Tree hugger

“Don’t put any weight on the belt at the buckle. It won’t hold,” said my climbing partner from twelve feet above me. I didn’t listen. I was concentrating on conquering the Great Oak in front of me.

“Don’t put any weight on the belt at the buckle. It won’t hold,” said my climbing partner from twelve feet above me. I didn’t listen. I was concentrating on conquering the Great Oak in front of me.

At 5’5″, with a vertical jump comparable to that of a worm, I am forced to push my MacGyver skills to their limit as I make my initial approach to the thick branch above my head. Urban tree climbing never looked so cool.

I lasso the belt around the thick limb, using its buckle as the loop through which I cinch the strap. Grasping the warm leather, I plant both feet on the trunk and lean back, letting the belt and buckle support my weight as I walk up the side of the tree.


The buckle tears from the leather and, chalk-outline style, I land flat on my back arms, contorted into perfect 45-degree angles-one facing up, one facing down. I continue to let out a pathetic yell even after I hit the ground. Tom McCall Waterfront Park never felt so painful.

After taking a moment to assess my body parts for breaks, I jump to my feet. A patch of ivy has thankfully cushioned my fall, and I (sore but no worse for the wear) have fallen out of a tree, but fallen in love with my new extreme endeavor: urban tree climbing.

We all adore trees. We live in Oregon for criminey’s sake. People who hate trees aren’t allowed here. And a few of us love trees so much we make sport of it.

Tree climbing isn’t just for 5-year-olds anymore. And luckily there are no fees or red tape involved in this growing hobby among groups of Portlanders; all that is needed can be found right in the Park Blocks.

And in recent years, tree climbing for recreation has become increasingly popular. A Google search provides links to dozens of organized groups of climbers, including Tree Climbers International, whose website boasts: “Tree climbing is not just for children. It is for people who are young at heart and ready for the pleasures trees can provide.”

Local tree enthusiast Tod Barnett said that aside from the fun inherent to climbing, it can often be a good source of daily vitamins.

“The Southwest-Johns Landing area has a ton of fig and apple trees perfect for climbing,” he said.

Professional tree climber and Portland State student Ali Sadiq loves tree climbing so much, he has made it his livelihood.

“I climb trees for work. I work at ropes courses. I love climbing trees. The perspective you get from climbing trees is amazing. We are born to climb trees,” he said.

Sadiq added that “we are all really monkeys at heart.”

Sadiq works at Syngero, an adventure team building organization. He runs high ropes courses-obstacle courses set up in trees about 40 feet in the air.

When not hitting the course for work, he too enjoys the urban climbing experience.

“The response is mixed,” he said. “There are a lot of people wondering what the hell I am doing, but they really want to be [climbing] themselves. I could imagine someone in their suit and tie putting down briefcase and climbing up there with me. That’s what I hope to see.”

“It’s just so peaceful,” he continued. “You can be in the middle of a busy, busy street, and when you’re up there, even just 10 feet above ground, you feel like you’re above all the craziness, even though you’re right in the middle of it.”

How to urban tree climb

Choose a tree. This process is much more strenuous than one would expect. Portland is full of trees, but not all are suitable for climbing.

The first factor in finding the ultimate tree for climbing is location. You want to find an area that is public enough for it to still qualify as urban, but secluded enough that you will avoid peeping-tom charges or falling onto a table at some outdoor café.

The second factor is of course the tree itself. Portland loves to look pretty. Because of this, many of our city’s smaller trees are lined with Christmas lights–a delightful part of your nighttime stroll through the Nob Hill District, but a literal pain in the ass during your urban tree-climbing experience.

It’s a simplistic idea, but it must be restated: glass breaks, even little tiny lightbulbs of glass. To avoid the complications these lights ensure, avoid climbing trees full of little tiny pieces of glass. Simple.

One must also look at the strength and structure of the tree. This is the most important factor in a climb. As Newton established all those years ago, most things have the tendency to hit the ground when dropped, people included. Thus, finding a tree that can hold your weight is important if you want to avoid broken bones, head trauma and death.

Test out a tree before throwing your weight onto its branches. Feel free to fondle the tree, get to know the tree and take a moment to observe its overall structure before you commit yourself to climbing it.

A few rules to live by: Dead branches are not good for holding up anyone over six pounds; small branches can be strong at the base, but should be approached tentatively; and if the branch is bigger than your thigh, it can probably hold you.

After you choose a tree, the obvious next step is to climb it

Step 1: Approach the tree.

Step 2: Locate the nearest branch.

Step 3: Make contact with the nearest branch in whatever way possible. Your technique might need to include shimmying, jumping, reaching or using small children as climbing steps.

Step 4: Repeat! You are now urban tree climbing!

The law

It is of course important to note that according to city law, the use of any tree or monument in a public park for climbing is illegal. So up the ante, and try to get away with it across from the police department. Chances are you will come away with a strong reprimand only, but if you would like to avoid all possible altercations with the law, stick to the trees in residential areas, and simply inform the officer that the ordinance he is likely making reference to (20.12.070 from the City Charter) only regulates the use of trees in parks.

Or just tell him you are rescuing your neighbor’s cat and saving taxpayers thousands by not calling the fire department, and if he doesn’t mind, he is making you nervous during your charitable act.