Sweat is slowly trickling down my spine as I pull up with my arms and push down with my legs. My head is throbbing, likely from the early morning start and lack of my daily caffeine intake as yet. Birds can be heard in all directions singing their welcomes to the morning sunrise. The air is thick with humidity and only seems to worsen the higher I go. I gaze up the length of the barren tree trunk and realize I’m still much further away from the top than I would like to be. Once again, I pull the ascender up a few inches and push down on the harness with my legs. This wasn’t the type of tree climbing I was expecting today.
The night before, while finishing off dinner at the Selva Baninito Lodge in Limon, Costa Rica, our guide, Carlos, asked if we wanted to try tree climbing the following morning. Our visit to the country was prefaced with adventure, so naturally my travel companion Cristina and I said “yes” without really thinking about it. The only catch was that we’d have to do it at 7am before departing the lodge. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a morning person, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go tree climbing in the Costa Rican rainforest.
The following morning, still groggy and already sweating from the oppressive humidity, we made our way over to the tree climbing area of the lodge. In a small clearing there stood a 30-meter tall “broccoli” style tree, one where the length of the trunk is smooth and branches fan out from the top. A handful of ropes could be seen dangling from above branches. I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be like anything from my childhood memories.
This style of tree climbing was originally created to help researchers ascend to the top of the tree canopy in rainforests with as minimal impact to the environment as possible. Using a rope, harness, and your own body weight, climbers inch their way up the length of the rope to ‘climb the tree’. Mechanical ascenders act as your levers to climb or descend the rope, gripping the rope when tension is applied. When you push up through your leg harnesses and remove the weight tension on the levers, the ascenders can move freely in either direction allowing you to shimmy up or down the rope.
Outfitted with helmets, leather gloves, harnesses and carabiners, Cristina and I were tied into the existing hanging ropes and given a quick demonstration from Carlos. It took us a few minutes to adjust to the technique, struggling through bouts of laughter as we both seemed to swing and crash into the tree trunk.
While we were told you didn’t have to be in excellent physical condition to do this, it was a lot harder than it looked. Initially, I held a lot of my weight in my arms and quickly became exhausted from all the effort. Carlos reminded us that 90% of the work is actually done in the legs. As you bend your knees, the ascender can be easily adjusted upwards. Then you push down on the harnesses through your feet to stand tall, adjusting the second ascender supporting the weight of your torso. There’s a rhythm to the process and once Cristina and I had gotten of the hang of it, we were motoring our way up the tree… at the pace of an inchworm that is.
A good 45-minutes later, we had only made it about halfway up the tree. The view, however, was unbelievable. As far as the eye could see, it was just rainforest and I felt like I was in the thick of all the action not capable of seeing from the ground. We took in our surroundings for a moment even lying back, hands behind our heads, feet perpendicular to the tree, staring up into the canopy.
But what goes up must come down. And that’s when the real challenge began.
It was a slightly different technique operating the ascenders to climb down the rope. First we had to stand tall in the harness. That relaxed the tension of the rope supporting our torso so we could release that ascender and pull it down. That allowed us to squat down to lower our body, releasing the tension in the rope and allowing us to move the ascender supporting our lower body. I found my heart racing at times knowing I had to rely on some non-existing core body strength to keep me stable while releasing and lowering the ascenders.
With my feet firmly planted back on the ground, I looked up once again and couldn’t help but laugh. Travel brings out my adventurous side and this was definitely one for the books. I thought it was a really unique way to take in the rainforest while minimizing my contact with the surrounding area. I’d definitely try tree climbing like this again, but first I really need that cup of coffee.
This activity was made possible by the Costa Rican Tourism Board and the Selva Baninito Lodge.