Walking Amongst the Giant Sequoias
Day One: Shock and Awe
Remember the scene from Jurassic Park when Dr. Grant first sees the field full of dinosaurs? He is completely in awe of the giant brontosaurus walking past and all the other smaller dinosaurs running around, and completely speechless – his eyes frozen in awe. Now imagine a bunch of tree guys from Michigan in a van driving through an ancient stand of Giant Sequoias that stand 250-300 feet tall. Imagine the sweaty palms as the crew spotted for the first time the trees lined up for their impending climb. Imagine the van full of climbers slowly easing to a stop and everyone jumping out into the cold mountain air with their eyes peeled skyward at the massive trunks and soaring canopies that stood before them. Yeah, at that moment, we knew how Dr. Grant felt. We would soon be walking amongst the Giant Sequoias!
This is how our day started on our first encounter with climbing the Giant Sequoias. We looked around for awhile just admiring the grandeur of every tree around. Then, after touring the trees, we decided that a set of twin trees were right for us. Now you need to understand that trees this large really play an optical illusion on your senses. Not only that, but we are standing on the top of a ravine that these trees are growing out of so the limbs look much closer than they actually are. Every tree should have a sign near it that says, “Limbs on trees are further than they appear!”
We brought a crossbow to set our lines in the trees, unfortunately due to some communication errors, we forgot the fishing line and reel that were to attach to the cross bow! So we tried shooting the bolt into the tree by using a throw line attached to it. Surprisingly, it went much farther than we had originally hoped, but not far enough to set an adequate access line. Luckily, we had borrowed a Big Shot with two 6’ poles that allowed us to set a decent access line into the tree.
We pulled 600’ of Teufelberger KMIII Max into the tree and base-anchored it to a smaller Pine located near the base of the twins. Pulling ropes into the trees is a dangerous feet in itself, as small or large limbs can break out of the tree at any time and more than likely ride right down the throw line or rope you are pulling on. Communication was paramount as lines were pulled up and anchored off. Next, a climber ascended the rope using a Rope Walker system. The HAAS and Foot Ascender made easy work of ascending for our legs, but our forearms were another story! Our forearms became completely pumped just from holding ourselves upright while ascending. This was the biggest reason for needing to take breaks; that and the thin air at higher elevations.
Once a climber reached the top of the access line they could begin alternating between their lanyard and their climb line to move higher into the canopy. In smaller trees, this is an easy feat, but when the limbs are 8’ or 10’ in diameter and 20’ apart, it makes the going tough. We used many different techniques, such as the DMM Captain Hook or high strength magnets on the ends of our ropes or climb lines to help retrieve the ends once tossed over a limb. At one time, Aaron Johns threw his Captain Hook 30’ feet across into the top of the opposite tree and then traversed across with 200’ of air beneath his boots!
Climbing even further into the canopy revealed huge pieces of dead wood that could be prehistoric by the way they looked. Moss was growing on top of the dead wood hundreds of feet off the ground. The bark, though it looked solid, resounded with a hollow thud and felt like a soft hay bale. The bark in the canopy, however, was a different story. As the bark flaked off it became slippery like ice when the climbers tried to stand and move about. Let me just say that the world in these trees is completely foreign to what we are used to in Michigan.
Finally, after getting our cuttings from the outer most branches that allow the sun to warm the branch tips, we began our long descent. Pulling ropes from above and moving downward through the canopy makes for a long and precarious task. Just like looking at these trees from the ground, limbs appear closer than they actually are as you become used to the giant size of the tree. The tail of your rope comes faster than you would expect in a tree this size, so extra care needs to be taken. Our 60’ lanyards were a blessing on both the descents and while moving through the canopy, making transferring and retying-in much faster and easier. Once on the ground, we began pulling ropes from hundreds of feet above our heads. The rope falls out of the tree like a bull whip cracking the sky, knocking bark and dirt down as it comes. We flaked the rope into the bag and started hiking out. Day one of the Sequoias was over.
Day Two: The Waterfall Tree
Our second day climbing the Giant Sequoias started out with breakfast in the rain. We cooked coffee on camp stoves and watched the rain and fog cover the mountain tops. Tree tops peaked out of the thick mist and made themselves known. Our goal today was to ascend the Waterfall Tree and the Stagg Tree. These are the 4th and 5th largest trees in the world by volume. A one word description would simply be MASSIVE or majestic!
Getting to either tree involves a decent downhill hike and bush whack over logs, rocks, plants with thorns, and trees that grab every piece of gear you have. Each climber had gear packed on both the front and back, making us look like a troupe of Sherpas heading to advanced base camp on Mt. Everest. I remember specifically hiking-in a 600’ rope on my back with two 150’ hanks of rope on my front, along with various climbing gear. It was not a fun hike, but when we finally set all our gear down at the base of the Waterfall tree we all knew it was worth the sweat and heaving chests.
We decided to go at the tree with the Big Shot right off the bat. A line was set relatively low and we hustled to try to get a high tie in point set from the ground. Due to time contraints for our cuttings we decided to give up on setting a line with the Big Shot and sent a climber up the line we already had set. Once at the top of the access line the climber threw a throw line over a higher limb which allowed us a higher access line into the top of the tree.
The interesting thing about the Waterfall Tree and the Stagg Tree isn’t just their awe-inspiring size, but the fact that both trees have massive tops that are dead. When I say dead, I mean stone solid 6-8’ diameter tops that look over the valley like gargoyles made of granite. When we made it to the top of our new access line we found huge amounts of dead wood all around. The other interesting thing about the Waterfall Tree is that the whole front side of the tree has maybe six live limbs; the rest is a barren landscape made up of thick bark and dead limbs.
Being the first one to the top, I attached my lanyard and just sat for a moment to catch my breath and figure out what the best plan of attack was for this giant tree. Looking up, the only limbs above me were huge and dead, not the most reassuring thing to see, but also not completely awful! Far off to my side I saw a large limb that was roughly 15’ above me and 15’ in diameter. I threw my lanyard with attached magnet over the limb and watched it lower on the far side of the limb. Having no way to reach my lanyard, I clipped the other magnet to my grappling hook and threw it. Yes! The magnets found each other quickly and I easily pulled my lanyard back to me. Once clipped in I could transfer between my climb line and the lanyard to gain access to the far side of the tree.
Our goal was to get cuttings and set another rope so the rest of the team could ascend from the ground all the way to the top of the tree. The second access line needed to be set off the back side of the tree to maintain a solid tie-in point, and for awesome exposure over a cliff and waterfall while ascending. So a two man team moved around the back side of the tree through tight crotches and over massive limbs. As we came up and over a large limb my climbing partner stopped and said, “You have to take a look at this. It’s crazy man!”
A Cave Inside a Tree
At this point we are around 200’ off the ground. What could possibly be up here other than more trees? As I came over the limb I saw a hole in some of the dead wood. The hole was about 24” across and 4’ tall. As we peered inside all we could see was a gaping dark hole seemed to have no end. I grabbed my camera, turned on the flash, and snapped a couple frames. The inside of the tree lit up, but the black pit continued beyond what even my flash could touch. Questions started to fill my head: What could be inside? How far down does it go? How big is it once inside? And most importantly, who is going in first?
We called down for the ground crew to send up some head lamps. They must have been confused with the request until we informed them that we had found an elevator shaft sized chasm leading into the heart of the tree! We chose new tie in points and I gently stepped into the chasm. I shined my head lamp downward only to watch the light it emitted be eaten up by the darkness. Looking at the inside of the tree was like looking at a living Alex Shigo diagram with a reverse image of the branch attachment coming into the tree. It was stunning to see how a tree grows while sitting inside of the living organism. I spread my arms out as far as I could with my fingertips just barely touching each side. From my estimate, the interior cavity was at least 6’ across and down as far as I could see. Thinking of every scary caving or claustrophobic movie I have ever watched, I descended farther into the center of the tree. After descending roughly 30’ the cavity was still 4’ across and my headlight still couldn’t see the bottom. It was time to head back up and out at this point!
I ascended out of the hole to the bright sunlight and views of waterfalls far below us. Even looking back now it is surreal to think that this gem sits at the top of that mountainous tree. Who would have expected to find a giant gaping hole down through the center of a tree that is still capable of securing limbs up to 12’ in diameter? These ancient trees hold secrets not only in their physical structures, but in their DNA and the habitats they create for other creatures.
We slowly descended out of the tree, passing massive limbs and other cavities that have been taken up by other animals. Once we touched down on the ground, we clipped into the other access line and swung out over the cliff to catch a glimpse of the waterfalls and the ground far below our feet. The Waterfall Tree had given us a spectacular adventure. It was time to call it a day.