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I Went to a Tree Climbing School to Overcome My Fear of Failure

At Tree Climbing Planet, "time stands still and your inner child lives."

by Leah Sottile
24 August 2016, 4:00am

All photos by the author

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

There were sun-withered leaves and clods of moss in my hair and about 25 feet of pure, clear country air separating my fragile skeleton from the hard, unforgivable ground. I'd taken great lengths to preserve my life for the past 35 years—which I had now, for a reason I do not fully understand, dangled by a single knotted rope from an Oregon white oak tree at a place called Tree Climbing Planet.

My instructor, Tim Kovar, kept reminding me and the other dangling people of the importance of that rope, as it alone was keeping us from falling to possible death.

The first time he said it was earlier that morning, as we stood in the dry grass tying knots. "This is going to be what we're clipping our life into!" Kovar had shouted. There was a hipster film guy wearing a spotless white T-shirt and pendant necklace, a guy with a bed and breakfast in Costa Rica who wanted to offer tree tours to his guests, a mom who wanted to build treehouses, and her 16-year-old son, who told the group he was here "because she made me." They all seemed like they were soaking this in more than I was.

I am not a risk-taker. I do not like adrenaline. I was that kid who waited in line to meet Santa Claus and fled because it made me too anxious. And so up in the tree, I felt the familiar instinct to run.

But I couldn't, because I couldn't get down. I was trapped, gripping the rope, thinking to myself, What kind of idiot goes up without a plan to come down?

Tree Climbing Planet is a plot of 150 acres of farmland south of Portland, Oregon, where people come from around the world to learn how to recreationally climb trees. Most students stay for a week to immerse themselves in knot-tying and rope inspecting and the gear they need to climb safely. (Some just come for a day, like I did, to learn the basics of climbing.) By the end of their week, students will be so comfortable ascending into the trees that they will string hammocks—called "treeboats" by recreational climbers—between branches and sleep under the stars some 40 feet in the air.

In 1993, after working as an arborist, he became involved with Atlanta's Tree Climbers International (TCI), a recreational tree-climbing organization that developed the standards for safety and instruction now used by other recreational tree-climbers and training organizations. There, he learned about recreational tree-climbing from the company's founder, Peter "Treeman" Jenkins.

At the first class he observed at TCI's tree school, Kovar noticed the climbers weren't the traditional climbing types he'd come to know. "I see two 75-year-old grandmas. I see this punk rock kid," he told me. "I kind of whisper to Pete, 'This is never going to work.'"

But it did work: The grandmas went up high in the tree, laughing, swinging from the branches. The punk rock kid started talking to a conservative couple.

"All these different types of people from different walks of life are all getting together and getting along in the treetop," Kovar told me. "It was just people being people. And it moved me inside."

Since Kovar started his own tree climbing school ten years ago, he's taken his programs around the world. Tree Climbing Planet operates in Tennessee, Georgia, Nebraska, Hawaii, and Brazil, and Kovar teaches one-off courses around the world. In early August, he was in Sweden; later this year, he'll be in Malaysia. But the Oregon spot is his home base, where he lives in a cottage and has a treehouse and a teepee.

The gear that would be my lifeline

Up there in the trees, as Kovar was aiding other students and I hung there staring at bark, I remembered the last time I climbed a tree. It was the summer after sixth grade.

My first boyfriend—as in, he told me I was his girlfriend— was a pale kid with a bowl cut named Bowie. I hadn't talked or looked at him at all when we were in school, but I remember meeting him at the tree at the end of our street one day.

It was a tall, pine-needled tree on the edge of a low hill, which everyone climbed when I was a kid. My friends and I would sit there and talk about clubs we should start or the boys who yelled at us as we walked to school. We'd perch up there, high above everything, hands sappy, staring out at our world: a row of low-slung houses with rose bushes and green lawns.

It's not like I wasn't afraid to fall. I just knew that being up there was more fun than being on the ground.

That summer day, Bowie and I climbed up to the first set of sitting branches. He fished a red-and-black friendship bracelet he'd made out of his pocket and handed it to me. When I took it, my stomach turned. Maybe it was the seriousness of the moment to my 12-year-old self.

Not long after, I told Bowie I didn't want to be his girlfriend anymore. I took his friendship bracelet off.

The tree just wasn't the same after that, wasn't carefree or a place of escape. It was tainted, and even more, it felt silly to climb a tree as a middle schooler. There were things on the ground to worry about: makeup and mix tapes and boys and getting my braces off.

Kovar could tell that I was terrified, so he instructed me to breathe and work my way through my fear by checking my knots. "I'm totally OK," I told him, even though I was totally not OK as I inspected the snake-like rope.

Kovar was tethered to a rope between me and Micah, the 16-year-old kid in a Slipknot shirt who came here with his mom. Kovar told the kid to make sure his knots didn't slip, and we all busted up laughing. I felt better after that.

"Do you want to climb higher?" Kovar asked me. I did not, but I heard myself saying, "I'll probably regret it later if I don't!" He gave me a nod and went around the trunk to help the kid, who had just untied something he shouldn't have.

I went up, pushing my left hand upward against the blake's hitch knot I'd tied, pausing, readjusting my foot loops, standing, pushing the knot again. It was almost hypnotic.

Kovar caught up to me, and we hung there, some 30 feet up. I thought I would come up here and find something childlike inside myself—some reincarnation of the light I've lost along the way. I'm not sure I feel that, but the view was nice.

Soon, Kovar showed me how to get back on the ground again. I lowered myself down slowly, inch by inch, avoiding any possibility of a sudden drop. By the time I was back on the ground, everyone else had already packed up their gear and moved to a circle of camp chairs across the field.

I asked Kovar how high up we went, and he said probably about 40 feet. That number seemed so unbelievably small.

Normally, I would rush to catch up with the group. I would be beating myself up inside for being last when I usually try so hard to be first at everything. But I didn't, because all I could think was that, for once, I didn't chicken out. I stuck with it. I learned that I can tie knots that can support my life if I needed to.

And that alone made me feel the weight of a thousand years drop off my shoulders, and I realized maybe that's what Kovar means when he says you'll feel like a kid again in the trees. You can still surprise yourself. You are teachable. You are capable. For someone like me—someone who has always been a little scared of falling to your death, of failing—feeling like a kid is that feeling of knowing you can do something.

Funny how the years teach you to forget that.

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