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People Find Themselves Up a Tree, and Like It


Climbing trees is an activity no longer limited to children, cats, squirrels and monkeys. Adults around the globe are scampering up trees for inspiration and exercise. Tree climbing classes and clubs have taken root in Japan, Germany, Australia, Botswana, Finland and the United States.

Sometimes hugging a tree isn't enough. That's when "Ponderosa" Harv Teitelbaum comes to the rescue.

Standing in a suburban Denver park, in front of a group of about a half-dozen grown-ups and kids, he raises his arms high and instructs them, “Okay, so let's pretend that you're a tree. Reach down and get some water out of the ground and bring it up through the trunk, out to the branches…” Without a snicker, his class follows suit.

The gray-haired college professor has the body of a college athlete and the energy to match. He has his charges stretch their limbs by gyrating wildly, as if they were being buffeted by a strong wind. “But then we get a big chinook and the whole trunk is moving. The whole trunk! But don't get blown over! You're still rooted to the ground. Very nice, very nice. Good trees, good trees!”

The group is gathered under the towering cottonwood tree that they'll be climbing today. Janet Gunn is the ancient Redwood among this group. She's raven-haired, strong and, well, no longer a sapling. “I'm 60 years old,” she freely admits, “and I think I never climbed a tree after I was 10. Fifty years ago! Just yesterday,” she adds with a laugh.

Gunn grabs hold of one of the ropes that's looped over a wide branch, which will act as a pulley. She steps into a canvas harness that looks like a fancy diaper and turns to Teitlebaum for final adjustments. “Everything is perfect,” he tells her. “Everything is exactly like it's supposed to be.”

Gunn pulls down on one end of the rope, which slowly raises her up, bit by bit. As she strains to lift herself, she tells him, “It seems like my legs should be out there.” As her ascent gets easier, she starts humming the song “Inchworm.”

High above her, on the other side of the tree, Jacques Moreau, 9, and Jeffrey Reed, 7, are hanging out about two stories above the ground. They're seasoned backyard tree climbers, what enthusiasts call "free climbing." But that limits them to trees with low branches. Learning to use ropes has opened up a sky-high playground for them. “[There are] squirrels running all over the place,” says Jacques. “You can see the top of the trees better.” Jeffrey points out, “The higher you go, the people are smaller.”

Tree climbers enjoy this bird's eye view from ancient Hinoki trees in Japan, oak trees in the Netherlands and spruce trees in Taiwan. Nearly all of the foreign instructors - and the American ones, too - learned their craft from Peter Jenkins of Atlanta. The city's senior arborist founded recreational tree climbing 23 years ago, after people watching him scale the branches pined for a chance to get up in the tree themselves and play. “I'd be laughing and screaming and yelling,” he recalls, “just happy as a lark that here I am climbing, I'm making a living climbing, it's fun and exciting.”

Jenkins, now known as The Treeman, has given thousands an introductory course in tree climbing, using two oak trees on his property as the classroom. The former rock climber prefers scaling trees because he says it's less dangerous, more shady and, above all, relaxing. “Sometimes I think it's maybe a genetic response because it used to be a place of safety for us, as humans. Trees. During the day, we'd do our foraging and then we'd go up in the trees at night time. So I think something like that kicks in because when you get into the tree branch system, it just seems calm.” He compares the feeling to coming home.

Harv Teitlebaum, who learned his technique from Jenkins, says tree climbing gives him a new perspective. “It's another world. It's vertical. We go on our vacations hundreds of miles horizontally, when you can just go 100 feet vertical and totally escape, but escape back into yourself almost… into something that is the core of who we are.”

At his outdoor class, the Denver tree climbers celebrate as one of their own successfully returns to mother earth. Janet Gunn is getting her land legs back after an extended stay in the canopy. The 60-year-old says it was a trip back in time, to when she was growing up in Kansas. Smiling and teary eyed, she says she met her former self, and “my [inner] kid got to play today and she's pretty excited about that.” Being in the treetops touched some feelings she hadn't had in a long time, she admits, adding she was kind of wishing her brothers were there with her.

Whether emotional or not, the climbers agree that a trip through the foliage is at the very least an adventure. As one said, “sometimes you have to branch out and try something new.”