This article is based on a demonstration by Craig Bachmann at the TCI Magazine Trainer’s Test Kitchen demo area during TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana, this past November.
A canopy anchor is a climbing system that anchors the rope in the canopy of a tree. While a moving rope system (MRS) typically uses a canopy anchor (or tie-in point), a stationary rope system (SRS) creates the option of a canopy or basal anchor. Why would we use a canopy anchor? When is it better than using a basal anchor?
In SRS, a canopy anchor decreases the load on the tie-in point. The anchor is basically supporting only our body weight. Using a canopy anchor also enables us to more easily move our tie-in point higher in the tree. When we’re tied in higher, we have the most options for work positioning.
There are a variety of ways to terminate, or fix, a rope in the canopy. I could use a running-bowline knot with a Yosemite finish. But if I send that knot up into the tree, I can’t easily retrieve it from the ground, which can create a significant hazard.
A number of years ago, while working in Denver, my crew leader and I were climbing two honeylocust trees that were noticeably declining. I was somewhat new to SRS and was excited to get a great first throw into the tree. So I installed my running bowline with Yosemite finish and started to ascend. I was stoked – until I swung around to the other side of the trunk and saw a huge cavity halfway up the stem that hadn’t been visible from the ground.
As I was hanging on to that rope, tied in about 30 feet above the ground, I thought to myself, “What are my choices?” Because I definitely wanted to get down when I saw that defect. But, since I had sent my choking canopy anchor into the canopy without a retrieval line, I couldn’t get my rope out without completing the ascent, climbing far above the cavity. And there was no way I wanted to go back to the shop with my rope still hanging in the tree. So, stupidly, I climbed up past the huge cavity to get my rope.
I learned from that experience – no non-retrievable canopy anchors for me. And yes, perform a better pre-climb tree inspection!
So, how do we make the line retrievable? You know what’s really cool about every rope you buy? You get two ends for the price of one. If somebody ever tries to sell you a one-ended rope, you don’t want it.
A simple way to set up a retrievable canopy anchor is to use the other end of your rope. Simply connect the other end to the running bowline you’ve already tied using a secure knot of your choice. Then, when it’s time for retrieval, simply pull on that end. Of course, it’s important to differentiate between the climbing and retrieval parts.
Another option for a retrievable canopy anchor is using a midline knot, such as an alpine butterfly. This knot is great because you can easily untie it after it is loaded. What else is unique about an alpine butterfly that’s different from, say, an overhand knot on a bight? The butterfly is omnidirectional – I can load the knot in all three directions.
For a canopy anchor, tie a butterfly in the middle of the rope. Then pass the other end of the rope through the butterfly loop. Now you have two legs of rope: one is the climbing leg, the other is for retrieval. Be careful – they are the same color, so be sure which side is which.
Just as important is knowing how much rope I need. In the demonstration discussed here, the truss system I was tied into was 15 feet high, so with my rope hanging over the truss, I was already using 30 feet of rope. When I send up my mid-line knot, I need to add another 15 feet for retrieval, for a total of 45 feet, or three times the height of my tie-in point.
Applying this to a larger tree, if you’re going to tie in at 50 feet, how much rope do you need? At least 150 feet of rope. And, if you’re good with a throw line or you pull out that Big Shot and hit a suitable branch union at 85 feet in the tree, you’ll need a lot of rope for this type of anchor. If one rope is not long enough, you can always add a second line to the retrieval leg.
When it comes time to remove this anchor, do you think it will be easy or difficult? If multiple redirects are used, it may be impossible to retrieve due to rope-on-rope friction at the anchor point. This is where adding hardware – like a pulley, a ring or a ring-and-ring friction saver – can significantly reduce friction and make retrieval much easier.
Here’s one option for incorporating a friction-reducing device. This is often referred to as the “Texas tug.” I begin with a choking canopy anchor and then tie a second butterfly knot on the retrieval leg just below the anchor knot.
Next, I’ll use a carabiner to attach a pulley at the second butterfly and connect it to the climbing leg. The pulley removes the rope-on-rope friction. If I have to remove all this rope with a redirect or two, the pulley makes it easier. Easier, but not completely frictionless.
What about using a ring instead of the pulley in this anchor? And how are we going to incorporate it? First, I’ll put slack into the eye of the butterfly and make the loop much larger.
One way to do this would be to pass the butterfly loop through the ring and form a girth hitch. The problem is, our climbing ropes, particularly static-type access lines, tend to be very stiff and won’t make a tight girth hitch over the ring. So instead, after I pass the long butterfly loop through the ring, I then pass the loop back through the center of the knot and capture the ring one more time.
I like to call this the anabolic butterfly; it’s a butterfly on steroids. You’ll notice the ring is then fully captured and I’ve retained the strength of the knot. This configuration is another way to reduce friction when retrieving the rope from the canopy. With this captured ring we have reduced friction, which might save some time and should definitely save your rope.
This doesn’t mean there is no friction in the anchor system. We still have friction at our tie-in point. When we retrieve the anchor, we still are pulling the rope through the branch union and have friction from the bark.
In summary, a canopy anchor for SRS systems does a couple of really important things. It reduces the load at the tie-in point and it enables us to tie in higher in the tree with a greater level of confidence by using familiar tools and knots. With these concepts, you can efficiently set up canopy anchors that are easier to retrieve, with less rope-on-rope friction.
These techniques are additional tools in your kit – they are not hard-and-fast rules. Give them a try using low-and-slow methods, as you would for any new system.
In Part 2 of “Canopy Anchors” in an upcoming issue of TCI Magazine, Ryan Torcicollo, CTSP, will take a look at some advanced canopy anchors for SRS climbing.
Craig Bachmann is a Certified Treecare Safety Professional, Certified Arborist, TRAQ Certified Tree Worker – Climber Specialist and an experienced safety/skills trainer. He is also an event head judge for the International Tree Climbing Championship. He operates Tree133, a TCIA member tree care company based in Seattle, Washington, and regularly speaks at industry conferences.