Mentoring New Climbers

Hobbs H2 lowering device
Photo 2: Drake tightening a Hobbs H2 lowering device on a hazardous tree removal. All photos courtesy of the author.

People always ask me, “Why did you want to become a climber?” While there is really no easy answer to that question, I guess I can just say that I have always had a fascination with heights and how to get up something.

Unfortunately, while growing up and getting into tree climbing, I never had any real “hands-on” mentors to show me what to do, and, more important, what not to do to keep myself safe. This was all pre- internet, YouTube and Instagram, which in and of itself was not really a bad thing. And not a lot of people had written manuals on tree climbing and working in trees. You certainly couldn’t find anything in your local library. I know, because I tried.

It wasn’t until G.F. Beranek’s “The Fundamentals of General Tree Work” and Donald F. Blair’s “Arborist Equipment” books were published, in 1996 and 1999 respectively, that my eyes were really opened to what true professional tree work and climbing were all about. (Note: These two industry giants became mentors and friends to me, and will appear in an upcoming TCI Magazine article I will be writing soon.)

These were followed in 2000 by Jeff Jepson’s truly great book, “The Tree Climber’s Companion,” which is a must read for every beginner and advanced tree climber alike. With all this knowledge then available to me, I immersed myself into learning and devoured all I could. (Photo 1)

Arborist mentoring books
Photo 1: Chris Girard’s favorite mentor books.

In 2003, with the internet in full bloom, I was able to find Mark Chisholm and Tom Dunlap’s online tree forum, TreeBuzz, which again opened up my eyes as to just how little I really knew and how many great climbers were out there.

Getting off the ground

Advanced rope-walker system.
Photo 3: Brandon climbing a hazardous maple tree on an advanced rope-walker system.

By this time, I was working full time as a civil-engineering technician for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. (I have always loved math and physics, and I have an associate degree in architectural engineering.) But I was doing tree and logging work on the side. I started my own tree care business around this time as well.

I was fully insured and wanted to be taken seriously by potential clients. I tried to get part-time work with local tree care companies, but back then there just weren’t too many around my area. So I only took on jobs that were within my skill set at that time.

I also continued to read, started attending workshops and took courses. In doing so, I gained the knowledge I so desperately would have loved someone to have shared with me when I first started learning the trade. Years went by, and my business and education continued to grow. It reached a point where I felt I could leave state service and go into tree care full time. I was confident in my abilities, as I was an ISA Certified Arborist, TCIA Tree Climber Specialist and Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP). I also had become a New Hampshire Certified Professional Logger – though I knew climbing trees was where I really wanted to be hanging out!

Becoming a mentor

I was ready now to take on a full-time employee and prepared to become a mentor myself. I found a young man named Drake who had not done any tree work in the past, which turned out to be a positive thing. He did not have any bad habits that needed to be broken, was full of energy and eager to learn something different. I had him start off as a ground worker, with the prospect that if he wanted to learn how to climb, I would eventually teach him. (Photo 2)

One thing I found out right away was that everybody has a learning curve and will pick up on things in a different way. Some people are book learners, and some are hands-on people. I myself have always been a book learner, able to read something and then apply it. Drake was not like this. He was more of a visual learner. I remember buying him an illustrated book on tying knots and showing him all the knots that he was ever going to use in tree work. I told him he could practice them on his own.

After a little while, I noticed he still wasn’t tying them correctly, and asked if he had read the book. He said he had, but that it was confusing and the illustrations were hard to follow. That very day, he and I sat down at lunchtime, took one knot out of the core group that I wanted him to learn and tied it over and over together until it made sense to him. We did this with a different knot each day for a week or so. From then on, he knew exactly how to tie each of them.

Starting at the bottom

Drake and I learned an awful lot in those first years working full time together and did many exciting and challenging jobs. One thing I truly believe – and I’m sure others out there will agree – is that to be a really good climber, you should get your start as a ground worker, working underneath someone with experience. In learning this way, you get a chance to watch them while they are climbing and rigging.

If you are lucky, they also will take the time to explain what it is they’re doing and the reasons behind it. The climber also can help keep you safe while they’re working aloft. Remember, too, that you can always ask questions. Just be sure to do it at an appropriate time, not while they are hanging upside down getting ready to tie off a branch to be cut!

If nothing else, just keeping your eyes and ears open – not daydreaming or being on a cellphone – will provide you with firsthand visual knowledge of what to do and what not to do. If you are really lucky, the climber will be someone with actual arboricultural skills, and not someone who will just show and teach you bad habits.

As I said earlier, I never had someone to mentor me, so I didn’t develop any bad habits. But I was held back in developing the appropriate ground-operation skills that would have made those first years with Drake a lot easier.

Moving up

After a few years, Drake showed an interest in climbing, so I began to teach him the basics. Around the same time, I hired another young, full-time employee named Brandon, who took to tree work the way a duck takes to water. Brandon comes from a family of loggers, so he had some prior skills with a chain saw. But he hadn’t done any tree climbing. He had, however, been doing some rock climbing, so I knew he wasn’t afraid of heights. I told him the same thing I told Drake – first learn the ground operations, watch me climb and ask questions, and eventually I will teach you the art and science of tree climbing. (Photo 3)

Well, within the first year, I had Brandon up in the trees learning how to climb and rig properly. One thing I always try to do with new climbers is actually be up there with them the first few times they are climbing and trying something new. This does two things. First, it gives them the added confidence of having a mentor instruct them while being next to them up in the tree. Second, you can help them with any hands-on situation that may come up while they are working.

Taking on more

After I took Brandon on full time, I also began instructing and working with a young high school student named Sam. His father, Mark, and I had worked together back at the NH DOT. Mark said his son had an interest in tree climbing and tree work in general. But he said he was afraid his son was going to kill himself if he didn’t get some proper training. Well, young Sammy also turned out to be a natural, and is now with us full time as well. (Photo 4)

Climbing SRT/SRS
Photo 4: Sam climbing SRT/SRS on a hemlock tree removal.

Unfortunately, last year Drake decided to leave arboriculture and learn a new trade in the plumbing and heating industry. Brandon suggested I hire his cousin, Cody, who at the time was looking for a change in work from the well drilling he was involved in. So we took on Cody, and he is now well on his way to becoming another excellent tree climber.

Start with the basics

With all beginner climbers, I have them start out with old-school basic climbing gear and techniques. No, I don’t have them climb in a BOAB (Bowline on a Bight) saddle, tie a taut-line hitch or even learn how to footlock (which is ergonomically horrible for your body). But I do teach them how to climb both the traditional closed climbing system, with just their climb line, and the advanced (but in my opinion, still old-school) open split-tail climbing system (with and without micro pulley).

I also make sure they first practice the “low-and-slow” rule instead of the “fast-and-furious” method. Everyone should become proficient with new techniques low in the tree, and slowly introduce them to their climbing system before employing them high in the canopy in a working situation. (Photo 5)

Climbing on a traditional (closed) climbing system.
Photo 5: Cody climbing on a traditional (closed) climbing system, with the working end of his climb line tied onto his saddle with a bowline, leaving a long-enough tail to form a bridge and tie a Blake’s-hitch friction knot to the running end of his line.
Climbing on a split-tail (open) climbing system.
Photo 6: Cody climbing on a split-tail (open) climbing system, with micro pulley. This was considered very advanced just a few years ago.

Just like being in school and needing to learn your ABCs and 123s before moving on to advanced stuff, you need to do the same thing with your tree-climbing skills. With all the advancements in climbing gear over the last 10 years, it’s easy for beginner climbers to want to seek out the latest and greatest in climbing gear. I get it. But it’s really a mistake if you go out and purchase everything under the sun, thinking it’s going to make you instantly a great climber.

It just doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the hours of training and going through the motions to develop the muscles and coordination necessary for the work of climbing and rigging trees.

Teaching techniques

The body thrust is really a full-body movement – and a workout. I tell beginners to remember to place their feet high up on the trunk of the tree. Then, in one quick movement, thrust the hips forward while simultaneously pulling down hard with the arms on the side of the line that has the friction hitch tied off to it. Finally, by quickly sliding up on the hitch, the rope slack is advanced and you can move up. (Photo 7)

Even though the body thrust isn’t used an awful lot these days in tree work, it is still used in crane work, such as when a climber, after descending, needs to go back up for whatever reason.

Staying safe

Another important thing to teach new climbers is the command signals that are used between the climber and the ground worker(s). Again, in this age of Bluetooth communication that tree workers can have in their helmets, some people may say we no longer need hand signals. This is so untrue. What if your batteries die, or someone forgets to bring the comms in for the day? Knowing what is said and how to respond to it is vital for all workers, beginner or advanced. Hand signals matter. (Note: See Jepson’s “The Tree Climber’s Companion” book, page 58, Communication – Command and Response System.)

One thing I always have my climbers wear for PPE while working up in the trees is chain-saw pants (not chaps). Even though the ANSI Z133 does not (yet) require that you have chain-saw protection while working and cutting aloft, I feel it just makes sense to have the extra safety. So many times throughout the day, you are reaching down and around to make a cut with a chain saw, or even a sharp handsaw. Therefore, it just makes sense (at least to me) to have the extra layer of insurance of chain-saw pants.


Tree climbing, body-thrusting technique.
Photo 7: Cody demonstrating the dreaded body-thrusting technique.

There is so much more I could write about mentoring, but space does not allow it. Just remember that after you have spent a number of years in the tree care industry, you may be called upon to become a mentor yourself. Then you will be able to teach and guide someone just starting out. Don’t be afraid (or selfish) to take the time and share what you have learned.

Experience can be the best teacher, but sometimes it comes at a price that no one can afford. So let’s continue to teach others and help keep everyone safe in this industry we all love.

Chris Girard is an ISA Certified Arborist, a Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) Level 1 Technician and owner of Girard Tree Service, a 15-year TCIA member company based in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

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