July 8, 2010

CU climbers scale redwoods in the name of seed science

Tree Climbing Institute
Jake Rudin
In June, instructors from the Cornell Tree Climbing Institute scaled giant sequoia trees in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains that date to before the birth of Christ to gather seed cones for the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Forestry.

Five instructors from the Cornell Tree Climbing Institute scaled some of the largest trees in the world in June to gather seed cones for the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Forestry.

These skilled instructors ascended into the treetops of four giant sequoia trees in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains that date to before the birth of Christ.

The crew's primary objective was to collaborate with the seed collection program at the University of California-Berkeley. The seeds are stored in state-sponsored seed banks that harbor the genetic legacy of California's old-growth forests.

The Cornell group, which also included three Cornell students, gathered 20 bushels of seed cones from the canopy of the massive trees to contribute to the collection.

Giant sequoias grow between the elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and can grow up to 310 feet tall and have trunks some 30 feet in diameter. The Cornell instructors ascended into a specimen that measured 297 feet tall and featured an excellent view over the San Joaquin Valley, said senior climbing instructor Dave Katz.

Cornell's tree climbers are no strangers to heights. "Hanging from ropes in a tree is like second nature to me now," said Katz, who helped found the Cornell Tree Climbing Institute in 2005. Since then, Cornell Outdoor Education has been teaching university students and community members to scale the local trees of Tompkins County.

seed cones
Jake Rudin
Before going up into the redwood treetops, the climbers get a lesson about the seed cones they will collect.

"After spending countless days in the canopies of central New York, I did some field research in Costa Rica and thought, 'We have to run a course here!'" This past January, he led the fifth annual Costa Rica Tree Climbing course for Cornell, which offered expedition-style learning experiences, the challenge of large trees, unique wildlife and an opportunity for cultural immersion.

After climbing the trees of temperate and tropical forests, Katz was excited to have the opportunity to climb some of the tallest trees in the world.

"Everything here is massive," Katz said, noting that the crew brought 2,000 feet of rope for the job. "We were all just left in awe by the magnitude of these Sequoias."

The Cornell Tree Climbing Institute is part of Cornell Outdoor Education, which is housed in Bartels Hall. Its mission is to promote safe and environmentally responsible tree climbing techniques for recreation, education and research. It offers tree-climbing courses for ages 8 and up (younger ages may be taught via private instruction).

The institute also publishes a tree climbing manual and offers instructional videos on recreational tree climbing gear and techniques online at http://www.coe.cornell.edu under "Tree Climbing."