The greatest kind of tree climber is the one who climbs with the barest disturbance to living trees and their inhabitants. This climber knows how important trees are to the environment everywhere and to all air-breathing creatures on this earth. The greatest kind of tree climber is all too aware that he is the visitor, only a visitor, and not the keeper of what he surveys.
To protect the tree, you must inspect it before you climb. Only then can a climber decide that a tree is suitable for a climb and strong enough to support a climber. There are four zones of tree inspection to satisfy (primarily based on A Climberís Guide to Tree Inspection of Tree Climbers International). The first is the Wide Angle View Zone. You inspect the tree from a distance, maybe 30-70 feet (depending on the size of the tree). You want to get a picture of it as a unit, in its own space.
Large cracks or splits down the trunk or along a large branch are more readily seen from a distance, as are weakened or fractured branches that appear to need just the slightest nudge before they plummet to the ground. The lean of a tree is much easier to detect from a distance than if you were standing beneath itóas are power lines. Do not climb near power lines. Just donít do it. Take your time, moving slowly around the tree. Donít rush. Give each tree the attention it deserves.
Now youíll inspect the Ground Zone. This is the area around the base of the tree, including its exposed root system, as well as a few feet up the tree trunk. Be mindful of where you place your feet, and donít take steps unless your eyes are on the ground. Take care not to damage what may be delicate or rare plants. Do not disturb nesting sites, actual nests, hives, burrows or the like. You are just visiting and donít forget it.
While inspecting the Ground Zone, there are some tell signs to look for.
◦ If there are dead branches lying on the ground, step away from the tree and look up. Do a closer inspection of the canopy for other dead branches that havenít quite found their way down yet.
◦ Check for a trunk cavity, especially along the base of the tree. Its presence usually indicates a weakening of the entire tree, especially if there are multiple cavities. The same is true for splits or cracks in the trunk. Multiple cracks or splits may mean that the tree is in danger of breaking.
◦ If you notice cracked or raised soil at the base of a tree, itís a possible sign of uprooting, especially if itís opposite the leaning side of a leaning tree. Be mindful of fungal growth on or around the base of a tree. It is indicative of trunk rot and root decay, because fungi only grow on dead and decaying matter. If a tree has lost all its anchoring roots (which hold the tree in place), a soft wind or the weight of rainwater on leaves could actually topple the entire tree.
Now youíll inspect the Trunk Zone. There are several warning signs of tree weakness to look for. As previously mentioned, a tree with an extreme trunk lean requires ground inspection for signs of being uprooted. Insect infestation can be detected without special training. Signs to look for:
◦ Completely dead isolated branches in the canopy
◦ A dead top, which is a completely dead canopy
◦ Sawdust type patches on the trunk
◦ Pitch tubes on the trunk, which are light colored sap clusters
◦ Unusual color patches
◦ Mottled leaves or a uniform degradation of the structure of the leaves
Other important signs to look for: The absence of bark on a trunk could mean fungal growth or a dead section. Lightning strikes are often indicated by a long bare strip. Trees with multiple trunks show weakness if the trunks form a nearly closed ďVĒ. If you see a ridge of wood growing downwards on both sides of the connected trunks, it could mean that the tree is strengthening a weak area or that thereís a fracture under the surface.
Abnormalities in the Crown Zone (canopy) usually involve dead wood. Large trees will naturally have dead branches but it is the location of these branches that you need to pay close attention to. Unhealthy trees often have branches dying only at their tips. If a large number of these dead branches are high in the canopy, it means that the tree is in the process of dying. Individual dead branches will have brown leaves or no leaves at all. Loss of bark or fungal growth is symptomatic of a dying or dead branch.
Point of interest. Life-threatening branches that are already broken but are still lodged in a tree are called widow-makers. They need to be avoided at all costs. When you can do it safely, remove dead, decaying or infected branches. If safety isnít secured, avoid these branches from a safe distance. Be very careful not to trim green wood or living branches. If you can help it at all, just leave it be.
In the end, when the climbing is done and youíre standing on the ground, the greatest kind of tree climber leaves with not the littlest indication that he or she was there. This climber is only a visitor. Remember: We climb to enjoy. Not to control. Be safe up there!