How do we determine tree and climber limits?

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
For sound trees and competent climbers we can refer to many "How to" books and find methods of safe work. Some climbers don't develop awareness and prudence of their abilities and the integrity of tree structure. I have observed a bravardo amongst some that concerns me.

I have just completed a large removal where I found myself feeling very fragile and exposed. The competence of my crew on the ground provided the valuable information that eventually aided my descision to fell the remainder of the tree rather than in sections. There is a fine grey line between adventure and misadventure.

It caused me to think of the wide spectrum of climbers accross the world and how they find the limit of safety for themselves. "Blowhards" with dumb luck ought not be the inspiration for aspiring climbers.

What are your thoughts on being good mentors and avoiding your limits and that of the tree?

Regards IMG_5256[1].JPG
Andrew Firth cutting one of the seven staps out. This is about the 100' height. The last limb cut off was at about 200' and the shell felt and sounded like mud.
 

CjM

Participating member
Location
Sacramento, CA
Wow! I am continuously inspired by your exploits.

I've found that climbing the same species in the same geographic region for long periods of time lend a kind of intuitive feel for how healthy specimens of a given species "feel"- how they behave when limbs come into the rigging or how limbs yield under a climber's weight.

For me, it comes down to a kind of tactile intuition. If you've ever been 120' up a lightning damaged Liriodendron tulipifera, you'll know what I mean by what I call "the wobble." Trees with obvious defects, decay, or wounding put me in a certain frame of mind from the get-go. Trees that have less obvious defects but midway through the climb feel and move differently than how I expect tend to put me in yet a different frame of mind. Yours is often a question I've heard from coworkers about why I'm comfortable taking a certain size piece or or even climbing a given tree at all. I find my familiarity with the species of this region have given me a good sense of how they react to various forces. For example, coming from New England, where growth increments are smaller and wood more dense, I over trusted Pinus strobus in the southeastern US when I first got down here. This species in the south grows quicker, and has a different "feel" in this region.

I think there is some evidence to support this, beyond my experience of this seemingly ineffable tactile qualia.
Wood properties
Folks doing level 3 risk assessments use uniform flexibility for a given species the same way we use uniform density to trust our green log weight charts.

Making sure new climbers get a good sense of this is difficult, as we don't really have language to describe these experiences. But then, how do we know how many wraps to put on the porta wrap? One full wrap supports ~200lbs, but dow we get our green log weight chart out every rig? We develop, somehow, a feel for how many wraps. As far as mentoring goes, I would love to see companies better able to get newer climbers more non-saw climbing time. Maybe paid company rec climbs (I've actually been on a few of these when I was a greenhorn climber), or maybe letting some brush pile up and having the green climber up in the canopy with the ace climber, seeing how they move and getting up-close, real-time explanations. We're so often in our own world up there, and mentors are often craning their necks up at us. We're rarely on the same level. Milage in the species we work with goes a long way towards developing that intuition.
I have just completed a large removal where I found myself feeling very fragile and exposed.
Discretion may be the better part of valor, but vulnerability is the essence of bravery. I think that we often misconstrue this by thinking that valor is the better part of bravery. We should take the example from the pines of new england; slower and stronger.

What are your thoughts on being good mentors and avoiding your limits and that of the tree?

I've seen too many green climbers thrown in over their heads because they've learned to run a saw and they've also learned to climb. That does not necessarily mean they've appreciated enough at either to do both simultaneously. I remember the first time I got sent to do spar work that required a 461. Took absolutely forever, got my ass kicked. Boss laughed and clapped me on the shoulder and said "That was an investment. Don't worry about the bid, this was my investment in you, you'll only get better and more efficient from here." I'll never forget that, and hope to keep paying that faith and lesson forward. I had done a lot of pruning and smaller removals up to that point, so I wasn't at my limit. Had I been thrown right into a big removal like that, I think I would have greatly over-shot my growth zone.

I also have over 15 years of traditional rock climbing experience, and I think that lends a certain familiarly with managing truly dangerous situations at height (especially here in NC), and this is experience I draw on always when working in trees to keep calm and situational awareness high when the going gets wobbly. It has taught me to control my mind, and be more in the moment, another kind of intuition to learn as a climber. Another mentor.

As Mr. Clemens said, I would have written you a shorter letter, Mr. McMahon, but I didn't have time.
 
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Reach

Been here a while
Location
Atglen, PA
I think to be a good mentor, you must not only have the knowledge and experience to do what your trainee is doing, but you must also know where your own limitations are, and not exceed them.

I believe that once a climber has a reasonable amount of skill, he should have the right of refusal to climb any tree. That’s how we operate here. There have been trees where I have spoken with a climber about a tree, and explained why I feel it can be safely done, or posed an option to make it safer, and the climber has gone up. There are also times when we say “Sorry Mr. Jones, this tree is more hazardous/unstable than we first thought. We will have to come back with the bucket/basket/crane.”
 

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
CJM

Well put.
The terms you use like "intuitive feel, how they behave, climbing the same species in the same geographic region for long periods of time" are descriptive and correct. Travelling between regions and around the world endorse what you have said. As an apine faller when I change to a new coupe I take the first few days if not a week to "warm up" to the bush despite being the same species. This used to frustrate some logging contractors and they were often the disorganised ones, not my problem. As climbers we migrate daily to a new site.

I have not seen these terms used to establish competence during climbing assessments here. I am left to think of the void between being a qualified advanced/ complex "whatever" and the real world where there are limits to tree interity and climber safety. The transition for a climber to develop that awareness and continually evaluate their safety apears a workplace role. Nuturing that development in others was my thoughts as I walked along the log and saw how "bad" it was.
 

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
I think to be a good mentor, you must not only have the knowledge and experience to do what your trainee is doing, but you must also know where your own limitations are, and not exceed them.

I believe that once a climber has a reasonable amount of skill, he should have the right of refusal to climb any tree. That’s how we operate here. There have been trees where I have spoken with a climber about a tree, and explained why I feel it can be safely done, or posed an option to make it safer, and the climber has gone up. There are also times when we say “Sorry Mr. Jones, this tree is more hazardous/unstable than we first thought. We will have to come back with the bucket/basket/crane.”
I agree that mentors and trainers ought to have appropriate skill levels to be in that role.

Being able to say no to a client or supervisor is a hallmark of the people I would want in my team. This enables you to top up skill, keep them safe or find another way. I am contracted to remove quite a few nasty trees and put a "back door" in the quote. Like the one I just completed, the first line was, "I reserve the right to say no to finishing the task as per Option 1, if I feel it is too hazardous". This way there is no loss of face or driving ambition to proove it could be completed as quoted.

This is a healthy concept for the other climbers around me as well.
 

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
121017213_646376372933018_5274882715394222994_n.jpg

This pic gives a sence of scale. It is deceptive as half the shell split away for 100' and rolled away so it was actually bigger than it looks. The double ended flipine was 50' long to make a start.

The three quiet acheivers that made the removal possible (L - R), Shane Jackson (Sherbrooke Tree Service, Ace Trees and Ben McLean Trees), Andrew Firth (Ascension Trees) and James Easton (Ascension Trees). Despite not many years since qualifying their experience and awareness of large hazard tree removals and general work has accellerated past their piers and many trainers. I suggest that the product of awareness and mentoring is a two way street. What they bring to a workplace are elements not trained or taught. That platform makes my role easy.

I am fortunate to secure their assistance as needed.
 
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Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
Impressive work!

I agree, I've never bailed or drastically changed the plan and regretted it. I have been fortunate to work with folks that respect my decisions and risk assessments- owners and coworkers.

I agree Reach, CEastwood told us about knowing our limitations!
There is almost another thread for fun quotes from movies that we have appied to our work.

I think he says, " A mans got to know his limitations".

As Gunney Highway he says, "Improvise, adapt, overcome" and Mr Schwatzenegger said, "I'll be back". But let's not go down that "rabbit hole" here.

I will say that that employers tend to or ought to promote motorvation for safety and improvement and quotes may be a means for that.
 

Mark Chisholm

Administrator
Administrator
But let's not go down that "rabbit hole" here.
That sounds like a fun hole to go down buddy :)

First, this is a very powerful thread with so much in it. Thabk you Graeme for starting it. It makes me want to share it with my gang at work and even write some ideas down on paper. I appreciate the work you all have done to share on this important topic. It is one that is close to my heart as well since I am in a position to train and share- one that I take the utmost care and hold the highest amount of respect for.

Since I stumbled on this thread right before I start my day I really must keep this short. There are so many thoughts and memories that come to mind reading through this discussion. The one thing I will say before I leave is that just yesterday I applauded one of the guys on my team for listening to my suggestion of how I might approach a dead pine removal and then feeling comfortable in changing my plan and doing it a different way. I absolutely love this and feel that this is an important part of good mentorship. We cannot forget to encourage each person in our care to use their judgment and problem solving ability to determine the best way to utilize their skills to ensure a safe and comfortable experience.

Thanks again Graeme for taking us down this road! I'll buy you a beer next time you visit ;)


Let's keep this thread going as it is incredibly beneficial for all of us to think and discuss how we operate in this discipline. Cheers.
 

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
Thanks Mark.

How we mentor the current and future tree folk has much to do with our industry safety. Developing safe descisions and a continuous vigilence of hazards is important. It seems that qualifications prepare people for usual work. Many aspire to advance. "Trial and error learning", Utube and grandstanding ought not lead that transition.

I'll hold you to the beer Mark, and I'll keep my fridge stocked for when you get to Cockatoo :)

Another quote we use when under pressure (from military), "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast".
Regards
 

Serf Life

Carpal tunnel level member
Location
Maine Island
I find my familiarity with the species of this region have given me a good sense of how they react to various forces.
Your post was excellent, thanks for taking the time to sculpt it. This quote is what it boils down to for me, but my issue early on was the first time I tackled that sketchy tree of each species.

EAB killed ash sound like difficult beasts to safely climb; so the first ascent for gaining the species specific framework is part bravado and partly “it’s my job”? The “adventure vs misadventure” Graeme references is pretty thin with some trees. Especially without a mentor as many of us have not had that privilege.
 

CjM

Participating member
Location
Sacramento, CA
That's a great point Serf, and thanks for the kind words. Something like EAB killed ash is deeply into Rumsfeld territory- the unknown unknowns are high, and even with the best mentors we won't have all the answers for every situation. I think Graeme and Reach get at this point with the backdoor, right of refusal clause and knowing our own limitations; be it saying this tree is beyond me and we need a contract climber in here, or this tree is beyond everyone and we need a new plan all together.

We did a bunch of heinous, no crane access dead ash projects last summer, a couple took several hours of isolating multiple lines and high-lines just to get a safe climbing system set up, let alone the rigging. Hopefully by the time a climber is taking on those sketchy projects, they've gained enough experience and confidence to a.) be putting the safety of themselves and the crew above all, bid be damned, and b.) are approaching such projects with humility and a solid reasoning behind taking the task on at all. In my experience, climbers with the most bravado are the ones white-knuckling it up there, making bad calls, and bailing from manageable scenarios because they're uncomfortable.

Especially without a mentor as many of us have not had that privilege.
I've been extremely privileged to have worked alongside exceptional mentors my entire career. My friend Johnny down here in NC is one of the very best climbers I've ever known, and he has this idea of reversing the totem pole- if you're the badass ace climber, you best be volunteering to drive the rig or be sitting in the middle seat. I'd have to yell at him for dragging brush to the chipper in his saddle because the second he hit the deck he's trying to compete with the ground crew. My friend Matt just became the first regional safety coordinator for Bartlett, and he'd be coming down from the bucket to help the crew catch up on brush mid removal. Before we had SENAs, Johnny would have the crew shut the chipper down to listen to and consider my suggestions, or explain something if I asked about it. Both of those guys wouldn't hesitate to congratulate you on stepping away from something sketchy, and would never put you down for feeling uncomfortable. I think with youtube and instagram these days, it's hard to get the impression that it's the better climber who takes the smallest top.

When Johnny first started doing tree work, he was just helping the only old man in his Arkansas town that did tree work. They called Johnny Scooter, because the old man didn't have any climbing ropes or gear, and so Johnny would shimmy out limbs and cut with a handsaw. The old man told him, "Johnny, you can't learn this stuff in books!" He thought climbing and cutting trees was just a weird thing that only he and this old man did. But then he comes to find out there's hundreds of books about this topic and professional organizations, not to mention all the ropes and equipment:ROFLMAO:.

We don't all get to start with pros like I did (by happy accident, just ask Mr. Swan), but we can endeavor to help others. I love having the greenhorns on my crew, and always ask that they be so I can pass along everything that's been given to me. We're not very regulated, and we don't have many schools like the SPRAT folks do, so it's up to us if we want better mentoring. Bartlett has been trying to figure out how to make mentoring a bigger part of their business the last couple years for example.

It is one that is close to my heart as well since I am in a position to train and share- one that I take the utmost care and hold the highest amount of respect for.
Same here, and thanks for setting such a good example. I've never heard you speak without taking something important away. I also attended a training at the Bartlett lab partially led by your boy Rob, and I've seen first hand the kind of arborists such mentoring produces.

The one thing I will say before I leave is that just yesterday I applauded one of the guys on my team for listening to my suggestion of how I might approach a dead pine removal and then feeling comfortable in changing my plan and doing it a different way. I absolutely love this and feel that this is an important part of good mentorship. We cannot forget to encourage each person in our care to use their judgment and problem solving ability to determine the best way to utilize their skills to ensure a safe and comfortable experience.
When we give employees the proper medium to grow, they often take on exemplary safety-tropic habits requiring minimal corrective pruning:)

On the topic of mentors, I hope my friend Anawan shows up in this thread, I've never seen him climb and not though, damn I would never have thought to do that! Loved climbing with ya buddy.
 

Graeme McMahon

Participating member
Location
Cockatoo
That's a great point Serf, and thanks for the kind words. Something like EAB killed ash is deeply into Rumsfeld territory- the unknown unknowns are high, and even with the best mentors we won't have all the answers for every situation. I think Graeme and Reach get at this point with the backdoor, right of refusal clause and knowing our own limitations; be it saying this tree is beyond me and we need a contract climber in here, or this tree is beyond everyone and we need a new plan all together.

We did a bunch of heinous, no crane access dead ash projects last summer, a couple took several hours of isolating multiple lines and high-lines just to get a safe climbing system set up, let alone the rigging. Hopefully by the time a climber is taking on those sketchy projects, they've gained enough experience and confidence to a.) be putting the safety of themselves and the crew above all, bid be damned, and b.) are approaching such projects with humility and a solid reasoning behind taking the task on at all. In my experience, climbers with the most bravado are the ones white-knuckling it up there, making bad calls, and bailing from manageable scenarios because they're uncomfortable.


I've been extremely privileged to have worked alongside exceptional mentors my entire career. My friend Johnny down here in NC is one of the very best climbers I've ever known, and he has this idea of reversing the totem pole- if you're the badass ace climber, you best be volunteering to drive the rig or be sitting in the middle seat. I'd have to yell at him for dragging brush to the chipper in his saddle because the second he hit the deck he's trying to compete with the ground crew. My friend Matt just became the first regional safety coordinator for Bartlett, and he'd be coming down from the bucket to help the crew catch up on brush mid removal. Before we had SENAs, Johnny would have the crew shut the chipper down to listen to and consider my suggestions, or explain something if I asked about it. Both of those guys wouldn't hesitate to congratulate you on stepping away from something sketchy, and would never put you down for feeling uncomfortable. I think with youtube and instagram these days, it's hard to get the impression that it's the better climber who takes the smallest top.

When Johnny first started doing tree work, he was just helping the only old man in his Arkansas town that did tree work. They called Johnny Scooter, because the old man didn't have any climbing ropes or gear, and so Johnny would shimmy out limbs and cut with a handsaw. The old man told him, "Johnny, you can't learn this stuff in books!" He thought climbing and cutting trees was just a weird thing that only he and this old man did. But then he comes to find out there's hundreds of books about this topic and professional organizations, not to mention all the ropes and equipment:ROFLMAO:.

We don't all get to start with pros like I did (by happy accident, just ask Mr. Swan), but we can endeavor to help others. I love having the greenhorns on my crew, and always ask that they be so I can pass along everything that's been given to me. We're not very regulated, and we don't have many schools like the SPRAT folks do, so it's up to us if we want better mentoring. Bartlett has been trying to figure out how to make mentoring a bigger part of their business the last couple years for example.


Same here, and thanks for setting such a good example. I've never heard you speak without taking something important away. I also attended a training at the Bartlett lab partially led by your boy Rob, and I've seen first hand the kind of arborists such mentoring produces.


When we give employees the proper medium to grow, they often take on exemplary safety-tropic habits requiring minimal corrective pruning:)

On the topic of mentors, I hope my friend Anawan shows up in this thread, I've never seen him climb and not though, damn I would never have thought to do that! Loved climbing with ya buddy.
Serf Life and CJM

Great posts

I was one of those that didn't have access to training or a mentor. I suppose that is why this subject is important to me. Much of my early career I trod that thin grey line, sometimes aware of it and sometimes not.

For those that had contact with experienced people during their development I would be interested to hear of examples of the ways they were guided. On the other side as an experienced person what are the ways you assist others develop.

I'll start by way of example, When I am contracted to another company I encourage discussion with each of the crew including the traffic control staff, not just the climbers. I give credit to their part in the task and draw on issues they experience. This discussion defuses the notion of climber orientation and puts the focus for all on the teamwork and flow of work.

Posts from others may accumulate a handy list for all potential mentors. Just a thought.

Regards
 

CjM

Participating member
Location
Sacramento, CA
Bringing everyone, greenest greenhorn on their first day through the veteran crew lead, on the walk around before anything happens makes everyone feel equally part of the team and that they're contributing to the plan. It's also safer as everyone is on the same page- especially if no SENAS ect. I've not worked much with contracted traffic control, but that's brilliant bringing them into the pre-work discussion. Also, just being excited to have new folks on the crew and making them feel like you're glad they're there goes a long way, and not allowing the FNG kind of talk.

My friend Johnny instituted stump inspections for us newer fallers, and if we were shying away from something, like falling spars, encouraging us to take those tasks on. When anyone felled something (greenhorn or not), we would all go look at the stump and talk about it. Johnny taught me to read the story of a cut by just looking at a stump- how many corrections were made, was the hinge too fat and non-functioning, did the trunk peel past the kerf and pull the tree off the lay, was the notch too shallow, ect. This taught a lot about proper felling, but returning to my original point about being familiar with local species, a lot about tree physiology and mechanics. It was a great way to learn how the fibers of our local species react at various times of year, and which trees you can trust more than others. Seeing how thin a hickory hinge needs to be vs. say with a tulip tree gives a lot of perspective on wood strength and behavior to the aspiring climber.

Really interested to hear other's experiences here as well.
 

Steve Connally

Been here a while
This is the most fabulous post I’ve read in a long time. I will find time to sit and formulate a response. I can pretty much tell you it won’t be nearly as eloquent as the previous posts. I feel very passionate about risk without need. Also the smack in the face reality of becoming a single father and knowing my son lost one parent and how he shouldn’t have to loose another. I have never been too proud to walk away from a climb. There’s no pride in dead and I didn’t have the mentorship to teach me about where the gray line was. I learned by getting lucky. Then I came to the stark reality that luck will run out. Anyway I’m on my phone and would like to put some thoughts down with all my fingers and not just my thumbs.
 

Bart_

Participating member
Location
GTA
From a pion, I noticed the saying slow is smooth, smooth is fast - that's a mantra for motocross where you work your way up the skill set trying to avoid orthopaedics and neck braces. Go slower to go faster. Pretty real stakes body planting on a dirt bike. Teaching, mentoring, learn on your own, natural talent/not, the parallels are striking the more you ponder it. Doing your first double or triple. Finally committing to aggression in the whoopdeedoos. Puckering moments. Like dropping your first big dead crispy top and worrying about the hinge integrity. Once you light the candle you're committed and it tests/grades all your prep and decisions. Pass/fail good/better/bad come out the other side in one piece.

I think getting lucky moments smile down on more of us than pride will let us admit. Learn from it and its a positive. Post it in Awakenings and many people learn from it. Influential people posting carries more weight too. Kevin posting about (not)notching spar chunks sunk in pretty heavy to me at the time.

best to all
 
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Steve Connally

Been here a while
So i'm basically a self taught climber. The companies i've worked for, with the exception of 1, are spike everything, no pep kind of outfits. I did my part to increase or start a culture of safety in those outfits. I also was the only guy who could climb without spikes so I got most of the pruning and by fault became the most "skilled" climber of the outfit. I've been put in some nasty trees for removals and walked away from many of them. I had to stand my ground because the boss would send me home if I refused to climb something. After the 2nd or 3rd time he threatened to send me home and I just packed up without complaint and left, he realized I couldn't be bullied into climbing something I didn't want to climb. I remember one particular pine rotten as hell and no bark at all on the trunk. I wouldn't climb it so the other invincible "you gotta die eventually" climber said he'd do it. There were bushes below the tree they cut to waist height. Basically spears. I was in an adjacent tree pruning when I hear yelling. He was about 60' up on nothing more than a flipline. No rope at all, not even on his saddle. He was half way into a cut and gaffed out. Flipline didn't grab but the 200t and saw lanyard held him. The bar was bent at a 90 degree angle and still running in the cut. He got back on the spar, came down and was laughing about it. Badge of honor for him. I told him what I though of him and he just laughed. I never had the benefit of mentorship with questionable trees. I just had to use my gut. What I have never understood is how some bosses are willing to clearly risk the life of their employees by asking them do take unnecessary risk so they can collect extra income off a hazardous removal. To me it just shows a lack of respect and value of your workers. There is a common theme with the younger climbers I come in contact with. There is some bravado in thinking the more sketchy the climb, the more they want to do it. I don't understand this approach. The worse the tree is, the less I want to do it. It just seems like rational thinking. Everyone is out to show how much of a bad ass they are on social media. Its a giant popularity contest based on ego hungry kids trying to become the next most popular social media figure. Let me tell you, eventually that will get you dead. Then there are the Heuristic traps that you fall into based on peer pressure. Its a downward spiral and one that is perpetuated based on every one you get away with by nothing more than being lucky. I became a single Dad in a second. Once my wife died I realized how things don't always go as planned. I was supposed to be outlived by her. I realized I had an obligation to the people I love to only take calculated risk. Ones where the benefit outweighs the risk or I can mitigate most of the risk. Don't get me wrong. I haven't become an afraid i'm gonna die person. I just evaluate the situations differently. I approach it with the concern of the crew, myself, and now I consider the obligation I have to the people who love me not to take a needless risk. Now I run a mobile risk mitigator and do the nastiest trees ever. I have learned so much about hazard trees by taking them down with the grapple saw. The only missing factor is that intuitive feel of being in that tree and understanding where the grey line is. I have big international companies who contract me because they see no reward in risking their employees. I respect that and again, have never understood the bosses who want you to risk your life for their boat payment or lavish habits. It's just so disrespectful. Anyway, just a few thoughts on my attitude about the subject. Certainly no amazing pearls of wisdom but i'm so happy to see this post and wish I could share it all over social media.
 

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