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Climbing Light

Author: Sam "Oak" Johnson
Date: April 10, 2009
Disclaimer: For quite some time now, I've had a number of related but separate ideas bouncing around in my head. This is an attempt to connect those thoughts, by relating personal experience.

Climbing Light
I have always enjoyed exploring the out-of-doors, and throughout my life I have found different ways to do so. My interest and passion for hiking led directly to my interest in backpacking. At the same time, I became interested in rock climbing and mountaineering in order to learn how to hike in terrain made dangerous by vertical risk. In the last few years, I've transitioned to a lighter weight style of backpacking. In some ways, I had always been backpacking light - I've always tried to minimize my impact on the land and keep that impact as light as possible. However, lightening the load on my back had more benefits than I imagined. By reducing (what I now consider) excess stuff, I started to enjoy the hike more. I pay more attention to my surroundings while also being able to hike longer distances. I set up and break camp more quickly, leaving more time for explorations and adventure. Both in terms of the load on the land and the load on my back, backpacking light has improved my own, personal, wilderness experience. Recently, I've been thinking about connections between my background of backpacking light and wilderness tree climbing.

Joe recently began a thread on wilderness climbing ethics. Joe succinctly stated that the focus of the discussion should be on wilderness climbing:

"We were never talking about what climbers should do in their own yards, on their own property, or on other private property for which they might, or might not, have permission to climb. That should be another thread entirely and should appear under some category other than wilderness climbing."

As with Joe's post on wilderness ethics, what I write here is regarding wilderness climbing - although it may be applicable elsewhere. I agree with Joe on many wilderness issues, and when he eloquently articulated his view on wilderness he also articulated mine. So again I quote him:

"My personal definition of wilderness is any area where nature dominates and that lies beyond sight of civilization. It can exist on either private or public property, although I usually think of wilderness as being an area of public property, such as within a national forest, state park, national park, or some other area under the control of the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Land Management, or the equivalent of any state's Department of Natural resources, whatever it might be named."

There is also an "official" legal definition of wilderness from the 1964 Wilderness Act. The line that most resonates with me and my life is: "[Wilderness is a place] where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

When I am a visitor to wilderness, I strive to "Go Light". In tree climbing, I strive to "Climb Light." From here on out, I will try to explain what Climbing Light means to me. I take "Climbing" to describe the entire activity from approach to rigging to climbing to experiencing to descending to departure. "Light" refers to an effort to avoid excess.

Following are some qualities of tree climbing which I appreciate and an explanation of how a philosophy of Climbing Light applies to these qualities:

Perspective. I find that moving to new place gives me perspective on the old place. When I return to the ground, I do not forget about my experiences from above. This affects my thoughts, actions, and emotions on the ground. Climbing Light means that I do not let myself be weighed down by the thoughts, actions and emotions of one place while in another, but it also means that I do not forget the perspectives afforded by any place.

Working through the technical challenges of finding my own path. I am more likely to find my own path when climbing a tree without visible human impact. Climbing Light means that I am mentally focused and nimble enough to navigate the path. Finding my own path does not mean making my own path but working with the tree to find a path which allows me to reach my goal. This can also become a metaphor for myself of finding my own path in other areas of my life. In pursuing this challenge I often feel confident and humbled. I learn new things along the way - about my surroundings and myself.

Meeting the emotional challenges of the present, future and past In the present the challenge may be fear. Some days it is a fear of heights, other days it is the fear that I have lost my fear of heights. Climbing Light means to deal with future and past fears and in a positive way so as to be able to climb in the present and truly experience all that the moment has to offer. I challenge myself to climb in the present when I am climbing, reflect on the past when reflecting, and plan for the future rather than worry or become lost in excessive daydreaming. Climbing Light does not mean to forget about other parts of my life, but rather to deal with them appropriately and at appropriate times.

Physical challenges of a climb. It is rewarding for me to travel under my own power - and vertical travel is no different! While there will always be a physical element to climbing, Climbing Light means that the physical challenge should come from the tree and the techniques required - not from the sheer mass of equipment brought into the tree.

Climbing a tree which has never been climbed. While every climb is a new climb, the first ascent or entry is something special. Knowing (or merely thinking) that I am the first human to experience the canopy in this manner is humbling and makes the experience particularly meaningful. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to move about on an organism older than I. It is a centering experience for me. I strive to let the other thoughts and concerns of my life melt away and allow me to focus on that experience.

In Climbing Light, I want to give others the opportunity to have as meaningful or more meaningful experiences than I. When we impact the wilderness we degrade that resource and diminish the experience of others - and for our future selves. We venture into wilderness because it is precisely that.

When others observe our impacts, our activities may be restricted or regulated. Land managers will sometimes say that they do not manage the wilderness, they manage people. A trail encourages visitors to walk a particular route, concentrating the impact and sparing other parts of the land from that impact. Guidelines and education help visitors to learn how to minimize impact and how their actions can affect others - in a positive or negative way. Also, land managers strive to help people connect to the tangible resources of the land, and the intangible benefits those resources can provide. Intangible benefits will help people relate to the wilderness by tapping into universal concepts. In turn, people will appreciate, value and protect the wilderness.

As tree climbers, we have a unique connection to the tangible resources of a wilderness area. Obviously, trees are important to our activity. But the context of that tree is also important. In an extreme example, imaging climbing one of your favorite wilderness trees. And now consider climbing that tree in the middle of a parking lot. On one hand, that tree provides a sanctuary from the urban landscape around it, and on the other hand something is missing from the experience. More importantly, consider the other qualities of a climb that make it rewarding for you. I listed a few of mine above.

Because of our unique connection to the tangible resources of a wilderness, we also have the unique opportunity to be stewards of the wilderness as a whole. Climbing Light means that we should not forget the forest for the trees. Our connections are to individuals, but these individuals are connected to the rest of the wilderness. We are visitors to the wilderness in that our experience is temporary, we are stewards of the wilderness in that we can keep ourselves from impacting it, but we should not be managers of the wilderness - it manages itself.

In addition to keeping the impact on the land light, Climbing Light also means that I strive to lighten the load on my back or harness. I have mentioned that I seek to leave mental and emotional baggage behind when Climbing Light. But I also attempt to bring less physical baggage.

Climbing Light can involve reducing both the total weight of equipment as well as the amount of equipment. Obviously, excessive weight can be a burden, but too much gear can cause confusion and organizational difficulties. Confusion may also lead to some sort of error and possibly an accident. On the other hand, it is important for me to have enough equipment to be able to rescue myself or my companions depending on the situation as well as my current skills and knowledge. As such, this aspect of Climbing Light has been refined slowly as I've gained experience - and I will continue to refine the gear I bring on a climb as I gain more experience. Learning is a life long journey.

Perhaps the most obvious way to lighten up is to bring less stuff. I try to look through my gear and see which combination of items will perform all the functions I need. Perhaps this is because some equipment can have multiple uses (e.g. a grigri as an ascender and a rappel device in a yoyo system) or I will rely on particular skills that will replace the function of the device (e.g. single foot lock in place of a foot ascender). Perhaps I can share equipment with a climbing partner. I try to limit the number of "what-if..." pieces of gear and (perhaps falsely) remind myself that my capacity to climb is not entirely dependent on the equipment used - merely that it is used correctly.

Another option is to bring lighter stuff. Some gear is heavier than other, and that tends to be left behind when I climb. I have a lot of gear I purchased early in my climbing days which is "beefy," "bomber," "solid," and heavy. Pieces of equipment with essentially the same function may differ drastically in weight. I try to choose the lighter device. Obviously, I don't want to compromise on safety, and my personal preference may steer me to one device over another due to some detail of how it functions. Saving an ounce here and there adds up and I can feel the difference.

When I first put together a set of lightweight backpacking gear, I remember thinking, "Is all this really going to matter - maybe I've gone too far with this idea." But after I put on the pack, there was no going back. With less weight on my back, I enjoy my hikes to the trees much more. I view wilderness tree climbing as an extension of hiking - but instead of exploring the ground, I go vertical and explore the canopy space. Climbing is just one part of the overall experience and I try to be careful that the climbing aspect does not detract from the other aspects of my wilderness outing.

Besides the weight and amount of equipment I bring, I try to recognize that my experience is shaped by the function of that equipment. By limiting my "what-if..." gear I get to problem solve and deal with the situation at hand. I become more present to the challenges in front of me and rely on my own skills and knowledge to address the challenge. I try to bring gear that minimizes my impact on wilderness because I seek to experience the wilderness and ecosystem that I find. For that reason, I am strongly opposed to bringing a saw into the wilderness. Sure I don't have to use one if I bring it, but leaving it behind emphasizes my commitment to climbing the climb that I find. If I do not have the capacity to climb what I find, then I will not climb it. And if I do decide to climb it, I will deal with the consequences of my actions. The climbers are visitors to the woods. As such, it is the responsibility of climbers to get themselves out of situations they get themselves into, while they also must be mindful of not getting themselves into a situation which requires "getting out of."

We climb in an ecosystem, as well as a tree. It seems that climbers often engage with the ecosystem from a human-centered (anthropocentric) or tree-centered (arborpocentric?) viewpoint. I find that part of Climbing Light is avoiding giving excessive weight and meaning to one perspective. I try to change my spoken language and the language of my thoughts to reflect an objective perspective of that ecosystem. A hollow is a characteristic of the tree. It may be a hazard for a climber or habitat for an animal or many other things depending on the perspective. I prefer to think of beetles and conks are examples of insects and fungi rather than pests and pathogens. Due to human activity, these insects and fungi may be more present and perhaps for this reason we'll "take the tree's side" in an attempt to undo the damage of others. However, I am rather conservative in this respect and prefer to follow the precautionary principle - sometimes summarized as "do no harm." Since I am a visitor to the wilderness, my actions should strive to not harm the ecosystem functions on any scale. I'll readily admit that I am not able to refrain from anthropocentric or arborpocentric language, but I try to be aware of the effect my language has on how I think and act regarding trees, climbing, as well as ethics and style.

For me, the power of Climbing Light is that it incorporates both ethics and style well. I think of ethics as governing actions that might affect the experience of others at a later time. I think of style as governing actions that affect my own current experience and the experience of others nearby. Thus, removing a vine or trampling understory vegetation affects someone who climbs or hikes in the same area the next day (or later) and this is an ethical issue; being noisy and leaving gear strewn about on the ground during a climb is an issue of style. Climbing quietly, neatly and efficiently around the characteristics found in a tree is climbing in the style and ethics of Climbing Light.

I do not Climb Light every time I climb. There are times to haul out all the gear and have a play day in the back yard, or I prune a tree over a well-used path. However, I strive to Climb Light when I climb in a wilderness setting. Climbing Light incorporates my ethics and my style of wilderness climbing. My great challenge is to climb in a manner consistent with my ethics and style. This challenge can become the seed of personal motivation for the great challenge of life: To live in a manner consistent with my ethics and style.

© 2009, Sam "Oak" Johnson

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