Using a rope, sling, harness and a few well-timed breaks, Nicole Tsong branches out into guided canopy climbing.
I WAS REALLY focused on my technique — feet under me in a squat-like stance, standing, and then moving my ascenders up the rope — when my climbing guide, Leo Fischer, pointed out we were above the alders.
That meant we were about 150 feet in the air.
I looked down. I didn’t freak out, which was a strange sensation while climbing a 200-foot Douglas fir.
I have a solid fear of heights. But climbing through the layers of forest canopy at Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island felt different from rock climbing or sports that put you up high: The pine-needle-carpeted ground looked soft; the tree branches fanning out below felt close. All my weight was settled in my harness.
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I wanted to go up.
I thought I would use my feet on the tree trunk while climbing, but Fischer, owner of AdventureTerra, told me they keep their feet off the trunk as much as possible. Trees are tough, withstanding intense wind, but he wants them to maintain their natural moss and other features.
So, he and his guides teach people how to climb using ascenders on ropes, snug in a harness. You get a sling for your feet to help you get up the rope. It’s basically air squats and pulling.
Fischer told me not to use my biceps: easier said than done. I had to rest frequently, swinging gently in my harness and gazing at the forest. Guides also can help people climb with a pulley system.
Once you reach branches, you can climb the old-fashioned way, using your feet.
On our first tree, the branches were spread out, so I used my rope to get to a perch and rested there. A hammock was set up nearby; Fischer had slept there the night before, testing a future offering: sleeping in the trees.
We were on the south side of Deception Pass, on a tree near the beach. The peekaboo view had grown progressively more beautiful as we climbed.
At my final perch, I had the same vantage as a bald eagle (we could hear some twittering nearby) — views of the coastline, the swirling waters of Deception Pass, the grand bridge and the northern end of the park.
I hugged the tree’s trunk and said a silent thank you. I had never felt such kinship with a tree.
I chose an apple from the snacks I had brought, which Fischer carried up. It seemed the safest choice, in case I dropped it. We hung out in the branches, listening for birds.
He asked whether I was up for climbing another tree. I was tired, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go.
He hooked me into a grigri, a device climbers use to belay, and I lowered myself to the bottom.
We bushwhacked to the other tree, deeper in the forest.
Fischer pointed out younger grand firs, which grow in the shade of the Douglas firs that in several hundred years might surpass them in height.
For the final chunk of the second tree, I had to climb branches to get to the top. Fischer hooked me into another rope. I couldn’t see much and was covered in branch bits and sap.
Once I got to the top and peered out, the view was spectacular. I could see Mount Baker, Deception Pass and the Olympics. On a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier, Fischer said.
I could see over the tree tops, and it felt like I was floating above the clouds.
I also was tired, and didn’t linger long. We lowered ourselves down.
Climbing a tree sounded nerve-wracking. In reality, it was so natural. I loved being in the branches, admiring the view and being at the same level as the birds. Canopy climbing is worth every tired muscle.