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Changing lives on tree at a time

Blog post written by: David Anderson (Canopy watch international)

Trepadores every one. Hardy climbers and instructors Discovering the Canopy the Colombia way. Photo © Felipe Barrera
Trepadores every one. Hardy climbers and instructors Discovering the Canopy the Colombia way. Photo © Felipe Barrera

“clap . . . clap . . . clap-clap-clap

clap . . . clap . . . clap-clap-clap”

The sound of clapping hands  splashing through the tropical forest of Colombia, growing in volume, bouncing off tree trunks and leaves,

“clap . . . clap . . . clap-clap-clap”

louder and louder, until the refrain reaches  a crescendo, joined by a call: “UNO . . . DOS . . . TRES . . . ¡TREPADORES!” 24 voices shouting in unison “¡CLIMBERS!”

And so begins a typical day  for the decidedly atypical Descubriendo el Dosel 2019 (Discovering the Canopy 2019), our most ambitious climber training ever. In a burst of applause, 19 students and four instructors spread into the forest, helmets on heads, ropes in hands, in search of trees to climb and new skills to learn and master.

During a steamy, sunny week at the Río Claro Nature Reserve in Colombia, we have a big target ahead of us: Turn 19 biologists from Latin America--novice climbers every one—into competent and confident tree climbers, ready to return home to ascend their own local forests for conservation research that no one else is doing. It’s a part of our mission to bring canopy access—and canopy conservation—to the world, one climber and one country at a time.

Climber training is a beautiful thing. Every tree is a riddle to solve, every technique and piece of equipment is new. Men and women who spend their lives walking the ground and who normally consider heights a dangerous thing are now asked to hang their lives on ropes that have the diameter of a dime. Below each tree two biologists sporting bright yellow Petzl helmets shout encouragement and advice to their colleagues nervously making their way up, down, and around lush tropical trees. Instructors on Yale ropes keep an eye on technical details, watching for safety every second. By opening the minds of students, and leading them to unlock problems for themselves, they will be prepared for the careers to come when no one will be there to explain what to do next or to check on their safety.

ClimbingArborist Blog - Training in the tropical rainforest
The essence of climber training: students on rope, in trees, learning from each other in challenges they couldn’t have predicted. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas.

We are here to teach and learn. Every day there are new pieces of equipment that are introduced, their proper and improper uses explained. How do you arm a climbing system to get you up a rope efficiently and safely? Where do you attach ropes to your harness when you’re climbing vs. when securing your position to a trunk or branch? Hands, arms, legs all repeat new motions so many times that they start to react with muscle memory that didn’t exist a week earler, until a motion that felt unnatural and clumsy on Day 1 happens smoothly and instinctively on Day 5. And always there are the trees. How do you put a climbing rope 100 feet into a tree while standing on the ground? How do you move across the entire width of a tree while suspended on a rope? How would you go out on a branch, then lock into your position so you can install a camera trap without swinging out of place? These images are textbook definitions of training.

 

Yet we work on something more fundamental than equipment function and muscle memory: We work on the heart. New climbers are trusting their lives to us every day.“Walk out on that branch 20 feet. Trust me.” More importantly, minute by minute, hour by hour, we build their trust in each other and in themselves, for preparation when we’re gone. “Swing your body from this tree to that one and stay put. Trust yourself.” Conquering fear with trust builds self confidence and changes lives. It takes the old you and makes someone who is stronger and wiser, who is able to do more and better work. The hand clap that calls all climbers back to base before and after every exercise? It’s no accident. It takes the role of authority, and of trust, from the hands of instructors and puts it directly into the hands of the students. Quite simply, it takes a group of students and instructors and makes us family.

Textbook photo for the definition of “climber training”: Luz Adriana Molina limbwalking and pushing beyond her limits. Photo © David L. Anderson
Textbook photo for the definition of “climber training”: Luz Adriana Molina limbwalking and pushing beyond her limits. Photo © David L. Anderson

If there is one lesson that came out of this grand experience it is this: Dream Big. The idea behind Descubriendo el Dosel 2019 was grand and big, improbable if not impossible. We sought no less than to hand the reigns of conservation science over to local biologists who live and breath and work and raise families in imperiled forests.

Family. It makes us stronger and better, and is what Descubriendo el Dosel is all about. Photo © Felipe Barrera.
Family. It makes us stronger and better, and is what Descubriendo el Dosel is all about. Photo © Felipe Barrera.

So Lesson #2 follows: When you want to dream big, take your friends along. This training was a success because of friends and partners who were absolutely critical to this effort. First and foremost, Fundación Alianza Natural, (LINK) a non-profit conservation organization in Colombia, was the official host of this event and did all the in-country organizing and prep. Petzl Foundation(LINK) came in early as our official Hardware Sponsor, donating helmets, harnesses, carabiners, lanyards, and a long list of vital equipment. Yale Cordage(LINK) was the event’s official Software Sponsor, donating miles of rope, literally.

No dream is too big to be impossible. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas
No dream is too big to be impossible. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas

One climber, one tree, one forest, one planet at a time. This is the height to which we ascended. THANK YOU.

 

For more about Descubriendo el Dosel 2019,check out the hashtags #dosel2019 or #descubriendoeldosel on social media, or visit the event’s Flickr page.

 

Want to help us change lives in the next round? Go to the webpage for Canopy Watch and contact us. We can always use more friends and partners.

Petzl Foundation came up big as our official Hardware Sponsor. 
All this pretty equipment rewrote the history of canopy research in Latin America and the changes lives of the lucky biologists getting to use it. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas.
Petzl Foundation came up big as our official Hardware Sponsor. All this pretty equipment rewrote the history of canopy research in Latin America and the changes lives of the lucky biologists getting to use it. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas.

SUR Company(LINK) headed by Javier Urueña in Bogotá, and Orozco y Cia.(LINK) headed by Hernando Orozco in Medellín, made it possible to ship all that expensive gear to Colombia. The Peregrine Fund(LINK) is a conservation non-profit in the United States that believes so strongly in changing lives and building local capacity that they sponsored my time and many of the grant proposals for the project. The wonderful people at Río Claro Nature Reserve(LINK) discounted our food and lodging, true, but the beauty of the natural setting added a tangible flavor to our success. The good will from so many people was an avalanche. We received so many valuable donations from Nick Bonner at TreeStuff, SherrillTree, NuGreen Store, Kevin Bingham at Singing Tree, DMM Wales, WesSpur Tree, that brought trees to the scientists and put scientists in the trees. And last but not least, it takes cash to offer an event like this. The Rufford Foundation(LINK) trusted us and believed in our mission. To each of you, a most special applause from our family: CLAP . . . CLAP . . . CLAP-CLAP-CLAP.

Lead Instructor, mentor, friend – Jamz Luce conducting the choir.
Lead Instructor, mentor, friend – Jamz Luce conducting the choir.
Patrick Brandt, you radiate calmness and authority. We were all better for your presence.
Patrick Brandt, you radiate calmness and authority. We were all better for your presence.
Emmett Lawrence put his heart way deep into this training. I’m glad you were there.
Emmett Lawrence put his heart way deep into this training. I’m glad you were there.
Juan Carlos Rivas was the eyes and brain behind so many of our photos. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas.
Juan Carlos Rivas was the eyes and brain behind so many of our photos. Photo © Juan Carlos Rivas.
Laín Garzón of SUR Company was a strong and quiet presence all week. Gracias por acompañarnos.
Laín Garzón of SUR Company was a strong and quiet presence all week. Gracias por acompañarnos.