Go Climb a Tree!

Out on a Limb

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 17, 2001 -- After working a 12-hour shift as a labor and delivery nurse, some women would seek stress relief in an aerobics class or a long, hot bath. Nancy Cole, a 53-year-old nurse and mother of two who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., prefers to climb a Jeffrey pine, nestle her face into the jigsaw bark, and inhale the butterscotch aroma.

When she returns to earth, the arboreal workout leaves Cole glowing and renewed. As husband Bobby Cole says: "I always know when she's been up in a tree. She has a look on her face like she's transcended the earth for a bit."

More and more adults are rediscovering the rejuvenating benefits of tree climbing, thanks to the efforts of Atlanta tree surgeon Peter "Treeman" Jenkins. Jenkins established the world's first recreational tree-climbing school in 1983 in an Atlanta vacant lot.

Go Out on a Limb

And the new sport has caught on. Folks are flocking to Atlanta to climb Jenkins' two 90-foot white oaks, Nimrod and Diana.

"I want to return the human race to the trees," says Jenkins, an elfish man who fields calls on a cell phone from high in a tree and usually sports a caterpillar or an ant on his shoulder. "People get a better perspective of their life and the world from up here."

Jenkins' organization, Tree Climbers International, doubled its membership over 2 years. And four new climbing schools, inspired by the Treeman, have sprouted in the United States The schools are located in Kansas City, Kan., Charlotte, N.C., and Fayetteville and Alto, Ga. New tree-climbing schools also debuted in France, Germany, and Japan.

The booming interest in tree climbing reflects, in part, the public's weariness with rote gym-based workouts. "Exercisers get bored quickly," says Christine Ekeroth, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise.

As a result, Ekeroth's organization has predicted that activities like tree climbing will be increasingly popular in coming years. "Adventure workouts," as the council calls them, involve elements of the natural world -- rocks, trees, mountains -- and are more spontaneous and varied than workouts with weights and treadmills.

Go Outside and Play

The play element is also a big draw for exercisers, says Ekeroth. Folks are flocking to play-filled classes that teach circus skills and to so-called "recess" classes that revive long-forgotten games like four-square and tag. "The emphasis is on having fun instead of building a specific muscle group," Ekeroth says.

While anyone can get a taste of fun by climbing (carefully) the backyard oak, Jenkins can take you higher than you'd likely care to climb on your own. By using harnesses and ropes like those used by rock climbers and arborists, Jenkins' students safely launch themselves 70 feet and more into the treetops. Advanced students may want to try "tree surfing" -- riding swaying limbs in high winds. They can also try throwing a catered treetop party or traversing from treetop to treetop and camping out in aerial hammocks called "tree boats."

Using Jenkins' methods, there seems to be little risk of falling. In nearly two decades of leading novices up trees, Jenkins reports no injuries more serious than a few hair yanks and mild cases of "bark bite."

Yet you don't have to climb high to have fun. For some people, their workout is a success when they find the perfect daydreaming perch.

Cole learned all about dreaming in trees when she was just 5 years old and started climbing the big maples behind her Evansville, Ind., home. Her mother would call, "Nancy Louise, you come down from that tree! You're going to kill yourself up there!" Which, of course, only prompted Cole to climb higher.

Like an Inchworm

Cole, an exuberant woman with a mane of red hair, eventually returned to earth long enough to marry and have two sons. But when, as a middle-aged adult, she heard about the school in Atlanta, Cole immediately signed up for a class -- no matter that she had to fly across the country. Here was an opportunity to go out on a limb again and to safely build balance, flexibility, and strength.

At tree-climbing school, Cole strapped into a climber's harness and then clipped an attached carabiner to a rope that dangled from Jenkin's oak tree, the brawny 90-foot Nimrod. The climbing rope was tied with a special knot that makes it easy for climbers to ascend without using a lot of upper-body strength.

Moving up the rope like an inchworm, Cole was soon dangling high above the ground. The technique is so simple, says Jenkins, that it's easily mastered by climbers of all ages, from 5 to 70. A bonus: The method employs no spikes or other devices that could harm the tree. As Jenkins likes to remind climbers: "Diana and Nimrod are living things."

On Cole's first climb with Jenkins, she reveled in the feeling of flying free under the green canopy where the branches of Diana and Nimrod meet overhead. ("I think of Diana and Nimrod as married," says Jenkins.)

Cole found a cradle where two branches met, settled her body into the nook, and surveyed the world from her leafy hideout -- just as she had when, as a kid, she toted her dolls into the backyard maple.

Cole has completed four classes at Jenkins' school and has been trained as an instructor, so she can teach recreational tree climbing to others near her home.

She's already passed on her love of tree climbing to at least one protégé: her son. When Aaron was 5, Cole says, he began to scale the 40-foot oak in the backyard -- and fell the short distance to the ground.

"Don't move!" Cole shouted, and ran to his aid. Aaron was lying on his back staring up at his mom and wailing. "Does your back hurt?" Cole asked.


"Do your arms hurt? Your legs?"


"Then why are you crying?"

"Because I'm afraid you won't let me get back up in the tree," said Aaron Hendry, now an adult, and, like his mother, still climbing trees.

Ann Japenga is a contributing editor to Health magazine and a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times.