Monday, July 5, 2010

The Last Hurrah ~ Retired my Spurs

"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall." 1 Peter 1:24

Watching a tree top fall to the ground from up in a tree is interesting, but what the video doesn't show that I enjoyed most was seeing clear air appear before you when the top fell free and then the top of the new stob you are tied to starts rocking back and forth a good foot or two especially on a tall pine tree.

I have never been a good business man. If all I had to do was put a tree on the ground I would have been happy with what I got paid, but after cleaning the mess up and hauling it off I usually wondered what I was doing. I got my spurs in 1983. They were considerably cheaper back then than they are now.

I enjoyed taking trees down for the challenge, the exercise, and the fun. I didn't find cleaning the mess up and hauling it off fun, so I pursued other means to make a living mostly involving my ability to fly. I hung on to my tree climbing equipment though so that I could help a neighbor, or a friend, or myself out when necessary.

When my son proposed to his wife lightning struck the tree in the picture in my front yard quite near the two of them.
Pine Tree Struck by Lightning

The tree continued to look healthy for a long time, but finally and then slowly pine needles started to turn brown on different limbs. The tree would have to be taken down. Good thing I hung on to my tree climbing spurs!

I started to take it down a few weeks ago, but my foggy head interfered and I put it off for a better day. Well, that day arrived on the 4th of July 2010. The morning temperature felt comfortable. My head, while not crispy clear, felt good. I felt inspired and up to it. I formulated a game plan that began with lots of hydration to be continued through the whole process.

First on my agenda was to service and crank my up-in-the-tree saw. If for some reason I couldn't crank this saw there would be no use in continuing. Being a Stihl it cranked without much effort even though it sat unused for several years.

Next I cranked my larger Stihl that I would use for clean up after getting everything on the ground. It is a newer saw than the little Stihl I bought in 1983, but although it has a larger bar they are both pretty close in weight. My daughter's boyfriend, TJ, does some tree trimming. He was surprised at the weight of my once top of the line ancient dinosaur. When he showed me his up-in-the-tree saw, I understood.

After I knew both of the saws could be easily cranked, I began pulling out my climbing gear. I considered simply putting on my climbing safety belt and spurs, going on up, topping the tree a couple of times, then climbing down. Quick and sweet. But, experience has taught me that it is much better to have something and not need it than to not have something and need it. So, I hauled out the whole nine yards and began to get set up. I was short one carabiner that I didn't miss until the point it would have been quite handy.

My climbing gear amounts to my Klein Tree Spurs, an Arbor-Plex climbing rope, a generic industrial safety belt (around the waste only) with a homemade lanyard, a rappelling harness (poor boy's tree saddle, I generally only use this to rappel out of the tree after it has been topped. It's easier than climbing down. ), a figure 8, with carabiner, and a small retrieval line for pulling things up into the tree that you decided you needed after the fact.

I worked for a civil engineer once who's favorite saying was, "Anyone can do good work with good tools, but it takes a skilled man to do good work with junk." Most of his equipment was junk. I prefer to have good tools and look skilled when I'm not, but due to budget constraints one may not always have that luxury. Forestry Suppliers, which is still a good source, was my only access to equipment back in the day. Now there is WesSpur Tree Equipment, and Sherrill Tree which simply specialize in tree climbing. They also have numerous books on the subject to assist the modern day tree climber. Back in my day, if you were lucky enough to know someone who worked for Asplundh, you might could get them to give you one of their company tree climbing manuals. I never did. All my techniques I came up with on my own. The most important thing up in a tree is a calm, clear, head with good situational awareness and discernment along with the physical capability to climb.

Sherrill Tree focuses a lot on equipment and books about climbing without spurs. If a tree climber is only going to prune a tree and not completely take it down, it is unethical to use spurs in a tree. Many will do it, but you shouldn't allow it unless you don't mind giving them repeat business in a couple of years after your tree dies from the spur wounds. They won't always die, but the possibility is real.

There are also recreational tree climbers now who do it for pure fun and pleasure. Using spurs is a definite no, no for recreational climbing. Sherrill Tree has books and info on recreational climbing plus the equipment you need if you are interested. When I was making hammocks I considered a commercial with a group of recreational climbers heading high into the treetops and a securing their hammocks for some relaxation time high above the crowd. People even campout in trees now.

When I first got my spurs in I took them to the woods where I could practice and get used to them without anyone watching. I started tree removal on the side while I was a contract instrument instructor pilot for the Army. The company I worked for employed over 400 pilots. Out on a tree job once I met a man that worked for my company that asked to borrow my tree spurs. I told him as long as he provided a chair where I could get comfortable to watch the show and a cooler with cold drinks so I could stay refreshed as the show went on, he could use them. His tree was a small Pine no more than thirty feet tall. He made it up and got his tree on the ground, but when he got back on the ground he approached me and said, "I've got a whole different opinion of tree trimmers now. It is one thing to be tired and another thing to be scared, but when you are both tired and scared at the same time it is a bugger bear!" It might not be a wise thing to loan your spurs to just anybody, but this guy was a helicopter pilot, so what the hey? Remember the fighter pilot's prayer? "God give me the eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion, and the balls of a combat helicopter pilot."

Spured Up
Anyhow all my equipment was laid out and ready. I put my safety belt on along with the rappelling harness and then spur'd up.

I hooked my up-in-the-tree saw, climbing rope, and equipment retrieval rope to one of the "D" rings on my safety belt and threw my lanyard around the tree. Then I began to climb.

Shows Climbing and the Stob Rocking after the top drops

Tree Spur Wound
Many people wait way too long to get a tree climber in to handle a dead tree. After a certain point the tree loses structural integrity and it can become quite dangerous to attempt to climb and top a tree. When the top breaks free there is a good chance the rocking can cause the rotten part below the climber to break, then the party is over. It is usually up to the climber to judge the structural integrity of the tree. It is best to have your tree taken down sooner rather than later. I wanted to see how my tree would fair after the lightning strike so I let it go awhile. Its structural integrity is still sound although the dead wood is beginning to harden and is not as easily penetrable by the tree spurs.

Tree spurs can cut out of the tree also causing difficulties to the climber if he doesn't set them securely. The harder wood caused one of my spurs to cut out occasionally. Fortunately I always made sure the odd one out was secure before trying to set the other one. This made the climb tedious and more difficult than I recall. I continued to make my way up. I had a spot picked out from the ground where I wanted to make my cut. I would have a few limbs to cut out of the way before reaching that height. I used to use a double lanyard so I could leap frog limbs without cutting them, but I didn't know where my second lanyard was, so I was climbing with only one.

I only use a safety belt, so I didn't have the comfort of a tree saddle. I had my rappelling harness, but I only use it for the journey down. It is a pretty poor substitute for a tree saddle, but great for a quick trip out of the tree rappelling.

Chain Saws
I got to the first limb that needed cutting. I had my wife retrieve a small pruning hand saw from our basement and attach it to my equipment retrieval line. I was getting tired. I didn't want to expend the energy to crank and handle the chainsaw.

My wife had never ever watched me do any tree jobs previously. She simply stayed away and prayed. She chose to watch this job. Too bad she didn't have a video camera for YouTube. Flying and trimming trees are two jobs I've always prayed a lot on. Never out loud, simply to myself. (Well, I did pray out loud once in an aircraft: Found here) No one ever knew I prayed unless I told them. My wife said a few prayers silently as she watched me.

After cutting the limb out of the way, I had her attach a water bottle so I could continue to hydrate. I then tried to rest. This wasn't like the old days. God I was tired. My legs were feeling like rubber. I pulled up the far end of my climbing rope and made a makeshift saddle so I could rest easier. After a little bit of rest and hydration I climbed above the cut limb. Now I had a small knob that afforded solid footing for one leg without needing good spur penetration. The top of my spurs were digging into my legs just below my knees. It wasn't very comfortable. I was going to show you a picture of the spur rash on my left left, but decided it wouldn't be very pleasant viewing.

My fatigue was becoming incapacitating. I got to where I could rest as best as possible and asked Jo if we had any Gatorade. She went and looked and found a bottle of Powerade. The electrolytes were very, very helpful, but not enough. I abandoned my plan to climb to the point where I wanted to make my first cut. I decided that if I could get comfortably situated to handle the saw that I would just take the top out where I planned the second cut.

Jo was praying silently that if the Lord had wanted me to cut that tree to give me the strength to do it. If He didn't, then to give me the wisdom to get down. So, she told me later.

I struggled to get setup. If I would have planned better it could have been easier, but I had a tangled mess to deal with. I could have used that second carabiner to get my rappelling harness set up as a saddle, if only I had taken the time to find it. If I had a good tree saddle on and in use I could have expended much less energy. I could have, I could have, I could have, but I didn't! Almost like, "Oh boy, ROWBEAR, what kind of trouble did you get yourself into now."

Cut that top, get back on the ground and leave the rest for later was my new plan. Chainsaws can be dangerous enough even when you are rested and on the ground, but off the ground in a tree and tied off you have to be extra careful. (YouTube caution, can be disturbing) I have been fatigued up in a tree before, but never to this extent. It is one thing to be tired and another thing to be scared, but when you are tired and scared at the same time it is a bugger bear. I wasn't scared, but I was concerned. I was beginning to realize that I had bitten off way more than I could chew. I'm only 55 and until relatively recently a pretty healthy and avid mountain biker. But it was becoming obvious to me that I was much too old to be acting this dang young.

If only I could get this top cut out and get down this would be my last hurrah regarding tree trimming, but I already knew regardless of the outcome that this would be my last time to climb a tree. My spurs would be retired once I got back on the ground.

I believe I could push it and make the cut, but in my fatigued condition I don't think I could guarantee a safe cut. I told my self several times that if I did attempt the cut to check and make sure that I didn't have anything tied above the cut. (see disturbing YouTube above) There are a ton of other things that could go wrong too. If you are fatigued, you are not in a good position to deal with the potential extras. I eventually reached a point where I believed attempting the cut would not have been the responsible and safe thing to do. Pride could have made me push it and press on, but it is written pride goes before a fall. As a poor boy, I would have preferred getting the job done myself. I realized this had become another tall tale if I would get the opportunity to write it. None of us are promised tomorrow and there are a lot more common ways to be taken out than tree trimming although tree trimming can increase the potential for someone who has no business doing it. Shucks, it gets a fair share of the regulars. I would have to successfully cross the finish line alive and well to write this tall tale. My previous experience in life has taught me that you are not across the finish line until you really are across it. Just because you can see it and you are close to it does not mean that you will make it across successfully. I find the times I most often fail to successfully cross a finish line is when I tell myself I got it made before I'm there. Anyone else been there done that? Anyhow I made the decision to swallow my pride and humble myself and I lowered my saw to the ground signifying that I had indeed tossed in the towel.

My precarious situation wasn't over though. I had to now get set up to rappel out of the tree. If I had a second carabiner, that would have been easier. My only carabiner was tied up with other uses that it had to be freed from. I had a tangled mess on my hands, but it was of my own creation. I could have and should have done a better job preparing. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. I needed to secure my climbing rope to the tree above me, hook my figure 8 into the rope and use the carabiner to hook the figure 8 into my rappelling harness. But, the end of my climbing rope was set up as a makeshift saddle in an attempt to give me some relief. None of this was happening or going to happen very quickly. If I had prepared and planned better I could have quickly switched to rappel mode and gone on down.

For the first time ever up in a tree I prayed out loud. I had gotten myself in a pretty good jam. I was only approximately 30 feet off the ground, but it was high enough for an old man to need to be careful. I knew I needed to relax, take my time, and work my problem, so that's what I did. Since Jo had never watched or helped me on any tree jobs I had to instruct her on how to attach things I needed to my retrieval line. She learned fast though and did a good job. She was also good about silently praying and waiting for what seemed to be an opportune time to ask me any questions she thought were necessary. I was certainly in no position to waste time on any unnecessary questions.

I began to wonder if I was going to have the strength to safely rappel without a belayer. Could I instruct Jo on how to do that and set her up to do it while I was in the tree? I asked her to give JimBo, our local city man also on the volunteer fire department, a call to see if he could belay me or knew someone who could. No answer. After all it was the 4th of July. I next had her call Nick, a young man and family friend and close friend to my son. Nick knows how to climb without spurs and also does trees. No answer. So, I told Jo to go get a thick jacket and a pair of welders gloves. I still had to get set up to rappel.

My rappelling harness was not as secure as it could be. I was too tired to properly adjust it though I attempted as best I could. I caught a vision of it slipping down around my knees with me possibly flipping upside-down and slipping. My glass definitely wasn't half full. I had Jo get a quick link and I used the quick link to hook the rappel loop to my safety belt buckle. That would have to do, and I felt it was sufficient to prevent the vision occurring.

Now I had to get the rope setup so I could hook the figure 8 up to it and hook the carabiner to my rappelling harness loop. The problem was that I would have to loosen and quit using the makeshift saddle I had rigged to help me rest. I believe and know my prayers helped. The idea came to me that I should just pull up the other end of the rope and rig it. Then after getting rigged and set up ready to rappel I could loosen the makeshift saddle. So, that's what I did. I slowly worked my problems, undid all my tangles, and instructed Jo on how to belay me. While still safetied off with my lanyard and safety belt I finally freed up the makeshift saddle and dropped that end of the rope. I then worked out with Jo the concept of braking and allowing me slack when I needed it.

All was set! I released my safety lanyard and found I had the strength to rappel without needing a belayer. But like previously mentioned, I'd much rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. Another example of stacking the deck in your favor. I guess I could buy a nice tall extension ladder and a better tree saddle to stack the deck more in my favor for my second attempt with the money I'll end up paying Nick to take the tree down for me. But, if Nick can get around to it soon enough, I think my tree climbing spurs are retired for good. I am glad to have crossed that finish line (back on the ground safe and sound) with no desire step back into that race.

Lightning wound from strike that caused the tree to die

Marked Tree The upper line shows where I had initially intended to top the tree if I still had all the right stuff. The lower yellow line across this picture shows the height I had climbed to before I completely tuckered out. I would have gone ahead and topped the tree here if I could have gotten situated and rested enough to feel comfortable operating the saw up in the tree. Being inordinately tired is just another ingredient that could have contributed to catastrophe. I was ready to press on until the point when I realized it wasn't the smart thing to do.

Knowing what I know now, it wouldn't be smart for me to even attempt this job in the first place, but I didn't know that on the 4th of July 2010.

My father-in-law showed up shortly after I was safely back on the ground with my tree still in the air. He was going to ask me to take care of a tree for him. Now, he'll get Nick to do it. I told him I've been aging fast and if he wasn't careful I'd pass him up and leave him in the dust.

First my ability to fly was taken away, then my ability to do any serious computer programming was taken away through foggy headed days, now it is quite apparent my ability to do trees is gone. I've been slowing down on other things too. I can still write, play a game of chess, and read a good book though. Plus my wife is still glad to have me around, so life is not too bad. I consider myself blessed even though the old stuff is missed. But, I can definitely feel that I have entered that phase where the grass withers and the flower fades, and so will all of us in this life if we live long enough. Fortunately we don't wither and fade as fast as the grass and flowers in most cases. It is just another chapter in life. I hope I can walk through it well come what may, but it is proving to be interesting learning my new boundaries and trying to respect them.

Back on the ground. Tired! Dog Tired!



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