Climbing the Big Tree

“Do you want to go higher?” came the question from the dusky shadows below.

Our 12-year-old grandson, Jaden, and I looked down the deeply furrowed bark of the immense Douglas fir tree towards our guide and the source of the question. We two were about 85 feet up in the air, resting in our climbing harnesses tethered about half way up a 250-year old Douglas fir tree. Jaden looked from the guide back at me. I knew he was looking for reassurance.


An old growth Douglas fir tree carefully rigged for climbing

“What do you think, buddy?” I asked. (Christina was lower down on the tree with the guide and not close enough to be in this pivotal conversation.)

“Well, we have climbed pretty high,” Jaden offered.

Jaden climbing up to his high spot

It is sunset. All of the tree trunks in the forest around us are aglow with the orange/yellow light from the setting sun. Jaden and I have been talking about the remarkable size of all the trees and trying to figure out what other creatures might have gotten as high up in the tree as we had. We can no longer clearly see the forest floor.

“Jaden, you have done an awesome job of climbing this high. If you want to go higher, I will go with you. And this is also a good goal in itself.”

“OK, I’m done,” he said quietly to me.

“I’ll stay until dark, if you want,” encouraged the eager young guide from below.

“No, we’re sure we are done,” I called down.

This was the moment Christina, Jaden, and I had talked about earlier in the day. “There will come a time, Jaden, when you will need to decide you have gone high enough to feel that you have overcome your fear of heights. Keep the experience positive for yourself and remember the big tree will hold all of us safely,” Christina and I had told Jaden.

Guide (left), Jaden (right), Christina resting in her harness

After the decision-making moment, the young guide skillfully ascended to our level using the strength of his legs in the stirrups below his harness in combination with his hands on the ascender mechanisms. He complimented us on our climb and carefully changed out our “ascender climbing gear” to a “belay mechanism”. We began the much quicker journey down the tree, joining Christina and heading to the tree’s base together.

Initial instruction and fitting of gear: our guide, Christina, Jaden

Once unharnessed, we four began the 15-minute walk through the slowy darkening forest back to our car near the Deception Pass Bridge on Whidbey Island’s north end. The sky kept morphing from orange gold to bright pink to fading magenta. As we walked, our young guide explained that there are very few old growth trees rigged for recreational climbing. “I think only about .001% of the population has ever climbed an old growth tree.”

View of Deception Pass Bridge on our walk back from climbing the tree

“It is harder than I thought it would be,” I said. “It takes a lot of arm and leg strength and coordination.”

“Well, you and Christina are the oldest clients we’ve had this summer,” said the young guide respectfully. That certainly made us feel good— probably elevated our status as Jaden’s adventuring Nature Grannies.

But the really important thing is that we each reached our goals of pushing past some fears and had the stunning experience of being held by one of these remarkable trees. I was changed by that experience—my molecules reordered and realigned, my heart once again beating in sync with life’s simple, steadfast pulse.

Christina, Jaden, and Ann after the climb