The following is a post written by two of my students at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC) in Panama. While this climb report might seem a bit ordinary on the surface, so far as climbing in the rainforest can ever be considered ordinary, I felt it would be of value to tell the rest of the story, about the scouting and preparation that preceded this climb. Many of those who climb with me in the rainforest are unaware of the challenges and hazards encountered while making preliminary ascents into previously unclimbed forest giants. Be enlightened!
An Awesome Climb
By Annie Lester and Jessie Uehling
There is never a dull moment here at ITEC. Since the day we arrived in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, we have experienced day after day of gripping adventures on this breath-taking island. From swimming through bat infested caves, to sea kayaking, to hiking through dense rich rainforest, we always seem to find risks to take and sights to see, led by our fearless leader Joe.
It was just another day, another adventure that began with clouds looming in the distance as we loaded up the 100lbs of tree climbing gear to be divided between our three backs. It was quite difficult to balance with that much weight while trying to focus on each step through slippery mud and over wet rocks. This hike was just like any other walk through the forest, beginning along a dirt road and ending up along a foot trail. There were electric green dart frogs hopping and howler monkeys roaring right above our heads. The dense green jungle was crawling with signs of life from ground to tree top. A long way down the hill the ocean waves were crashing against the sand with palm trees speckled along the beach.
Along the whole hike we scoped out trees wondering which one we were going to climb. We kept hiking further and further away from the ocean and the sounds of the waves faded. It seemed merely coincidental when a rainforest giant appeared in front of us. We were humbled by this emergent tree that dwarfed all the trees around it, and whose life surely spanned several centuries. Little did we know that this had been Joe's objective all along. It was hard to imagine what this climb had in store for us, for we could only see the underside of the lower canopy which would turn out to be only about a third of the distance we ended up climbing. There was no place from which the entire tree could be viewed. We anxiously attached our climbing gear to the ropes that were being engulfed by vines and leaves, not knowing what to expect above this layer of brush.
A light sprinkling of rain began falling upon us, only increasing the sense of adventure as we set up our ropes and put on our gear. The sounds of howler monkeys and tropical rainforest birds set the mood for this most epic of climbs. Joe climbed before us, checking out the tree and our settings, and as we watched the silhouette of his body becoming a speck against the sky our appreciation for this mammoth creature increased exponentially. Having found everything to be in good order, he was soon back on the ground.
It was now our turn to make it to the top so we attached ourselves to our ropes and began worming and twisting our way upward through the foliage one foot at a time. Each layer of tree left below us exposed more and more of the Caribbean in the distance. Raindrops slid down the rope as we reached higher and higher up towards the gray sky. Entire ecosystems unimagined from the ground made themselves clear from this vantage point. Even 100 feet up the trunk, the limbs were 3 feet in diameter. Leafy vines hung off of lichen covered limbs, and mingled with dozens of orchid species as views of the beach became more visible. Off in the distance was an outline of Bird Island being framed by the hanging vines, epiphytes, and tree trunk. Panoramic views of tree tops, ocean, and miles of sky surrounded us with every foot of elevation gained. The enduring climb was broken up with several rest spots where we let our tired muscles hang in the harness to admire the serene views and experience the undisturbed canopy. Seeing the limb where the rope was set gave bittersweet relief as it signaled us that our climb had ended and that we needed to return to the forest floor.
Unbeknownst to us, this adventure had been predetermined by Joe and methodically planned out without our knowing. Joe was up to his usual scheming and had made big plans for us to climb this tree even before we got to Panama.
The Rest Of The Story
as gleaned from my log, notes, and memory.
I admit to including too many details for most of you, but I thought that too much information might be better than not enough information!
Things have been slow at the station with little to do today. I decide to take a long walk around the northeast side of the island, along the "Gringolandia" road, to look in on a friend who lives several miles out. The road is dirt, very muddy, very rough, and little traveled. No more than three cars a day, all with four-wheel drive, come along this way. The road also passes through some serious forest that creates a tunnel for the road. Although some of the people who live along this road live in very plush homes, this is still a remote location and those who live here have done so for that very reason.
"Tequilla Dave" lives in a home on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean that would be anybody's envy, but the road to his front door is long, muddy, and rough.
Three miles from ITEC I take a breather. Looking up and to my left I am amazed to find myself looking at a huge limb sticking out from a really big tree apparently only a short distance from the road. I have never noticed this tree before. "Why?" I ask myself. A tree this big is not something I would have missed on previous walks along this road. I decide to check it out on the return walk.
"Tequilla Dave" was home and upon my arrival we shared a bit of his namesake and spent time bringing ourselves up to date on our comings and goings. His offer of a ride back to the station was gratefully accepted and my inspection of this new "find" would be postponed. The truth of the matter was that the tree had been forgotten in the "glow" of the moment!
I am on my own today and I make an early start for the hike out to the big new tree, solo. I am not carrying climbing gear, only my Sidewinder head, the collapsible poles, a whole lot of Zingit, and several various weight bags, going from eight to twelve ounces. I am also carrying a small 4X4-foot ground cloth and my water bottle. There is also the usual can of bug spray and a long sleeve shirt. Total weight of gear is about eight pounds. The idea today is to see if I can simply get a line up.
An hour later I am looking at the tree, again from the road, and am once more amazed that I have never noticed this tree before. The huge limb overhead is clearly visible, the rest of the tree simply blends into the green of the forest. Looking at the limb, I know right away that the idea of a shot from the road would be a waste of time. The limb has to be a good one hundred and fifty feet up and the tree is about thirty meters from the roadside. The forest along the roadside is very dense and it takes several minutes before I notice a faint trail leading away from the road that I hope might pass near the base of the tree.
I am in trouble immediately. Ten feet from the road the trail turns away from the tree, which I can't even see, and passes into a thick tangle of vegetation. The only way to reach the tree will be to try and bushwhack my way through this "jungle". I look up. There is no evidence that the tree even exists. All that is visible is understory . I begin to move in the direction of the tree, very much aware that all sorts of things might be crawling around on the ground near my feet, feet that I can't even see because of the green tangle. Scorpions, biting ants, wasps, and even poisonous snakes inhabit these forests and the chance of an unpleasant encounter is quite real.
The base of the tree could not be more than seventy feet from where I have left the "trail", but nevertheless it takes more than an hour before I arrive at the dark mass of its trunk. I tell myself that I won't come here again without my trusty machete!
Large buttress roots spread away, twisting along the forest floor. There are dark alcoves created by these roots surrounding the base of the tree. Several people could stand within any of these alcoves.The scene is quite eery. There is no sunlight at all here and a quiet darkness prevails. Looking upward there is nothing to see but understory. I start my search for a "window of access", moving slowly around the base of the tree, carefully watching the placement of every footstep.
Rain begins to fall, softly for a short moment and then in a deluge. Within a minute I am soaked. Water droplets all over my glasses inhibit my vision. I take a seat on a buttress root, thinking to wait out the rain that I hope won't last for long. Bad decision! Ants are all over me, biting painfully as I slap and squirm. I do an "in-place" dance to get them off of me, afraid to move too far because of all the other things that might get at me. It's a rule here: Never sit anywhere that you haven't fully "researched" first, and never grab anything that you haven't examined first. Break the rule and you pay for it!
Thirty minutes later the rain has passed and the forest has become steamy and hot again. I continue my circumnavigation of the base of the tree. I am halfway around when I discover the reason that I had never seen this tree before. There has been the fall of a really huge limb and on its way to the ground it has cleared a path opening the tree to view from the road. Looking up, I could now see the trunk of the tree clearly, on this side, and the place from which the limb has fallen is way up. The limb itself was more than three feet in diameter, and has cleared an area of several hundred square feet. I now have a view upwards but the only thing I can see is the same limb that I could see from the road, more than a hundred and fifty feet up. The ground is covered in a vicious tangle of crashed and fallen limbs, trunks, vines, and all sorts of other "trash". There is still no acceptable setting to be seen. It would be silly to even think of trying to take a shot from within the tangle.
Continuing my encirclement of the tree I finally re-arrive at my starting point. I am devastated. I have found no window of access. I ask myself if I have finally found that one tree that I will never be able to climb.
I sit for a bit, this time having carefully taken a close look at the proposed resting place. Then I move about twenty feet away from the perimeter created by the buttresses and begin a second trip around the tree. This time I am lucky, I guess. A dead tree leaning at a forty-five degree angle has left an opening in the understory and high above I am finally able to see a big limb. Not all of the limb, mind you, but enough to know that it might do for an entry.
I spread the little ground cloth and flake out the Zingit. I start with an eight-ounce bag. The eight ouncer will fly higher but sometimes it doesn't want to come down as it should. I take a "Zen Moment" closing my eyes and pre-visualizing the shot I will be making. Then taking the pouch in my right hand, I drop to my knee, take a good look at my target, make the pull and let the bag fly. The bag doesn't go nearly high enough. The limb is higher than it appeared. OK. I just need to pull a lot harder.
Second shot: No go! Then a third and a fourth shot, both unsuccessful. The frustration is setting in. I pull a large dead log over to my firing position so as to place the sidewinder pole on top the dead log in order to allow for a longer pull. I will now be firing with more power. I sit back, once again having carefully checked out the sitting-down spot (!) and give myself a break, trying to ignore the frustration.
Back to the firing position. Deep breath. Very long pull. Release. YES!!!! The bag sails right over the limb and starts sliding groundward. Then stops. I want to cry. Deep breath. I begin strumming the line. At first nothing. Then slowly, with each strumming of the line, the bag begins to slide downward, finally coming to a halt, hopefully on the ground.
The search for the bag takes another half hour as I move back and forth watching for the telltale movement of limbs overhead that will indicate where it might have come down. Then, at long last, I see the line of yellow and snatch the bag from the ground. The idea of trying to isolate in this environment is ridiculous. The setting will be rigged with a rope "as is". I remove the bag and tie the string to a small tree. I return to my firing position and tie off the other end. I have used up more than one length of Zingit. I am estimating the setting to involve the need for at least two hundred and fifty feet of rope.
Time to go. I am exhausted, yet I still have to work my way back to the road and then hike the three miles back to ITEC. The climb will have to wait for another day. By the time I am back I have spent an entire day simply trying to get a line up and I am stuck with eating a cold dinner.
I have become obsessed with a desire to climb this tree. I have my equipment packed even before breakfast is served and as soon as I have eaten, I am on my way, again alone. This time I am carrying a full equipment load.
All packed in a Gregory backpack
300 feet of Fly
New Tribe work harness
6 carabiners, three Petzl Williams and three Petzl Amds, all screwgates
One Petzl Grigri
One Jumar ascender with adjustable footloops and a 4 foot backup safety lanyard
One CMI Micropulley
One linemug with two fifty-foot lengths of Target line and two weightbags, 8oz and 10oz
Zingit throwline with one extra 8oz weightbag
4X4 foot groundcloth
Sidewinder and collapsible poles (in case I need to re-shoot a setting)
Long sleeve shirt in case the bugs get out of hand
Bug spray, Deep Woods Off
Quart water bottle, full
Two PBJ sandwiches
The total pack weight is 42 pounds. And...I have a little over three miles to hike!
This time it takes almost an hour and a half to reach the spot where I leave the road. It's very hot, well over ninety degrees and the humidity feels equal to the temperature. There is not even the slightest illusion of a breeze. I'm taking several short breaks along the way, aware that this might turn into a very long and exhausting day. At my age it's smart to pace myself! I do not want to arrive at the tree already worn out and exhausted.
Ten feet into the forest I leave the faint little excuse for a trail and begin carefully hacking my way toward the tree with the machete. I am very conservative with my whacking, cutting only the stuff that really gets in the way. I don't like creating trails with machetes, but in this environment it is sometimes quite literally the only way to safely move through the forest. In thirty minutes I have made my way to one end of my setting, leaving a sort-of path behind that will help the next time I come here.
I set the pack on the ground and sit myself on top the pack. I am soaking wet, not a dry spot on my body. Bugs, mostly mosquitoes, are flying about my head. I grab my can of Off and begin spraying down. I pull out the long sleeve shirt and haul it around me. It is obvious that this is going to be a bad "bug day". Don't forget, this IS the rainforest; I am NOT climbing a tree in the backyard at home.
I finally begin. After spreading out the little ground cloth I flake out the three hundred feet of rope on it. I untie my Zingit from its little tree and attach the climbing rope, using a pile hitch followed by several half hitches, being very careful to place the final half hitch as close to the tip of the rope as possible. The other end of the rope has been tied to the same little tree that held the Zingit. I will not be able to see this side of the rope from where I will be hauling and I don't want to take the chance of pulling the end off the ground. There should be more than enough rope, but who knows for sure?
It takes me several minutes to relocate the other end of the Zingit. Face it; the visibility in here ain't real good, it's really dark and there is a lot of vegetation getting in the way. Finding it, I give a pull before untying it from its tree. It flows and things seem to be all right. I take a breath and begin the hauling, which begins quite easily. Then the rope enters the understory and there are all sorts of things grabbing and tugging. Now and then a rather vicious pull is necessary to get the rope to continue its progress. Then the rope comes to a halt and doesn't want to move at all. I can hear limbs rattling up there as I pull and jerk. Finally, I stoop and grab a dead piece of limb from the ground. I make several wraps of the Zingit around it and hold it high over my head in order to let the rope slip down a bit on the "other" side. Taking a deep breath, I give a violent pull, dropping all the way to my knees. The rope clears and the progress continues.
Three more times I have to employ the dead stick as obstacle after obstacle is cleared. At long last I see the tip of the rope coming down toward me. With relief I grab onto it; the rope is in place! I look at my watch. It has taken more than half an hour to raise the rope.
An eight-inch diameter tree of unknown identity will serve as my ground-level tie-off. Looking upward, I can only be relatively sure of its being a live tree. Anyway, it looks solid and I feel OK with it. The tie-off involves three half hitches coming down the tree, followed by a timber hitch with lots of wraps. I finish off with a nice big fat knot in the tail of the rope as a stopper.
Now. Back to the other side of the setting. I estimate thirty feet of rope still on the ground, meaning that the setting has used a total of two-hundred and seventy feet of rope, meaning that the setting is "about" one hundred and thirty-five feet up there. Keep in mind, however, that this is NOT a straight up and down setting. The setting forms an arc with the ends quite a distance apart. The actual climb will probably be considerably less than one-thirty-five.
I do a rather useless scan with my binoculars but there is really not much to be seen. The rope goes up, disappears and comes down again. The only thing I am sure of is that within the arc of the setting there is at least one "good" limb. Whatever else might be enclosed within the arc is a mystery.
Time to load the rope with a "bounce test", which really doesn't involve any bounce at all. I begin to apply my weight to the end to be climbed. I have already looked around and determined which way I am going to run in the event that something starts crackling up there. I slowly apply weight, listening for those sounds that indicate the possibility of something giving way.
Something DOES suddenly give away; crackling noises break the forest silence, the rope goes slack, I have fallen on my butt, and lots of small limbs and leaves come raining down. I now have about forty feet of rope on the ground. The setting has diminished from one-thirty-five to a mere one-thirty. Standing back up, I give the rope some jiggling and a few more bits of forest detritus come raining down from above. OK. I begin to apply weight again. Slowly. I reach the point at which my full weight is on the rope. I am about to let go when there is an explosive crack from above, and this time I am running, as best I can, to get away from things. There are massive crashing sounds coming from above, then silence. Nothing comes down. Now I know that among other things there is at least one widowmaker up there, somewhere.
I return to the rope and give it a few tentative tugs. I walk off at an angle and tug again. Then, with a deafening "Whoooosh!" the big limb comes crashing to the ground. I am amazed. The limb, very much dead, is at least a foot in diameter. Time for a break!
I now have about seventy feet of rope on the ground. The setting has once again diminished and I calculate a climb of maybe a hundred and fifteen feet. Maybe.
I have spread all the gear out on the little groundcloth, being careful to set nothing on the ground itself. Things get lost very easily around here.
Next I rig the rope for a Yoyo (RAD) ascent. Once the system has been created, I wander off to do that thing that one should always do before starting what might turn out to be a very long time off the ground. Then it's time to harness up. I check to make sure I have extra 'biners hanging about, my line mug, and one full length of Zingit on a spool with an eight ounce bag attached.
So. Everyone always wants to know why I choose to use the Yoyo system. First let me say that the Yoyo has become my SRT method of choice for climbing in this environment. It's simple, it's basic, and it's fairly "idiot proof." I can teach it to a student in minutes and have them climbing in only a few more minutes on a one-pitch climb. I like to use it for myself because of the ease of changing from ascent to descent and vice versa. There are all sorts of "things" up there in the canopy and I want to be able to do a quick bailout in the event of any emergency, wildlife encounter or otherwise.
Time to climb! I look about, giving everything a double check, then begin to work out the slack in the rope. After a minute or so I am off the ground and dangling just a few feet up. I sit here for a moment, waiting to see if anything else is going to give way up there. Nothing happens, and I begin a "gentle" ascent up the rope, hyper-alert to the possibility of anything happening. A "gentle" ascent, by the way, means climbing slowly and as smoothly as possible, with no bouncing and jerking. It means that after each pull, I LOWER myself into the harness, I don't simply let myself DROP into the harness. A "gentle" climb should result in no disturbance at all in the canopy overhead. Shaking limbs overhead are an indication that I am not climbing as gently as I should.
I climb on, and reaching the base of the understory, begin the challenge of working my way through the tangle of limbs and vines. Sixty feet off the ground, more or less, I break free of the understory and for the first time I can actually see where I am and can see a lot of the tree. Looking up, I realize that my rope is not resting on the good limb, but is on another four to five inch limb about seven or eight feet above the good limb and at least twenty-five feet from the leader from which it has grown. If the limb breaks, I will take a fifteen-foot fall! The climbing continues, even more "gently" than before.
Once I reach the "good" limb, I place my Zingit over it, drop the weight bag to the ground, tie another weight bag to the other end, drop that end to the ground, and I am on my way back down, having created a setting that I am now sure of.
Back on the ground, I de-rig the first setting and re-rig on the new setting. Then it's right back up again, this time climbing not-so-gently, feeling a whole lot better than before.
Once back at the good limb, I begin to look about trying to decide where I can go from there. Prospects are not good. I can see a good limb higher up but there is no way that I can make the throw from where I am. I realize that if I relocate along the same limb that I am now on, that maybe I can then make the throw.
I employ a "Third Rope" to secure myself then use the free end of my rope to create and toss a monkey fist ten feet farther along the limb. I create a DRT system on the "new" setting, de-rig the third rope, and, still attached to my initial Yoyo rig, I begin the traverse across to the new rigging point, lowering myself with the Grigri as I advance upward with my Blakes hitch.
Arriving at the new setting along the limb, I find that I do, indeed, have a better chance of making the throw to the big lovely limb twenty feet above and off to the side. After three tosses, I nail the big limb, but there is no way that I can make the retrieval. There is simply too much "trash" between me and the new setting. Tossing a grapnel would result in nothing more than a lost grapnel. Pure folly!
I tie my Zingit to the end of my in-tree Target line and begin to lower the bag to the ground. Once that end is on the ground, I tie another bag to the other end of the Zingit, and lower it to the ground from my side of the setting. Once both ends are on the ground, I am on the way down again. I reverse the traverse, returning my weight to my SRT setting, de-rig the DRT setting, and descend on my Grigri.
On the ground again, I am able to do a little bit of isolating since I was able to visually assess the setting from on high. I don't want to mess with things too much, however, because it would be heartbreaking to lose the setting and need to start over again from scratch. I remove the Target line from the Zingit, tie off both ends of the Zingit, then collapse on top of my pack to enjoy my two sandwiches and take a long nap.
I finish off the day by pulling out the three hundred feet of Fly, coiling it up, then hiding it within a buttress alcove at the tree's base. I cover it up with leaves and limbs. I don't want to have to carry that rope out here again. The rest of the gear will go back to ITEC with me. I call it a day and begin the walk back, clearing a few more limbs and vines along my new little trail. I am still a long way from the top of the tree, but at least I now "know" that I have a good safe setting for the next climb.
Being above the understory gave me my first good look at the tree. At about seventy feet, the tree split into three massive leaders, each of which could qualify as a tree itself. One leader went away from the trunk to the north, another leader to the southeast, the third to south-southwest. The devastation on the ground, and the view of the tree, had been created by a fourth leader, going south, which was now fallen from the tree. The route I was taking would be taking me up the southeast leader. The SSW leader was the one I had been able to see from the road. I was beginning to suspect that each leader would have to be climbed independently, at least for the first ascents. The idea of being able to rig traverses through all of the foliage and across the top of the tree to the other leaders was rejected immediately. Maybe later I could revisit that idea.
Our mid-May-to-mid-June session at ITEC ended two days ago and the last of the students left yesterday. Me, the station manager, and the boss are here alone, and for the second day in a row I am up early and on the way out to the tree, that by now has been named "Awesome".
I have a lighter load today. No sidewinder and the rope is already out there. I am excited because there is a real chance that I might top out on the southeast leader today.
The walk out takes exactly an hour and the walk in from the side of the road no more than ten minutes. Things are getting easier! I have a good setting and the rope goes right up and over and down again. I tie off, same style as before, to the same tree as before. And...in a few minutes I am on the way up, this time climbing "semi-gently".
I am twenty feet up before I realize that I never did a bounce test. Stupid! But since I'm hanging there and everything seems all right, I just keep on going. Then I stop. "OK", I tell myself,"If I could forget my bounce test I have probably forgotten something else. Let's stop right here and do a checkoff." Everything checks and I am on the way again, struggling through the understory.
Reaching the new setting and hanging just beneath it, I spin around to see how I'm going to move from here. Yes! There is a big fat limb above that looks like an easy target and I can see nothing that looks hazardous. The only problem is that the limb is twenty feet horizontally from me, even though more than twenty feet higher. Twenty feet doesn't sound like a big deal when you consider what you can do with a grapnel and the "dangle", but neither is really worth a damn when there is enough foliage between you and the limb to stock a fairly good-sized garden.
I haul out my throwline and attempt an over-the-shoulder side-arm pendulum hook shot with my left hand. It goes so wildly that I just hang there laughing. It's not the least bit funny, however, when the bag lodges itself in the narrow crotch of one of those bothersome limbs just big enough to be unyielding. Jerking and strumming don't help a bit. The bag is stuck.
The second length of target line comes out with its own weight bag attached and I set for another throw. The first toss bounces off the target and drops into the void and a finger is almost broken when the line comes taught with a vicious yank. I haul it back up to throw again. This time the bag sails over the target and I have my setting. There is no chance of a line retrieval, however. I tie off the Zingit to the end of the Target and lower the bag to the ground. As before, I tie another weight to the other end of the Zingit, and lower it to the ground. Then it's back down again for me. This up and down is getting old. Why can't this tree just cooperate and let me have at least one setting that doesn't require a trip to the ground to re-rig?
Back on the ground I go through the now-familiar task of de-rigging the previous setting and re-rigging for the second climb of the day. Then it's back up again, but only after a long drink of water and my two sandwiches.
Up, up, and ever upward. Passing through the understory, past my first, second, third, and fourth settings. I stop to retrieve the stuck throwbag that I can now reach out and grab with my hand, then continue on for the ten feet left to make it to the top. Five feet to go and suddenly the world opens up. The view is stupendous. To my right I am looking at the top of the north leader and beyond across the beautiful blue-green Caribbean. Bird Island sits a mile offshore and I see it differently than ever before. To my left I can see across the interior of our island and on to the mainland where the mountains surrounding Volcan Baru, and Baru itself, are clearly visible. The tree has redeemed itself! This one view has made it all worthwhile. To my front I am looking at the top of the SSW leader, the one big limb that I had first seen from the ground.
I continue up the last five pulls, make a short throw, rig a quick DRT setting, and then I am sitting atop the limb, all the world at my feet. For an hour I simply sit there, turning this way and that, taking in the magnificence of the tree and the view.
Then it's back to business. There are two more "tops" to this tree and I damn well intend to climb those too! The north leader looks most interesting; I will go for it first. I flake out my in-tree line, tying both lengths of Target together with a double fisherman's. The leader looks to be more than fifty feet away.
I start swinging the line in a pendulum beneath me and then, on the third swing, send it sailing. The bag and the line both got the message and the bag settles nicely over the big horizontal limb just below the top of the leader. One again I lower the bag to the ground, attaching the Zingit when I run out of Target. I keep feeding it out until I feel it reach the ground. Then, as before, I tie another bag to the other end of the Zingit and drop it straight down.
I spend a few more minutes admiring the view before beginning the descent. I chide myself for not having brought up more Zingit; I could have set the SSW leader while I was at it, had I known how easy it would be!
Back on the ground, I leave a line in place for the setting I have just climbed, pulling the rope out and coiling it up before returning it to its hiding place. Next I'm off moving around through the woods trying to find both ends of the line that I have dropped to create the north setting. I don't even know which way to look! I have to check my little compass to remind myself of North before I head in that direction. There! A telltale line of bright orange coming down though the understory. I tie it off to an exposed root before going to look for the other end, which I eventually find almost sixty feet away. I tie that end off. I now have two settings in the tree.
Two hours later I am back at the field station, sipping my rum'n'coke, and anticipating a good dinner for a change.
I'm back at the tree again. It started raining on the way out and, although the rain has passed on, I'm still soaked. The overcast sky leaves the forest enveloped in a darker than usual gloom. I go straight to my rope and haul it on over to the line coming down from the north leader setting. After tying off to the throwline, I head for the other side and begin the haul.
This one is even more difficult than that encountered while setting up for the first climb. Wet rain-soaked rope does not haul easily. Another big dead stick from off the ground, line wrapped around it, and hauling with all my weight pulling it down. It seems to take forever and I am wondering what the climb is going to be like. It is starting to look as though it will be a repeat of the first ascent, but at least this time I know there is a good limb at the top.
At last the rope appears over my head and, still four feet out of reach, things come to a halt. I go to the other end to see what's what and, sure enough, I have run out of rope. I untie the rope and go back to the "haul" side and pull the rope down just enough that I can touch it. Back to the other side. "Yep!" the rope is still within reach. I go back to the "haul" side, shinny about six feet up my tie-off tree and simply make one wrap around the trunk and tie off with a bowline. A small limb will, hopefully, keep the tie-off from sliding up the trunk. I give a big shrug; It's either climb or go home!
Since the "haul" side of the setting is of an unknown quality I am careful to do a serious bounce test. A few limbs crackle overhead and suddenly I am blessed with an extra few feet of rope. I re-do the tie-off, in a manner much more acceptable, and start preparation to make the climb. At least it's not going to be very hot!
Up, up, and away I go, one more time on the Yoyo, again doing a "gentle" climb. I go slowly and smoothly as light rain begins to sprinkle through the understory. The climb seems to go on forever and even after passing above the understory, I go only a few feet before finding myself navigating my way through a dense entanglement of epiphytic vines, consisting mostly of matapalo and eclusia. This is almost scary and I am quite nervous. I have gotten into serious vine entanglements before and it is not a thing to be taken lightly. On one occasion I have even had to climb up to one of my students and use my pruning shears to get them out of the mess. At about a hundred feet I still have no view of my setting.
Moving a lot slower and with more caution, I continue on up. The rain is now falling steadily and the wind has begun to pick up. The tree and I are both dancing in the wind, although not dangerously.
I take a break, just hanging there, until the nervousness passes and the wind dies a bit. Then I am on the way again, climbing more slowly still. I have a horizontal view toward the Caribbean but the rain obscures the visibility and there isn't a whole lot to see. Only the faintest outline of Bird Island can be seen through the fog and mist.
I am less than ten feet below the setting before I am finally able to see it. I have climbed about a hundred and forty feet and have just now been able to visually confirm my security. And I am not real happy. The leader is above me at about a forty-five degree angle and that leaves me hanging out in space. THIS IS SCARY!
I move on up the last few feet, longing for the security of being next to solid wood. I quickly rig a third rope and wrap it around the leader, just to make myself feel better. Then I make the toss to the very top, only another six or seven feet up. A quickly tied DRT system has me sitting on top my big limb in just a few moments. I am tied in to a DRT setting, a third rope setting, and still have myself attached to my Yoyo setup; and I am still not a very happy camper. I turn and look toward the SSW leader and decide that "yes," I can make the throw. The SSW leader also looks a whole lot more secure than where I'm sitting now, although I am aware that it's all "mental". Take away the wind, take away the rain, add a little sunshine and I would probably be perfectly happy and enjoying myself. Whatever!
One throw and I have a line over the SSW leader. I go through the process of lowering the line, adding the Zingit, adding another weightbag and dropping the thing off into space. And, one more time I am on the way down and not too soon either!
I de-rig the north leader, leaving a line in place, and start working my way around the base of the tree and through the debris of fallen limbs and smashed understory. This is dangerous! Every single step requires a careful scanning of the place where the foot is to be placed. I almost place my foot on a line of army ants. Geez! I really hate ants! Too many bad stories there!
At least the view of things is clear on this side and I have no trouble spotting the lines coming down. I am still wearing my harness with all the hardware attached and I have the big Fly rope flaked around my neck. I reach the line, tie on the rope, work my way to the other end of the haul line and begin hoisting the rope directly off my shoulders, one good pull at a time. This one is a clear haul and the rope goes right up, over, and down again. The only problem is that there is nothing good in the way of a ground-level tie-off.
"Well," I think to myself,"The tree hasn't killed me yet!" and with that thought I simply tie off to the big fallen dead leader itself. I place one wrap around the thing and use a bowline with a Yosemite tie-off. I attach the hardware to the rope and I am on the way up.
The rain has stopped, the wind has died, and there is a much lighter overcast above. Within a few minutes and about seventy feet up I find myself climbing in sunlight. This is more like it. Once again I am a happy camper!
This climb was the most exposed of the three and I was hanging well away from the trunk of the tree all the way up. Had the wind not died, I would probably have been blown around all over the place. I reached the top and did not even have to create a new setting in order to seat myself on a big limb just below the limb on which my rope was placed.
The view was not as impressive as that experienced at the top of the southeast leader, but I think that was mostly mental, due to the fact that, up until now, the day had not been pleasant. I sat there for a while before beginning the descent.
The tree has now been climbed; all three leaders, all three summits, if you will. I have lines in place in each leader and the tree is ready for a more civilized and more conventional approach and style of climbing. One more climb on each leader and I can show it to folks.
I coil the rope and return it to its hiding place and begin the long walk back. It is now quite hot and steamy, no breeze at all. I'm tired, but happy.
We will have new students coming in tomorrow, so this will be my last chance to get into the tree before having to go to work again, doing what I'm paid for.
Once again I am on the way early. I have skipped a real breakfast, settling for a quick cup of coffee and a slice of bread with butter. At least it's cooler this morning and I am starting to get used to these trips out to the tree. I am at the tree in less than an hour, including the walk along the trail.
I decide to go for that north leader again first. It's a nicer day; the sun is shining, there's no rain, no wind, and now I know what's up there. Besides, on the way down the day before I had re-routed the rope to pass outside the worst of the vine entanglement. The re-routing has also left me with a little more rope than I had the day before.
The rope goes right on up, with only a few spots necessitating the use of a stick. Forty minutes after arriving at the tree, I am on the way up, climbing much more happily than the day before. I take my time and after fifty minutes of slow but steady advance I'm sitting once again on the perch at the top and "Yes!" things are much better today. The Caribbean now sits to my left, Bird Island very clear and sharp in the clear air. To my right I am looking over the southeast leader, the interior of Isla Colon highlighted against the outlines of the mountains on the mainland. Very nice!
Two hours later I am sitting at the top of the southeast leader, the north leader to my right and looking very inviting.
Two more hours, more or less, and I am once again at the top of the SSW leader, looking at the other two leaders and telling myself how great I am!
This tree is now ready for business!
And all of that is what goes into the preparatory work for climbing a big tree in the rainforest. Three weeks later the tree was climbed by Jessie and Annie, whose report you have already read.
Scouting and preparing the tree required five hikes to the tree, each trip a six mile roundtrip walk. Nine climbs were made before Jessie and Annie were taken to the tree. A tenth climb, on the day of their climb, was made to check the security of the settings before the students were allowed on rope. By the time these two students climbed, the tree had been fully explored and settings had been placed so as to eliminate or avoid hazards. This, however, is still the tropical rainforest, the tree is in a relatively remote location, and any climb in this tree will always involve some degree of risk. A climb in this tree is an adventure of the real sort.