I am one lucky tree climber: Lucky to live a day's drive from the largest Douglas fir tree in the world, and lucky to have as a friend a talented, generous, and fun-loving arborist named Gareth Tudor-Jones. Thanks to this, the highlight of my summer was also the highlight of my climbing career.
When Gareth first proposed that we climb the Red Creek Fir, I had mixed feelings. I was flattered that he thought I was ready, but wondered if I really was. I was eager to test myself, but concerned that this tree might be a bit much for a recreational climber of my abilities and fitness. Located near Port Renfrew, on Vancouver Island, the Red Creek Fir is no ordinary old-growth tree. Two hundred forty feet high, over thirteen feet DBH (diameter at breast height), with an estimated wood volume of 349 cubic meters. Estimated to be from 700 to 1000 years old, this ancient patriarch is the world's largest (but not tallest) specimen of Pseudotsuga menziesii. The numbers, at least, were daunting.
Of course, it is one thing to contemplate the numbers as you hike toward the tree, and quite another to stand before it. This sucker was BIG! The massive, wall-like trunk extended upward without interruption for 110 ft, making the canopy look puny and insignificant atop it, yet, at 130 ft. in length (and 75 ft. in width), the canopy by itself would be bigger than anything I had ever climbed!
Gareth's strategy was to set a static line over both the first limb and also the second limb, beyond and thirty feet higher. This placement would allow us to clamber, however awkwardly, onto the top of the first limb, making it much easier to advance our ropes beyond that. Gareth proved equal to the task with the Bigshot, getting the perfect trajectory with the monofilament and 8 oz. throwbag on his fifth try. The monofilament pulled up our co-joined lengths of ZingIt, and the ZingIt pulled up two co-joined climbing lines. We would have been climbing after only a half hour of preparation time, but for an amateurish screw up by me. Gareth had only estimated that the two ropes would be long enough, and we were actually 30 ft. short. Unfortunately, I didn't notice this until I had the leading end of the rope in my hand, with the trailing end 30 ft. in the air! We threw our grapnels at a tangle on the end, but a direct hit only undid it, rather than snagging it. Gareth saved the setting by climbing a small red alder, clambering out to the branch tips, then hooking the rope end with a long, dead branch. Then he jogged back down the trail to get a third rope from his truck, and jogged back! We tied off the rope to a small hemlock and we were good to go, one hour after arriving. I'd never set a line in a tall tree with a Bigshot before, but this certainly seemed like a good time.
Gareth set off on his tree frog system, while I snapped pictures from below. Once on the first limb, he tied off on his doubled-rope rig, and I started up on my RADS gear. It proved to be pretty exhausting: it was higher than any pitch I'd ever done; the day was warm; I was unused to carrying that much weight in a packsack, plus my 150 ft. rope, on a climb; and, I was a bit nervous and therefore tense. I was less fearful than I expected, so rather than praying, I spent most of the ascent vowing to spend some time in a gym.
I eventually reached the first limb and clambered onto it, straddling it like it was a big fat horse. By this time Gareth had advanced his rope and was a good 50 or 60 ft. above me, so he lowered his rope to me so he could pull my rope up and advance my setting for me. That was how we progressed upward through the canopy. Gareth advanced using a regular slingshot with a 2 oz. lead weight and a casting reel full of monofilament. This system gave the accuracy needed to avoid snagging throwlines on the many tearouts and jagged stubs covering the tree. If the weight dangled out of reach, then it was retrieved by tossing a grapnel at it. Just like for the initial setting, the monofilament pulled up the ZingIt, and the ZingIt pulled up the rope. Once at the new setting, Gareth would advance my rope for me. Both of us were climbing DdRT with Distel hitches: Gareth on Arbor Master with Beeline cord; me on Poison Ivy with one cord of HRC and one of Sta-Set.
I was awed by what I saw climbing up through that canopy. The view from below did not prepare me for the scale of the tree and its features. The gnarled, and often broken, limbs were several feet in diameter, with many of them turning upright into co-dominant stems that were larger than many of the trees I often climb. In the crotches of these limbs were landings as large as picnic tables, covered with accumulated humus and sprouting huckleberry bushes, ferns, and unrelated conifer seedlings. You could bivouac on some of them without needing a hammock or portaledge! At 150 feet the trunk was still four or five feet in diameter, and there were tear-outs on it as large as bathtubs. Climbing an ordinary tree can make one feel humble, but climbing a tree like this makes one feel minuscule. One could expect that a professional arborist would be pretty blase about such a climb, but Gareth was waxing poetic and was obviously awed, too. The scale of the climb was nothing much by rock climbing standards, but, as we kept reminding ourselves, this was a living organism that held us in its massive embrace.
Finally we climbed as high as we dared, about even with the broken top of the main trunk. The rotten, jagged end was still about two ft. in diameter, indicating that before the Red Creek Fir blew its top, it must certainly have been 300 feet or higher. Off of the main trunk was a broken co-dominant maybe one ft. in diameter, and off of this was a smaller, healthy co-co-dominant. We were tied into this, and I trusted it, but I had no desire to scale it! Gareth estimated that we stopped at somewhere between 220 and 230 feet. It took us about three hours to get there, and I was more than ready for a rest, some lunch, and a long drink of water. The location was perfect: breathtaking view, nice secure seating, a cooling breeze, and good company. We munched and drank and talked about all the wonders the world had seen in the period of history owned by our magnificent, yet kindly, host.
We descended back down through the canopy, me finally able to set my own rope. I remained tied in with both ends of my rope as much as possible, and I was grateful for the added security of my mini-rack installed below my hitches. Not surprisingly, the most intimidating part of the descent for me was changing back from DdRT to SRT, then lowering myself below the first branch. I was in full "pant-and-suspenders" mode, and backed up my Grigri with a friction hitch below it, plus kept myself tied in with the DdRT rig for as long as I could. This ended up being not very far, because I got very irritated by the hassle of tending the second system and managing the tangles. I removed the Poison Ivy and descended on the Grigri, considerably calmer than I expected. Gareth descended as low as he could on his DdRT rig, then, instead of finishing on SRT, just transfered his rig onto a floating false crotch hung from the static line. Total elapsed time from top to bottom: about one hour.
After most climbs I feel cheered and energized, despite the fatigue. After this climb I felt euphoric and buoyant, despite the complete exhaustion! We packed up our gear, bid our host a fond goodbye, and hiked back down the trail. We even got to experience the perfect ending to such an adventure. Just as we got to the truck, four guys drove up, all excited about going to see the tree. When they asked if we had been to see it, I had the delicious satisfaction of saying (matter-of-factly, of course!) that we had actually climbed it. They were properly impressed with the stories and the pictures on the digital camera, and even more eager to see it. Gareth and I headed for home happy, as happy as only a tree climber can be after a successful day. Man, do I love climbing trees!