Tree climbing venture offers canopy views for the intrepid

Canopy climbing venture offers treetop views for the intrepid

“Who doesn’t want to climb trees for a living?” asks instructor Shaun Mellor, after guiding a couple to the top of a 200-foot Douglas fir in Deception Pass State Park. Two towering trees, estimated between 200 to 500 years old, are outfitted with ropes for the harness and pulley system used in canopy climbing. AdventureTerra charges $149 per person for the experience that lasts about four hours. Minimum age is 7 years old. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

There’s a new way to get high at Deception Pass State Park. High up, that is, where the eagle-eye view peeks in at people peering down from Deception Pass bridge.

A new adventure sport called canopy tree climbing offered by the Seattle-based company AdventureTerra leads guided tours up towering trees using harnesses, ropes and a hand pulley system.

“It’s a very new novelty and activity,” company founder and owner Leo Fischer said. “We’re one of the largest canopy tree climbing businesses in the nation.”

The cost is $149 per person.

Appointments are made online. A guide meets clients at one of two Douglas firs within the boundary of the state park. Climbers must be at least 7 years old, be reasonably fit, and be ready for a mental and physical challenge that simultaneously thrills, scares and dares them to greater heights.

Participants typically ascend 150 to 200 feet to reach the top, taking anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.

Each climb begins with a safety discussion and equipment demonstration. Guides then lead the climbers up about 30 feet and then teach them the reverse, how to safely go down before aiming for the tippy top.

Upper-arm strength isn’t a requirement. Coordination does help.

“It’s all in the legs. You don’t need massive arms,” explained tree climbing guide Shaun Mellor on a recent Sunday afternoon after taking a couple up and down the climbing tree right near the North Beach parking lot, a popular spot for day tourists.

The other tree used is in a more secluded area, requiring a 15-minute walk in the woods.

Mellor answered a few questions from curious on-lookers as they watched him zip up a tree with super-hero finesse and flair.

“The motion is, you stand up on the foot strap, push the blue handle up, pull up the bottom handle, take another step and push up again,” he said, deftly demonstrating.

“Want to try it? Want to climb a tree?” he shouts down to a man, obviously intrigued.

“I would but I’m afraid of heights,” comes the reply.

“Perfect,” Mellor answers. “This is the best way to overcome that.”

Swinging with grit and a grin, Mellor flies and flits through the air.

“Look, no hands, no fear.”

AdventureTerra founder Fischer says he’s taken many people up a tree who want to get over acrophobia.

“It’s very rare people won’t be able to move past their fear of heights,” said Fischer, 27, who quit law school a few years back to turn his outdoor business ideas into reality. “There was one client who went up about 30 feet and said, ‘Nope, don’t want to do it. Not going to do it.’ And so we went back down.”

Tree climbing is actually illegal in many areas, including public and park lands, and can result in $200 fines.

Fischer set up his first canopy tree climbing operation on Bainbridge Island four years ago. More than one year ago, he decided to see if he could get the necessary permission and permits to lead tree climbing expeditions in Deception Pass State Park.

He’s left the Bainbridge location and set up at the park last year to test the location. Only in operation the past two weeks this season, he’s led 20 boy scouts up a tree (or two). A few couples and solo thrill-seekers have also checked out the treetop view.

AdventureTerra, and its chosen trees, were put through a rigorous inspection before being approved as a park concession, said Jack Hartt, park manager at Deception Pass State Park.

“Last year, we had our forest arborist come out and evaluate the tree, how sound they are, how sturdy, the stability and how healthy they are,” Hartt said.

How the business, its activities and climbers would impact the environment, wildlife, nesting birds and health of the forest was also considered.

“It was quite a lengthy process. It took two to three months,” Hartt said. “We also looked at the company’s insurance, how it was set up and knowledge of safety.”

Hartt said he wasn’t able to arrange a time to go on a climb with Fischer, but other park staff did experience a typical expedition.

As a park concession, a percentage of the company’s profit goes to the park, Hartt explained. There’s a possibility it could expand in the future after a first-year evaluation.

Fischer said recreational tree climbing is “actually one of the safest outdoor adventure sports around.” He noted there hasn’t been a fatality or serious accident associated with it since the founding of it some 30 years ago.

“It’s amazingly safe,” he said. “It’s unlike mountain climbing or rock climbing. These ropes hold 8,000 to 12,000 pounds and they are only holding your body weight.”

Knowing a sweeping panoramic look at the world, forest and ocean awaits is motivating, many customers write in online reviews of AdventureTerra tree climbs.

“The view was breathtaking and the perfect reward for the long climb,” recalled Ishya Silpikul, who climbed with AdventureTerra two years ago when its canopy perch was based on Bainbridge Island. Age 61 at the time, Silpikul climbed with her 13-year-old nephew.

She said in an interview that they both easily caught on to the technique.

“The ideal timing for a climb would be to aim to reach the top just before sunset,” said Silpikul, who lives on Bainbridge Island. “I went up with my nephew because his mother was too afraid go up. I would recommend it as a team-building activity for any teams members who are game.”

Fischer sees canopy climbing as an opportunity for both adults and kids.

“There’s a lot of people who didn’t get to climb trees as a kid,” Fischer said. “They think it’s unsafe or they are afraid of heights. Compared to rock climbing, this is a lot easier. It’s a lot more comfortable and it feels more secure in the harness.”

The ropes and technique used in canopy climbing are based on a pulley and harness system invented in Switzerland in the 1940s to help mountaineers do self-rescues, Fischer explained.

“The technique and devices haven’t changed that much,” he said.

Mellor, 27, drives in from Sedro-Woolley to climb trees for a living.

“My friend saw an ad in Craigslist and told me about it. Now, here I am. I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” he said. “Well, actually, this is only my second week so I haven’t been paid yet.”

Fischer said he expects the tree-climbing season will stretch into October. He’s also trying to get a canopy climbing operation approved in the Lake Quinault area.

“Almost everybody can do this,” he said. “We’ve had someone who was almost 300 pounds get up. It just depends on how strong they are even if they’re overweight. I think my oldest client so far was 89.

“It does take some effort. But if someone can do leg squats, they can do this.”

Guide Shaun Mellor demonstrates the flying fun of canopy tree climbing, a new business concession in Deception Pass State Park. Getting to the top of a 200-foot Douglas fir with ropes and a harness takes about two hours. Then, there’s the rush of the rappel back down. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Tree climbing guide Shaun Mellor ties up ropes at the end of day to keep people from tampering with equipment left on the 200-foot Douglas fir near a parking lot of North Beach at Deception Pass State Park. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times