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Climbing Together: The Team Concept

Author: Joe Maher
Date: November 21, 2008
NOTE:The following was discovered while going through notes from teaching climbing in the rainforest. Having thought about it, I realized that perhaps there could be something here that those who never climb in the rainforest would find interesting and perhaps applicable to their own ideas about climbing.

Keep in mind that this was put together for a college-aged demographic, most of whom have not done a lot of climbing prior to coming to the rainforest.


Most serious recreational tree climbers are rugged and independent individuals capable of taking care of themselves and who consider it rather demeaning to accept help from anyone as they take on the challenges inherent in climbing big new trees. However, sometimes, in the interests of accessing a new and never-before-climbed tree in the most effective and safest manner possible, the concept of Team Climbing should be considered. This means that a group of climbers operate as a team rather than as a collection of independent individuals. Nowhere is this concept more viable than when a group of several climbers take on the adventure of climbing into a challenging and newly discovered tree in a remote and wild environment.

Climbing as a team means exploiting the talents of group members in such a way that the tree can be climbed by everyone safely and efficiently. As a group the team should gather for departure, make sure that all of the climbing gear has been packed and that all necessary personal items are being carried by the members of the group. The strongest of the group should do most of the hauling on the approach. The person who is best at either throwing or using a canopy access device should be responsible for initial access and setting a pilot line. The strongest can be hauling the climbing rope into position. The most efficient, knowledgeable, and safest climber will be the lead climber. Once at the top of the entry pitch, the lead climber will begin rigging ropes for others to follow. As the second wave of climbers begin their ascent upward, the lead climber will be attempting to advance the climb higher into the tree. Those still on the ground will be tending to the gear and helping with line management. The group will be functioning as a team and each member will be expected to contribute to the goal of getting everyone into the canopy and allowing everyone in the group to experience the joy of knowing that they have gone where no one before them has climbed.

As climbers begin their descents after having spent time in the top of the canopy, the team concept continues with those first on the ground giving aid to those still above. As more people reach the ground they should begin work on gathering up and packing away the gear. As soon as everyone is on the ground, the job of getting the ropes down and packed away should be addressed by those who came down first and who have had an opportunity to rest themselves.

Team climbing means setting personal egos aside. It means that individuals should surrender themselves to the goals of the group. It means that everyone should help everyone else and that the group goal will be unfulfilled unless every member of the group is able to experience success in the adventure.

The idea does not end when everyone is out of the tree. The idea does not end until everyone is safely out of the forest and all of the gear has been accounted for, each piece redistributed to its rightful owner, and the trip deemed effectively closed.


Every tree that is climbed requires that someone make the first ascent. Making the first ascent in any tree is an adventure, but making the first ascent in a remote giant takes the idea of adventure to a higher plane. The first ascent is not something, obviously, that should be approached incautiously. To be the lead climber in a never-before-climbed-tree requires skill and knowledge and an approach quite different from those who follow. The lead climber is truly breaking new ground and there are serious pitfalls awaiting the climber who does not understand this.

In rock climbing and alpine mountaineering, the lead climber is the climber who leads the way, placing protection for him/herself and those who follow, while establishing the route to the objective. In tree climbing, the lead climber will be climbing the equivalent of a top-roped lead climb, at least on the entry pitch; the rope has already been placed over an anchor limb in the tree above. This does not lessen the extent of the risk, however, because the lead climber can never be completely sure of the integrity of the anchor until the anchor has been reached. Once there, it is the lead climber's responsibility to assess the integrity of the setting and to re-arrange the setting if it is found to be questionable. The lead climber will then, if necessary, re-route the climbing rope below and to the ground. Finally, before extending the climb upwards to the next pitch, the lead climber will be expected to place other ropes over appropriate safe anchors for the climbers that will follow. The responsibility for the safety of the settings to be used by those that follow now rests squarely on the shoulders of the lead climber.

As the lead climber advances upwards there is more to be considered than the integrity of the anchoring limb over which the climbing rope has been placed. There are other hazards that must be considered. The possibility of line entanglements is not something to be taken lightly. There are stinging ants and there are biting ants. There are bees and wasps. The lead climber must be alert to the possibility of encountering any of these hazards at any moment as the ascent is advanced. To assess the risk is, simply put, to consider anything and everything that could influence the safety and the success or failure of the climb. The decision to climb or not to climb could result from the lead climber's assessment.

Lead climbing, obviously, is not a thing to be taken lightly. Lead climbing is not for everybody. The ability to be a lead climber requires a delicate balance between fear and self-confidence. Too much or too little of either can ruin an otherwise great day of climbing! Lead climbing also requires a degree of climbing skill above and beyond that needed by those who follow. As is stated quite regularly, the more tools (ie: skills, techniques, knowledge, and equipment) that the climber has at her/his disposal, the higher the likelihood for a successful climb. The lead climber must be capable of doing "Whatever Works" whenever "Whatever Works" is called for, as long as "Whatever Works" conforms to safety and ethical protocols.

The lead climber is also in a position of stress, with pride, as well as the possibility for success or failure, on the line. If the lead climber finds success, then it is most likely that the group will also experience success. If the lead climber fails, then so usually does the group. In addition to the dangers and risk inherent in making a first ascent and being the lead climber there is the social pressure created by the desire of every climber to succeed in the eyes of his or her peers. The lead climber, more so than any other climber in the group, must not allow such pressure to interfere with common sense and the decision-making process. The statement that "Pride goeth before the fall" should be considered a real possibility in its most literal sense!

Before leaving the ground there are several things that should be considered and any number of questions a lead climber should ask of him/herself: Are you tired from making the approach to the tree? Did you get enough sleep the night before? Hangover maybe? Do you honestly feel up to doing the climb? How do you feel mentally? Does this climb look like it might be scary? Remember that what looks like a really simple climb from ground level can become very scary once you are up there hanging on a rope from a limb a hundred feet above the ground. Being a freaked-out climber in the top of a never-before-climbed-tree is not the best way to spend an afternoon. Consider that you are going to be up there all by yourself and any support you need will have to come from within or from the ground way beneath you. A certain amount of fear is good; being afraid will keep you safe and keep you alert. "No Fear" at all is bad, regardless of what the T-shirts may say about it!

Keep in mind that tasks that looked as if they would be very simple and easy while being considered at ground level can become extremely challenging when met face-to-face "up there".

Consider your gear. Do you really have everything that is needed to do the lead? While minimalism is important it is also important that the basic needs to climb are met.

Consider the rest of the group. If you get into trouble is there anyone present who can help you out? Does the group have resources to perform a rescue and are there people in the group capable of carrying out a rescue? Are you yourself well-versed in self-rescue? Are you sure that once you are safely in the canopy that the rest of the group is capable of joining you there? Are there those who might need help or special encouragement to make the climb? If one of the others in the group gets into trouble are you capable of coming to their aid? Are you sure that you will have the support of the rest of the group once you have left the ground and are on your way up?

All of these and more are questions that should be asked and answered before the decision is made to begin the climb. Anything and everything that could influence the success or failure of the climb should be considered and questioned before connecting to the rope. If there is doubt, don't go!

Being the lead climber carries a mantle of responsibility. Remember that the success of a climb hinges on the lead climber's success as a lead climber. Lead climbing also carries the potential for the attainment of respect and glory. Being the lead climber allows for the possibility that others will look upon the lead climber as being the best of the best. That sort of thing. Don't be blinded by this idea. The lead-climbing-wannabe who fails and has to default to someone else will have lost more in defeat than would have been gained with success.

The position of lead climber should go to the group member with the most skill and climbing experience, and the climber with the most common sense. It is no fun at all to sit on the ground and listen as a lead climber hangs high overhead telling everyone else that he or she can't set their ropes or advance the climb. Too often, a climber in need of an ego boost will step forward, guaranteeing the group that he/she can do the job only to find once they get up there that the job is far beyond their ability level. Nothing is more frustrating to the group on the ground than to have to spend a couple of hours watching a lead climber struggling toward failure, knowing that eventually that climber will come to the ground and hand the job to someone else, and the watching and waiting will start all over again.

Before moving on to other things, let it be reiterated that the successful lead climber is one that can find the balance beteween fear and confidence, and who has the skill and ability to back up that confidence. The lead climber is one who can go to the top of the tree by herself/himself and prepare the route for those who follow. The lead climber must have a pioneering spirit. The lead climber must have the courage and fortitude to say "No" when risk assessment demands it.

Finally, the lead climber must be a leader.

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