground that these trees offer and coming out the other side successful. Yet, we’re all individuals who apply our own touches as to how that work is conducted. We are united on things like standards and best practices, wearing PPE and tying in. However, if you were to put two climbers side by side to execute the same mission, they’d likely go about it in different ways. To me, that’s a major point as to why we climb. We all want to figure out our own style and how to leave our mark on this industry we love so much.

Word cloud

The author used input from climbers to create a word cloud to help identify the key words that addressed his two main questions: “Why do you climb?” and “What do you do when you are scared?” “It’s of no surprise that the word ‘climbing’ is the largest. After all, it’s what we all do, and most love it dearly,” says the author.

The replies I received from these arborists were impactful, honest and, at times, absolutely hilarious. Big shout-out to everyone who took some time to help with this. I used this feedback to create a word cloud to help identify the key words that addressed my two main questions:

Why do you climb?

What do you do when you’re scared?

The more a word is repeated, the larger the word displays on the word cloud. Pretty simple. It’s of no surprise that the word “climb” is the largest. After all, it’s what we all do, and most love it dearly. It absolutely consumes us and our thoughts. As we go for a walk or take a drive, we identify how we would climb a random tree. We look for tie-in points. “Where’s a redirect for that low limb?” “Oh, I bet that swing is epic!” It’s things like this that cause our significant others to scoff and roll their eyes.

We can’t not see them! We love pushing our bodies and thinking of creative solutions. Whether it’s to throw a massive piece in a removal or delicately dance out to the tips of a limb for a small cut, it’s how we’re wired. Heck, we are also the only industry I’m aware of in which workers do their job all week and then want to link up on the weekend and do it some more!

“Tree” was the second-largest word. It doesn’t matter if we love to plant and prune or cut them down, we love trees. Understanding trees and how they react is a major part of what draws us to them. Their overall form and growth habits. How they fill space. What they give us to work with. What we wish they gave us to work with. The extreme heights mixed with big and wide crowns. It’s the full package of three-dimensional stimulation.

What we learn from trees

closeup of climber in tree
“Trees allow us to exercise our bodies and minds in order for us to interact with them,” says the author, shown here. “In a moment’s notice, they call upon everything our training and experience have taught us.” Photo courtesy of Jeff Inman.

Trees allow us to exercise our bodies and minds in order for us to interact with them. In a moment’s notice, they call upon everything our training and experience have taught us. How a chain saw is not only a tool to remove tree parts, but also a diagnostic tool. We don’t know what our anchor points are rated for, so we have to adjust and evolve with the times and technology to accommodate those scenarios. They grow in weird and funky ways, and we join in on that weirdness and funkiness (smell included) to exist in their world.

Trees give us great views and also insight into the world around us. To stand tall and proud, but be patient and just grow. A friend of mine, Mr. Jamz Luce, once encouraged me by saying that no matter what the objective is for the day in the tree you’re climbing, take a moment to enjoy the view. Take a few seconds out of your day – slow the production down for just a moment – to enjoy the world around you. It’s easy for us to get wrapped up in the grind and try to produce like crazy and completely forget to look around at the top. I’m grateful for many things in this industry, but that bit of inspiration goes with me into every tree I climb.

Problem solving

The third thing that stood out in the word cloud was centered around “thinking” or “problem solving.” After all, in my biased opinion, arborists are some of the best immediate problem solvers on the planet. We’re able to call on our experience and training to address the situation we’re dealing with that day. It’s always amazed me how I’m able to dive deep into the archives of my memory from jobs a decade earlier and deploy a possible solution to the problem at hand. Every day is a new day.

No two trees are alike. Even if they are the same species, the problems are always varied. Variety is the spice of life, and we arbs sure do love to add some spice to our lives. It’s what we’re good at. It’s difficult to capture something like this on a resume, but we lean into this ability and find pride, as well as fulfillment, in it. The camaraderie and family we build is unique. We have to trust one another and do so immediately, knowing that we hold one another’s lives in our hands. It’s a powerful bond.

Using your senses

Now, let’s go back to my “Top Gun” reference. Part of what fighter pilots rely on is confidence in their abilities. This, along with making sure they have all of their boxes checked in terms of safe operation of their tool, the fighter jet. If the jet checks out fine, they’re free to allow their minds and bodies to be in tune with the actions of the jet and the space it’s interacting with.

Sound familiar? It should. If we’re checking our gear regularly, inspecting the tree and having confidence in it all, we’re freed up to allow our minds and bodies to flow in the space we climb into and move throughout. We’re quick to talk about and call on the physical aspects of our world, but what this also leads to is the mental game that’s at play while we’re aloft.

You see, in a very basic sense, our brains release chemicals for the various situations we find ourselves in. It’s a coping mechanism that works on a biological level, without us fully realizing it’s happening. For example, you know that feeling you get when you watch a scary movie, or when you’re camping and think you hear a mountain lion? Or you’re up high in a dead tree that doesn’t feel right? When all your senses are telling you to bail? Well, your brain is releasing a chemical that triggers a fight or flight reaction. It is aimed at protecting you and keeping you alive – it’s telling you to get the heck out of there!

Employing endorphins

On the flip side, when we’re feeling energized, excited and fully locked into the moment, our brain is releasing different chemicals, more of the endorphin variety that enable us to focus and stay engaged in the task. They keep us wanting more. We arbs have a bit of a reputation, a knack maybe, for chasing these endorphins as we climb to great heights, swing from small ropes, wield sharp chain saws and release large amounts of potential energy that’s stored in the trees. We do it day in and day out.

That repetitive exposure breeds a new behavior in an individual. The more we are exposed to, the more we will respond in kind. This usually means by either walking away from it or welcoming more and more of it. If we stay in it, we gain the ability to adapt to situations under pressure and apply our lessons learned to the next situation. Which sometimes means walking away from a tree.

Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold is a world-renowned, American rock climber. He is known for his epic ascents of massive rock walls. Specifically those climbed without the protection of a rope. Scientists ran a brain scan on Honnold. It was used to determine if his brain registers fear the same way the rest of us do. It is not super surprising that the results showed he had decreased brain activity in the parts that register fear. They reasoned that he has been in those situations many times. He has repeated those actions enough that his brain doesn’t respond the same way it likely once did. He’s learned, mainly out of necessity, how to stay calm under pressure and think clearly when things seem to be going wrong.

It would be an interesting exercise to run this same test with a veteran arborist. I’ll bet the results would be fairly similar. Not that we don’t feel fear, but rather, we’ve learned to respond to fear differently than we did when we first harnessed up. Please rope up, though!


In short, we arbs are a special breed. We take pride in going where no one else is willing to go. Pride in caring for these giant specimens, our clients and one another. Excitement in climbing and figuring out creative solutions to the challenges trees present. This work tends to find the arborist, not the other way around.

Be proud to have sawdust in your boots, calluses on your hands and rash on your sides from the harness. Lean into the wind, the strain and the stink. Savor the times you are scared and the times of pure excitement. Like the trees we care for, we grow from this. It’s the full package, and I can’t wait to wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

Jeff Inman Jr., CTSP, is an ISA Certified Arborist, is ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualified and is an ISA Tree Worker Climber Specialist. He is risk manager with Truetimber Arborists Inc., an accredited, 19-year TCIA member company based in Richmond, Virginia, and Truetimber Academy director.

This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at Under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.

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