Article appeared Sunday, June 27, 2015 in the Dallas Morning News
Dangling from a tree limb, soothed by soft breezes, frills of lime-green leaves and mountain views, my worries disappear like the fog we climbed through to get up this poplar.
Some of my happiest hours as a child were spent climbing trees. To recapture that joy, I signed up for a guided climb in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in April.
The guide, Bob Wray, belongs to a small, passionate fraternity of expert recreational tree climbers who guide thrill-seekers up trees. He launched Blue Ridge Tree Climbing 10 years ago after perfecting his techniques, which involve ropes tied with several kinds of knots.
“I’m a knots guy,” Wray says. Good thing, since our progress — and lives — depend on them.
“It’s simple, but the first 12 feet are not easy,” he tells us about his method. He guides folks of all levels and ages on his acreage in Meadows of Dan, a scenic mountain meander south from Roanoke, and nearby at Primland, a luxury resort with eclectic offerings from golf to geocaching to clay-shooting.
The area’s carpeted with oak, hickory, poplar and other trees, ablaze with brilliant and muted greens until its famous fall color sets in.
At the get-go, he dismisses my concerns about hoisting my weight. “My approach is technique-based, not strength-based,” he says.
For my first climb, I face a different challenge: Rain-soaked bark guarantees my feet will slip. Don’t worry, Wray says; his technique doesn’t require steady trunk contact. “Be prepared to slip!”
Don’t even think about cleats or other equipment that would leave a trace. Wray has the utmost respect for trees, our silent climbing partners that invigorate us with oxygen and beauty.
Up, up and away
Having chosen a poplar for our climb, Wray demonstrates how to put on the safety harness and use various carabiners, metal coupling links with safety closures.
Next, climbing basics: Place either foot in a yellow loop, lift that knee, lightly grip the running rope with both hands beneath the top knot (no death grip needed), thrust the loop foot downward and stand up straight without leaning into the tree, use one hand to push up the top knot, then sit down in the harness and relax.
Sounds complicated, but after a few clumsy tries, I discover what “a good one” feels like: natural and energy-efficient. Resting a few moments in the harness between upward thrusts is key to a fun climb without huffing and puffing. “You want to conserve energy,” Wray says.
During some rest stops, I swing. It’s a freeing feeling. My body senses the security of the knots system. I am not going down. Wray says there’s no need to watch the Blake’s Hitch that, when pushed up with my hand, locks in place until my next push. “Trust the knot — it will always be there.”
Hanging on a limb
Wray has climbed overhead to attach, using only ropes, a hanging chair complete with foot rest. Here I rest before heading to higher branches, maybe 60 feet up. Breezes gently rock the chair like a cradle.
Wray sets up ropes on higher limbs so we can continue upward, and we do. The foray ends with rappelling down to terra firma.
Unless lightning’s in the forecast, Wray is usually out “vertical hiking” favorite trees named for beloved people and dogs. His office is an open-sided shelter, his conference room a clearing with scrap-wood stools circling a fire pit. “There’s a euphoria, a calmness, a magical thing that happens every time I climb,” he says. “It’s an addiction, a good addiction.”
Above it all
While swaying aloft, I ask about climbers who get cold feet. Wray recalls a woman who stopped, not far off the ground, gripped by fear. But she pushed upward, eventually reaching the air-chair. That’s where she stayed, for 45 minutes, as Wray guided her husband to higher altitudes. When they returned, she was sound asleep in the chair, her blissful expression suggesting extreme satisfaction.
The fog lifts to reveal a 360-degree view of mountains carpeted by trees. Glorious shades of green include the lime hue of leaves adorning our poplar. Between the Blue Ridge beauty and feel-like-a-kid-again thrills, I’ve forgotten the past and future. It’s time to relax in the now.