Recreational Tree Climbing's Lone Advocate in Knoxville

Arborist Sam Adams introduces Knoxville to the sport of recreational tree climbing

The kid who swung onto the lowest branch, any branch, however spindly, at the vacant lot, at the park, along the city sidewalk, then scurried up as fast and as far as time and his harried guardians would allow. The one who made his parents wish the fire department bucket truck still made house calls, so many times did he climb too high...

That kid was not Sam Adams. The veteran, certified arborist and off-hours ascender of high limbs all over Knox County never even considered climbing a tree until he was in an arborist horticultural work-study program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. But he has the same glee, the same joyous inability to turn down a beckoning climb, as that kid—even though he's now 46, and the local trees he scales average 85-100 feet tall.

"I think the person who excels at recreational tree climbing sees every tree as being an interesting challenge; trees create these obstacles," says Adams, a lanky, muscular fellow with a humorous mouth and sun-chapped fair skin whose day job is as a certified arborist with Cortese Tree Specialists. "I just love doing it, and just always sort of stayed with it. I don't want to sound overly melodramatic, but tree climbing gets in your blood."

The idea of any one but little kids taking to the trees for fun emerged nationally about 25 years ago in Atlanta. "Some people just happened to watch an arborist climb a tree and said, ‘That looks like fun,'" says Bill Maher, lead instructor for the Tree Climber Coalition based in Dawsonville, Ga. "It expanded from downtown Atlanta hippiedom to a full-fledged outdoor adventure."

But, not really around here. The hotspots right now are Kansas City, the western suburbs of Denver around Evergreen, Colo., and around the national forest areas in Los Angeles County and the Redwood Coast north of San Francisco. According to Maher, the reason the recreational tree climbing gets going in an area tends to depend on subgroups receiving the training for a professional endeavor, like the swell in interest in Charlotte, N.C. amongst the city's arborists program, or the many military personnel in the Pensacola, Fla. area who learn tree climbing as part of maneuvers, like sniper training, and decide it would be fun for off-hours adventure, too.

In Knoxville, though Cortese and others employ a handful of certified tree-climbing specialists, Adams is the lone competitive-level recreational tree climber. He wants others, really most anybody, to catch his enthusiasm, and this year started hosting workshops—three so far at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, one at Boomsday, one at Oak Ridge's Earth Day celebration—so the inexperienced can enjoy the ascent.

"I set the trees up for them, the harnesses and all that," he says. "Most people are pretty good at it right away, people can learn the techniques I teach pretty quickly. But they couldn't really do it on their own; the students are dependent on me. If you're talking about getting proficient, becoming an experienced tree climber, that would take a while."

This tree climbing, whether for the novices or an old pro like Adams, is a far cry from the grasping, scarring scramble of a schoolchild in the orchard. For one thing, one barely touches the bark on the way up. "A lot of recreational climbing is actually climbing up into the air," says Adams—on a rope, he means, that is suspended from lateral branches and dangles perpendicular to the tree trunk. He sets such a "climbing line" by first attaching a weight to one end of a "throw line" and heaving it up, aiming for large forks that will support a climber's weight. If he's able to throw the weight through the fork, he pulls the throw line down the other side, within reach, and attaches the heavier, stronger climbing line to it. Then he uses the throw line to pull the climbing line over the fork and back to the ground.

Next, he (or his student) dons a climbing harness, ties a series of knots to attach the harness to the climbing line, and attaches a "prusik loop" to the ropes. "The harness is meant to keep a climber resting in a sitting position, it's like sitting in a chair," he says. "You use your feet in the loops and a series of knots to climb the ropes until you reach the branches."

When Adams climbs professionally, or for a personal adventure, there's an added element of danger. "Have I ever been scared I wouldn't come out alive? Hell, yeah!" says Adams. "I don't think anyone has ever climbed trees professionally who hasn't been in a situation where they would like to be teleported out. The rope's around a cracked limb, and you need to get off it and get onto another one. Right away. Or a trunk's hollow, ready to fail. The feeling's hard to describe. We really keep an eye on the sky, but sometimes high winds come up. It's kind of cool to be in high winds, as long as you know you're in the tree to stay, but that's not always the case."

Numerous scares notwithstanding, when Adams is climbing solo (but still with a buddy to spot him), he tends to gravitate towards what climbers call "wild trees," or virgin territory, which offer the thrill of being first but might also contain unexpected pockets of dead wood, or bees, or broken branches. One tree Adams recently found irresistible rests on what for safety and proprietary tree climber reasons he refers to as "the grounds of an institution locally." (It's legal for Adams to climb it, but not for others.) "It's really cool, a big giant meadow tree, a great tree..." he muses with the air of a fisherman or playboy recalling the one that got away, though this was a successful climb. "It turned out to be what we called a ‘raccoon resting tree.' I got up in the tree, to a low branch—but it was still big, the size of a diving board—and right there at the crotch you could see where the raccoon had been feeding and pooping."

Therefore, says Adams, he named the tree Old Coon—his privilege as the first to climb it. "There are a couple of things recreational tree climbers agree to do, kind of fun things. They name the trees they climb, and they give themselves tree-climber nicknames."

His is "Longfellow," not due to his poetic way of speaking, but because of his height, 6'3", which he says is uncommon but not all that unusual for recreational tree climbers at his level. On October 24, for the first time in three years, he'll climb in the 11th Annual Tennessee Tree Climbing Championship in Nashville, competing for the state title and an automatic birth in the International Society of Arboriculture's Southern tree climbing competition in the spring. Events include accurately and quickly trying to hit targets at 40, 50 and 60 feet with a weighted throwline and a simulated accident situation where the contestants must climb a tree to an injured worker, secure them and safely lower them to the ground. "I'll have a hard time keeping up with guys half my age," says Adams, "I'm hoping in 2010 to go to this competition in Florida, where climbers over 40 have their own category, some Geezers Invitational."

Adams has taken on a role at Cortese that rarely involves getting up into a tree, but he still has his eye on bigger and more adventurous climbs for fun. "I would say the sacred cathedrals for tree climbers would be the big trees out west. The sequoias, the redwoods. They're awesome—350 feet tall. To put it in perspective, the First Tennessee Building is 26 stories, like 270 feet tall. So those trees have 100 feet on the First Tennessee Building. One day..."