Room With a View: Recreational Big Tree Climbing

Tourists are discovering sky-high beauty with recreational tree climbing.

BLUE RIVER, Ore., Oct. 23, 2008— -- In the treetops of Oregon's ancient forest, 200 feet in the air, Rob Miron feels right at home. Suspended between heaven and earth, he is high above a tributary of the Blue River.

It is in forests like these that scientists are unlocking mysteries about climate change and ecosystems that hold more than half the species on earth.

It is a special place that Miron has felt destined to share with them.

"I think the first time I put a harness on I was right around 8 years old," he said.

Arborists by trade, Miron and his business partner, Jason Seppa, are taking eco-tourism to new heights. They are pioneering the sport of recreational big tree climbing. Rob's company, "The Pacific Tree Climbing Institute," has helped about 5,000 people climb trees since the company's inception five years ago.

For 24 hours, along with three other novice climbers, I will push my limits.

'Ordinarily, I'm on the Ground'

Miron and Seppa will guide us into the old-growth canopy. We will be atop trees that were already centuries old when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.

If we have the nerve, we will spend the night hundreds of feet in the air, suspended from branches likely never before touched by human hands.

Helen Kennedy, one of my climbing partners, is a fearless 30-year-old veterinarian. Minutes before we start, she assures me she is eager to begin the climb.

"I'm ready for an adventure," she says.

Her husband, Adam, is a forest scientist whose climbing experience ends at the top rung of a ladder.

"Ordinarily, I'm on the ground," he says.

My third climbing companion is Catherine Heising. She's using this climb to mark a personal milestone.

"This is my 50th birthday celebration," she says.

And then, there's me: I'm hoping to cross "climb and sleep in a really big tree" off my life's to-do list.

We will each be on one rope, with no other safety lines.

For Miron and Seppa, this is more than a business. It's a chance to share and teach about a world that few will ever experience.

We hike back into the forest and are speechless as we see for the first time the trees that we will climb.

As magnificent and imposing as these old-growth Douglas firs appear in pictures, it is nothing compared to standing at the base of these behemoths and looking up. Way up.

We try to catch a glimpse of the little hammocks, called "tree boats," that will be our beds.

They look so tiny from the ground.

It makes us wonder if trying to conquer these giants is such a good idea.

'I'm Freaking Out a Little Bit'

"The gold ascender is your upper ascender. Blue ascender is your lower ascender," Miron tells me. "Go ahead and sit back in your harness. Put your feet in the foot stirrups."

He shows me how, one movement at a time, I will rise into the tree tops.

"Hold the rope with your left hand and the ascender with your right hand. Lift your knees toward your chin and raise the lower ascender. Keep your feet directly underneath you. Stand up and push the top ascender up."

And with that, we're on our way. The first 20 or 30 feet are easy.

But the farther we get from the ground, the closer we come to our own fears.

Even our mountain climbing veterinarian is experiencing apprehension she didn't anticipate.

"I'm freaking out a little bit, but I'm relaxing a little bit more now, too," said Kennedy.

There's a whole new reality when you get about 60 feet off the ground and you're hanging by a single rope.

"Looking up, for me, is better than looking down," I tell Miron.

"Then you'd better keep looking up," he says, with a smirk, from about 15 feet over my head.

And up we go.

At about 100 feet, we enter the first stages of the canopy. On those branches are plants you won't see on the ground. They're called epiphytes. They act like sponges and grow without soil.

Our climbing companion, Adam Kennedy, a forest scientist, explained, "The amount of moisture that they hold for the forest is enormous. The forest canopy actually relies on the humidity that they offer to reduce some of the stress that this forest goes through."

These specially adapted plants may be some of the least impressive sights of the day ... but have helped this forest survive thousands of years.

The higher we climb, the more pronounced even the smallest sensations become.

At about 175 feet up, a gust of air or a bump to the rope commands our attention.

Miron reminds us that each rope is designed to hold 7,000 pounds.

We'd all have to be thinking logically for that to matter.

At somewhere around 200 feet, Heising and Adam and Helen Kennedy climb into their "tree boats" -- their nests for the duration.

A Zen Adventure

Miron and I kept climbing ... navigating some tough branches to get to an amazing view -- easy for a pro, not so easy for me.

"Lean back on your rope, lean away from the tree and stand up on those limbs -- and push your top ascender up. Nice, there you go!" Miron says.

The view was spectacular.

"It's like a Zen adventure. It's very calm and at your own pace, but at the same time, you're doing something really extreme, " Miron told me as he perched with me on a branch about 250 feet above the forest floor.

It was strangely relaxing. But he knows what it took to get here.

"You've had to go through different barriers in order to get here though," he said. "It wasn't like that necessarily on the whole way up."

I ask Miron what it's like watching people break those barriers as they make the climb.

"They find a ceiling and figure out what they need to do to be able to break through that and continue on to the next part of the expedition," he says. "And I think that the personal growth lets people understand who they are and understand what they're capable of, and a lot more. I think people don't really give themselves enough credit for what they're able to do."

This is the fifth season for "The Pacific Tree Climbing Institute." Miron says his career is something he never could have imagined. He and Seppa have pioneered techniques that make them welcome in the most pristine and protected of forests.

"You really have to get innovative with your different techniques and ideas to be able to make the canopy accessible for everybody, but also make it so you're not impacting the tree," says Miron.

Miron and I make our way down to the others, who are settled in their "tree boats" at about 200 feet up. We eat our meals, strangely comfortable and trusting of the branch that holds us.

As night closes in, it is calm.

And we awaken, barely noticing our perch.

Seppa appears out of nowhere, hanging alongside my "tree boat" with a hot thermos of coffee and the fragrance of peppermint steam rising from a warm washcloth. It is the ultimate wake-up call from a night sleeping in the old-growth forest.

'Amazing. Really Amazing'

One by one, we drop from our tree boats, descending like spiders on a line, and finally touch the familiar ground, bringing with us something from this other world.

"It's going to take me a long time to comprehend," says Heising.

Helen Kennedy feels much the same.

"It actually surprised me a lot," she says. "I have never found myself to have a fear of heights. It was different though. It's very different from being on a mountain top. It's something that I can't describe in words."

Her husband, Adam, is already thinking about their return.

"It'll be an amazing experience coming back here, after these ropes are gone in 50 years, and say, we were up there 50 years ago and the trees are still there. So amazing. Really amazing."

Life-changing for us. Everyday life for Seppa and Miron.

Click HERE for more information on the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute.