Wisdom Garnered from Years of Climbing

Charly Pottorff, Jr., owner of Wildcat Tree Service, a 12-year TCIA member company based in Manhattan, Kansas, only stopped climbing at age 70. Now 80, he shares his key to that longevity – staying fit.

During his career, Charly Pottorff has climbed redwoods in California, aided in Hurricane Hugo recovery efforts in the Carolinas in 1989 and climbed trees in Central America. All photos courtesy of Charly Pottorff.

“I could probably still climb, but my daughter took my climbing gear away from me, and she’s running the business now,” Pottorff says, adding, “Actually, I sell that equipment, so I can always get more.”

Wildcat Tree specializes in low-impact removal and technical rigging, while also offering stump-grinding and pruning services. Charly’s International Tree and Wood Gear, Ltd., is the side business that sells climbing and rigging equipment.

Growing up in the Maryland woods, Pottorff was always climbing as a kid. For kicks, he would have someone cut down the tree he was in and ride it down. “That gave me a thrill,” he says. He would rip dead trees out of the ground as a way to build up strength for playing football at North Hagerstown High School. Essentially, he’s loved trees all his life – and staying fit. He also likes to inspire others to keep in good shape to enhance their tree-work experience and to provide for a healthier and happier lifestyle.

That is especially true for arborists who want to keep climbing as they get older, according to Pottorff. He is a case in point. Pottorff earned a degree in physical education and almost pursued a master’s degree, but tired of academia and moved into tree work. Fitness has always been part of the equation, he says, as well as keeping himself a fairly well-informed individual. “I was a competitive lifter in my early days, and I believe in strength. If you saw me, you probably wouldn’t think I’m the age I am.”

During his career, he has climbed redwoods in California (including one that topped out at 150 feet and had a 7-foot diameter), aided in Hurricane Hugo recovery efforts in the Carolinas in 1989 and climbed trees in Central America. He has led clinics on physical training and rigging from Alaska to Central America, “and I try to show climbers now how to do it safely.”

His family background – his grandfather came to the U.S. from Italy – also lends itself to what he is doing now. “I’ve been doing manual labor all my life. I had the strength and mental acuity for it and am blessed in that regard.”

Charly Pottorff and his daughter, Rebecca, celebrate his 80th birthday with Louis XIII cognac, something Charly first tasted while stationed in France with the military.

So how can tree climbers stay fit so they can keep climbing to age 70 and beyond? A healthy lifestyle is one way. “A lot of those who do manual labor have poor health habits – they smoke, drink too much. You can’t keep that up. You do that and you are going to get hurt.” Staying fit also includes healthy eating, which in Pottorff’s case includes lean bison, which Kansas has a lot of, and plenty of vegetables.

He also does strengthening exercises. “It’s more than doing aerobics. You have to do heavy lifting to help build bone density and keep bones strong,” he says. “You lose strength as you get older. At age 23, I could do quarter squats with 860 pounds and tear a Wichita phone book in half. There’s no way I can do some of those same things now, but that’s just the point. You can improve, not to where you were when you were 20, but you can improve over people your same age. Most of the people my age have had knee or hip replacements, use oxygen, wheelchairs. I’m not going to get to that point. But something could still happen; a tree could fall on me.”

As a fitness enthusiast, and because of his early years as an accomplished weightlifter and football player, Pottorff has his own weight room on his property. But not everyone is going to be able to have that, he notes. “Tree climbers trying to stay in shape don’t need to go to a gym. You can do a lot of strength training using your own body – pushups, pullups, situps,” even one-handed pushups for the truly ambitious. “You don’t have to lift weights.” He also believes in isometric training and uses an Isochain, a chain-and-bar device for doing isometrics. He keeps daily charts to record types of exercises and weights to make note of improvement.

Pottorff started tree work at age 14, when a forestry student at Penn State University got the teenager to work with him during summers. Pottorff would climb freestyle and did a lot of labor. He liked the work. He also liked working in an uncontrolled environment, i.e., outdoors, and still does, noting that should be a priority for anyone going into the tree business. While attending Kansas State University in Manhattan, Pottorff did tree work to get through school.

He and Ron Yankowski, a fellow football player (Yankowski went on to play football for the St. Louis Cardinals for 10 years), founded Wildcat Tree in 1969. (Yankowski climbed until just a couple of years ago, retiring at age 75). They had a lot of good crew members working for them, says Pottorff. “Now it’s a little different story, getting people to work, but it’s always been a problem.”

The company specializes in large-tree removals, so a lot of forethought goes into technical rigging. “I have a knowledge of physics from high school, but I understand gravity and strengths, and we’ve done some real heavy rigging.” The company also does tree removals and pruning with the use of its two bucket trucks.

In climbing, fitness is key, but so is a clear mind, he says. “You have to do some thinking through before you go haphazard into a tree. You need to know what could happen before anything does happen,” he says. As with many lessons, that is based on experience. One of his colleagues was someone who was very accomplished at rigging and thinking things through. When topping a big white pine – his ground crew had a line on him, and was running a lowering line – he fell 75 feet to his death. “I talked to others who have been climbing for a while about this, and the consensus was that it is not always clear if a tree is safe to climb. You get a perception of things. It takes some experience to get a feel for that. You have to keep an open mind all the time,” says Pottorff.

“When I climbed redwoods in California, I used spurs and a flip line to get up there and the same way to get down,” says Pottorff.

What would he consider the most dramatic changes in equipment and technique over the 53 years he has owned and run Wildcat Tree? A major one, of course, is the change in the types of ropes used. The early Manila ropes could break, especially if not stored properly, he notes. Now, colored synthetic ropes, including customized ones, are in play, providing more safety and strength. But “you have to be watching. Equipment gets weaker. You have to be aware of it and replace it.”

A mechanical advantage is the use of ascenders. “When I climbed redwoods in California, I used spurs and a flip line to get up there and the same way to get down. Now we are using shot lines, and you pull yourself up with ascenders.” But always you have to know the tree and make sure it is not completely dead so it doesn’t break off on you, he notes.

“The mechanical advantage now is amazing. A lot of it comes from the rock-climbing industry. I’ve never done any of that, but those guys are to be respected,” he says, including climber Alex Honnold, who recently was the first to solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes or safety gear. “He’d be a pretty good tree climber,” says Pottorff.

Meanwhile, one major change for the company is new ownership. Pottorff’s daughter, Rebecca Pottorff Horton, took over the business January 1 of this year. “She wanted to take over,” her father says. “She was adamant. She climbed trees, knows how to run equipment and knows how to back up any piece of heavy equipment, and she’s a ramrod and can get anything moving. She respects the crew members.” Her command of Spanish (she grew up in Panama) also helps, he adds.

“She actually told me I had to get the company changed over. I’ve long been a single proprietorship, and it wasn’t that easy to do, but we did get it done,” he says.

“I couldn’t be happier. I can trust her. An outside person coming in is not as invested in the business as a family member who has the desire and capability to do the work,” he says.

Does the new owner plan any major changes as the next generation takes over? “We’re getting some new equipment,” Pottorff says. “This business is really evolving pretty fast, with different equipment and techniques, which is a good thing.”

Charly Pottorff with two friends while climbing a strangler fig in Panama in 1984.

Some people question how a tree company can charge so much, Pottorff says. One person came up to him and said, “You’re charging as much as a surgeon.” “Well, I’m a tree surgeon,” he responded.

Insurance, workers’ comp, equipment – you’ve got to make money or you’re not going to survive, Pottorff says. Another income stream for the company is the sale of recycled products, including high-grade lumber (“good money for big tree slabs”), wood chips and firewood. “We recycle everything we cut,” he says.

“You’ve got to be happy, that’s the main thing I told her,” he says of Rebecca and the ownership transition. She’s been working for her father 14 years, since 2008. “She doesn’t know everything, but neither do I. You learn something new every day.”

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