It’s true — I am totally afraid of heights. I get terribly nervous looking over the edge of even the shortest roof. That said, I never imagined what my reaction might hold, confronted with the climb of a tree magnitudes taller than any I had seen in nature. Sometimes life brings us to these crossroads, a fork in the road to our comfort zone. In this case, I felt a paralyzing, enveloping anxiety throughout my being. We arrived at the climb-site in the final days of March; a first view brought the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains into obvious contrast with the old-growth, redwood giant known only by the moniker: Grandfather. Over 200ft tall, close to a millennia in age, with a base formed of sheer width — I was quietly screaming inside. The day persisted as we greeted our climbing guides and the others expected to join us on the climb. All the while, noting my inner-sense of doubt, the dialogue within myself — “there is no way I can do this.” At this point it was evident that panic had set in, a fear that I would freeze on the climb, completely vulnerable to nature, let alone people I admire and care for.
Time inevitably did not yield. We were outfitted, and shortly thereafter we headed towards the renowned redwood. As we stopped at its base, I looked up at the incredulous presence and beauty of the giant. It was wider than a city bus, it jetted into the sky… a lumbering giant. The fear I had felt slowly began to be overtaken by a sense of wonder, awe, and respect. As we started our climb, my heart began to race uncontrollably, my thoughts were scrambled. I did what I could to focus on the basics, managing my climbing gear and repeating to myself the instructions our guide had given us just moments ago: “Right over left, sit, push and pull.” Feeling a little more grounded, I noticed the happy emotions of my co-climbers as we began the ascent.
As we climbed higher, I started to get the hang (no pun intended) of the harnessing equipment, and as well, the unfamiliar rhythm of using my limbs in a ‘sit, push and pull’ motion. My heart beat faster as objects on the ground started appearing smaller. After every 20ft or so, our climbing guide, Jessica, would stop to share with us a little about the old growth redwoods, like how researchers are discovering new creatures in the previously unexplored canopies. One example, the recently discovered Humboldt Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys oregonensis). With a unique anatomy which makes them perfectly suited for cruising through the redwood canopy, the only reason researchers discovered them is that between their arms and legs, there is a thin area of bio-fluorescence. As the researchers shined a flashlight into the canopy, light was reflected off this area of their bodies, catching unprecedented attention and excitement.
Our climb continued, now at about 80ft, Jessica told us to let go of Grandfather — to turn and face the forest. I can't describe how freaked out I was to let go. Perspective is relative, and as I stared into the forest, looking across to the other amazing redwoods, there was no visual indicator that gave-away how high into the tree we truly were. It looked just like it did from the ground. I felt alright with this view, until I looked down to see the picnic table in the field below. It appeared at-most, half the size as it did while on the ground. There was no denying this proof as to how far we had actually climbed. My mind raced about how crazy this was, what if the rope breaks, what if I fall, what if there is an earthquake and the tree falls over, about loved ones, and so on.
Without sounding sappy (no pun intended), that’s the type of experience, a defining moment in one's life. Sure, I could stop and make an excuse to climb down, that my hands were tired or my legs had worn out. Or, I could keep going. The logical part of my mind stuck to replaying Tim’s words during the orientation, "No one had ever gotten hurt or died on our watch,” but the irrational side of myself thought the worst, that ‘I’m the one!’ Maybe it was my 25 years of martial arts training, or the calm demeanor of Jessica, my guide — maybe it was the fact that I didn't want the experience of this magic moment to be clouded, one which I was so fortunate to be a part of. I could not let fear be the deciding factor of my experience. I knew that if I did, I would regret it, so instead I kept telling myself that ‘I have to see the ocean’ from the top of Grandfather.
I turned back towards the ancient tree, starting to focus on the contour of the massive bark, to feel the tree as I hugged it (no tree-hugger jokes). Red-tailed hawks singing in the distance, the wind in my face, the power of this magnificent tree shot into the far reaches of the open sky. My thoughts drifted to the magical and lumbering giants from the Lord of The Rings, the Ents. Old and wise, with a name so old it has its own story. In that moment — if Grandfather had spoken to me, I would have not at all been surprised.
As I climbed further, I started to recall as a child how fun it was to climb. I would find the biggest branches that I could manage, and imagine myself in a faraway land where anything was possible. How natural it felt, as if ingrained in my DNA. These thoughts were playful and grounding, helpful as I felt a more natural sense of relaxation connecting with this famed redwood. With this focus I sensed its raw power; a hard to describe, visceral, and primal sentience. As we entered the next level of canopy, for the first time I was able to see sunlight just above me. Excited, by now I realized the height we had reached — about 160ft into the sky. That same picnic table appeared exponentially smaller, a fraction of size from when I first fixated on it.
As I came over the last limb, I felt the sun hit my face, I could see the ocean in the distance! A perfect vantage point to view the entirety of the Santa Cruz mountains. Right alongside some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, a surge of emotion swelled inside me. I just felt grateful. The fear and anxiety I had felt, the excitement and panic — the need to keep climbing — it all came up at once. It truly was like in a novel or movie, when the main character triumphs in the face of adversity and comes out of the other end of whatever it may be: a tunnel, a plane, war, or a long and dangerous night.
The image of where the sun hits their face, they are free, they have victory. The ‘Hero's Journey’ is as old as humanity itself. I'm not saying I'm a hero, but in that moment I felt right there with all the old characters that I have read of since antiquity. The moral of the story? Everyone needs to create opportunities, to find themselves as the hero of their own journey.
I have to give a shout out to the amazing and wonderful crew of The Tree Climbing Planet. Truly special people. Tim, Chris and Jessica — you guys were amazing. Special shout out to Jessica who’s steady and calming patience set the stage for my journey. Thank you all for making this happen. I'm sincerely honored and blessed to have had this incredible adventure. A big shout out to Andy – thanks for sending me in the direction of another profound experience. And to Lisa – who was cool with the whole thing - Love you.