Out on a Limb: Climbing Old-Growth Trees in Oregon

Tyler Roemer

In Oregon's Willamette National Forest, adventurers go to great heights—160 feet, to be exact—for a view. Are you crazy enough to sleep and dine up in a Douglas fir?

I first heard about the world of climbing tall trees in 2005, when Richard Preston wrote in The New Yorker about venturing to the top of a California redwood. Ascending these endangered trees is prohibited by law on state land (other than for scientists conducting research). Still, my interest was piqued. I’m a mountaineer, so trading a snow-covered peak for an old-growth tree felt like a no-brainer.

And while California redwoods are off-limits, Douglas firs in Oregon’s H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, 50 miles east of Eugene, are not, and climbing them is sanctioned by the Willamette National Forest in the name of visitor education.

The Andrews encompasses a 15,800-acre watershed within the Willamette National Forest, in the foothills of the Cascade Range, and has been forming since around 1516. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old, but many are not, making it biologically diverse and rich with species that depend on the unique habitat of this temperate rain forest. Andrews is the most studied primal forest ecosystem on the continent, and perhaps the planet, according to science writer Jon R. Luoma.

In April, I found myself at the base of one of these Douglas firs, staring up its thick trunk, which stretched so high that I couldn’t locate its top in the clouds. “More people have been to the summit of Mount Everest than have been to the top of an old-growth tree,” arborist Rob Miron said as we took in the fir called Sophia but known as the Meltdown Tree. The Meltdown Tree (so named because a park ranger once “had a meltdown” about some forestry-related business underneath it) is 500 years old and more than 240 feet tall, rising almost as high as a 25-story building. At base, its trunk measures more than 20 feet in circumference.

Miron, 33, leads curious adventurers and research scientists through this forest and up its trees under the auspices of the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (PTCI), a guide service founded by his mother, also a certified arborist, in 2004. Seven of us—including Miron’s team: Eric Millard, an arborist and a competitor in the North American Tree Climbing Championship; Sarah Ward, a tree biologist (and Rob’s girlfriend); and Rich Hill, who teaches aerial rescue for arborists (chainsaw injuries and impact wounds from falling branches are common professional hazards)—planned to make our way up the tree and spend the night there, sleeping in hammocks suspended from its branches.

The lowest branch on the Meltdown Tree juts out of the trunk 80 feet above the ground, so climbing it is done via rope using an ascending device. Each ascender has a handle on the user’s side and a clamp on the other with teeth that, when weighted, grip the rope but can slide freely upward when the weight is removed. In short, the technique for climbing ropes with ascenders mimics climbing a ladder; the more weight you put on your feet, the easier it is to do. (To get the ropes up to the lowest branch from the ground to begin with, Miron uses a compound bow and arrow.)

For the first 25 feet, I faced the tree, marveling at the texture and size of the bark plates; since we were not connected by our hands or feet to the tree, we also spun slowly, propelled by a light breeze. Inching upward, toward Meltdown’s lowest branch, I emerged into the sun and could see an ocean of green treetops gently swaying. A little higher and those treetops were below me. Enveloped within its soft needles, I noticed the Douglas fir’s sweet, citrusy fragrance. The sun-loving conifer has strong, relatively dense wood that serves to produce more items for human use than any other tree’s wood in the world. It is the state tree of Oregon and, along with redwood and sequoia trees, one of nature’s oldest living organisms. Today, the tallest known living Douglas fir is called the Doerner Fir, topping out at 327 feet. Some tree experts believe that the species is capable of growing to 475 feet; historians have evidence that a 465-footer was felled in Washington State in 1897. Climbing Meltdown, I could sense its vitality and health. And, because it’s protected within the Andrews, its future seems safe.

About 160 feet up, with about a third of the tree’s height still above him, Millard affixed a pulley to a branch using a length of nylon rope, which does no harm to the tree if attached properly, and, with Miron, began building the sleeping accommodations.

Our provisions—food (cheese, crackers, charcuterie, fruit, and cookies), water, a small camping stove, sleeping bags, hammocks, a portaledge (hanging tent apparatus), and Treeboats (like a hammock but slightly more rigid)—had been packed into haul bags that were hoisted up the tree by Miron and Millard.

My Treeboat was tethered by short nylon cinch straps that had been stretched taut between another sturdy branch and the trunk. The portaledge hung on a metal frame, suspended by its pointy top, and looked like an ornament hanging from the branch of a Christmas tree. We reached our airborne campsite an hour before sunset. The climb took 40 minutes and was not strenuous for any of the group; Miron later confirmed that it is doable by anyone possessing reasonable fitness.

With our harnesses still on, we hoisted our body weight onto the beds, loosening the ropes just enough for comfort, but not so far as to make an accidental fall dangerous. Reclaiming a degree of horizontal mobility, we exchanged helmets for warm, soft caps and unfurled our sleeping bags to prepare for the overnight.

As we gazed at the treetops from our aerie, Miron named some of the shade-tolerant species below us: hemlock, western red cedar, bigleaf maple, vine maple, alder, and Pacific yew, all flourishing in the big fir’s shade. And he detailed how to tell that Meltdown is certifiably an old-growth specimen: “See the thick carpet of lichen growing on the branch over there, the stuff that looks like lettuce? It’s called Lobaria, and you won’t find it proliferating in younger stands like it does up here.”

The moon rose full that night, and the sky was clear. I looked around hoping to see a spotted owl, an endangered species but fairly common here, hunting for red tree voles and flying squirrels, the tiny mammals that Miron said lived in the treetops and are favorite meals for the nocturnal predators. But I drifted off about 30 minutes after sunset, lulled to sleep by the sound of Lookout Creek, a tributary of the Blue River, rushing through the draw below and, in the distance, a faint rumble of thunder. Sometime during the night, I was gently tickled awake by raindrops falling on my face. As comfortable as I was in the embrace of this giant tree, the fresh sensation of light mist on my skin felt oddly welcome.

By morning, the sky was clear again. Below us, the forest was dotted with tufts of fog seemingly trapped in the branches of the tall trees clustered in the draw. We awakened to the sound of Miron calling Ward, who was back at the tree’s base, having rappelled down while we slept through the sunrise. She tugged on the rope, the sign to haul up a fresh bag. Within moments, it arrived at our encampment. It held coffee and hot towels scented with peppermint.

By 8:30 a.m., it was time to go, and, under the guides’ supervision, we carefully exchanged our ascenders for descenders. We glided down the ropes, each at our own pace, occasionally picking up speed as gravity did its work and slowing down whenever the metal device overheated with the friction. It had taken us 40 minutes to ascend; we were back on the ground in five minutes. It was a moment before I got my ground legs back, as if I’d disembarked from a boat. When we looked back up to where we had been, those branches we knew to be gigantic appeared small and delicate. For a moment, I was sorry to have left my lofty perch so soon, but consoled to know that another ascent would be easy to arrange. Miron said he knew of at least one nearby giant that had yet to be climbed.

Lunch with the Birds

I have had a lifelong “thing” for throwing dinner parties in extraordinary outdoor settings. I’ve done a luau in the High Sierra backcountry midwinter and a seated black-tie dinner in the ankle-deep water of a calm bay in Jamaica, and hosted Cinco de Mayo festivities with fresh-lime margaritas on the flanks of a Himalayan peak. In this case, I wanted to dine on a hanging picnic table. I proposed my crazy plan to PTCI leader Rob Miron, and he quickly agreed: “You get the table to the tree, and we’ll get it up there.”

Turns out, he’ll do it for anyone. You just have to do the legwork. I rented our six-foot redwood picnic table from Tom Christian at Redwood Northwest (4977 W. 11th Ave., Eugene; 541-434-2166; redwoodnorthwest.com) and towed it on a trailer from C & E Rentals (1590 W. Second Ave., Eugene; 541-683-4088; beehiverental.com), eight miles from Tom’s. We drove the hour and a half behind a rental SUV to within ten feet of the base of Meltdown. The seven of us carried it the final feet. Using ropes and pulleys, Rob and his crew got it suspended.

Sitting around the table with friends over a simple meal, floating in the canopy of an ancient rain forest, was thrilling. In those moments, I couldn’t think of a more exhilarating natural backdrop. The only caveat: Drinking alcohol is forbidden (for obvious safety reasons). We filled an empty Veuve Clicquot bottle with bubbly kombucha for the shot.

Climbing a Douglas fir can be organized through Rob Miron at Oregon’s Pacific Tree Climbing Institute; 541-461-9410. A day climb and overnight stay is $900 per person. Suspending the picnic table will cost an additional few hundred dollars.

Image Credits: Tyler Roemer