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

14 replies
  1. Jude Rathburn
    Jude Rathburn says:

    I love how you allowed the space for Jaden to get in touch with his own inner truth and say he had gone far enough. It would have been easy to impose what you thought was far enough or good enough and not allow him to decide for himself. This is a powerful example of how to hold space for another and trust them to know what is right for them. Bravo.

  2. Kate Stockman
    Kate Stockman says:

    Ah! Nature nurtures, Ann. What a brilliant way to help Jaden overcome his fear of heights! Of course, a tree. They are antennae between the earth and sky. Rooted and reaching. Something we all strive for.

    I have visited old growth Douglas fir at the base of Mt. Rainier. Being among them (with my feet planted firmly on the ground!) was like walking within a prayer. It was the most peaceful place on earth I’d been (to be matched years later by the Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury). I thought, “Oh, if I could pray like this, constantly, deeply, and powerfully…” It’s still a goal I pursue. Thank you for sharing your adventure and stirring those green memories of Douglas fir elders. BTW, I think all THREE of you are courageous!

  3. Bonnie Marsh
    Bonnie Marsh says:

    You all are simply something else. What a great way to learn about breaking through a fear! Jaden is very lucky to have two grammas who are willing to do the work with him. I’m impressed!

  4. Jennifer Crow
    Jennifer Crow says:

    Just LOVELY:

    “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.

  5. Jeanne Guy
    Jeanne Guy says:

    Made my day to read this, Ann. Lessons abound. Precious time with your Jaden. Hudson is here with me now so I’ll be sure and show her the pictures of her future beau. And when I went out for my morning walk, I played some meditative music and soaked up the nature around me: trees sending me morning hugs; a baby deer imitating everything her mama did; birds enjoying singing just because they can; and a periodic breeze kissing my face. You have helped me get back into the moment, “…my heart once again beating in sync with life’s simple, steadfast pulse.” Thank you, beautiful friend.

  6. Laurie Greig
    Laurie Greig says:

    This story and Christina’s cookie story offer so much hope and solace. Thank you as ever for your good words, insights, and wisdom, to both of you.

  7. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    WOW, you super nature grannies! Love these stories of the wisdom you impart and memories you are creating with your grandchildren. Evokes memories of summers with my Oma, growing food, making kuchen, picking mushrooms. My heart is full.

  8. Terry Chase
    Terry Chase says:

    I love this life lesson…so many times I’ve judged myself on how high can I go…and then that wasn’t enough, meaning I am not enough if I don’t go even higher. This young man got a powerful life lesson…and me too!
    Thank you for all your influence to the future generations…

  9. Jeanne
    Jeanne says:

    Ann, second time I have read your story and it still brought tears to my eyes. We all have fears and some of those fears get resolved but not usually in this way and with this much love and care. How brave of Jaden to face his fear head on and what a gift that he had you to guide and to trust and to be honest with when the final height achieved was enough. Ann, if you did nothing else in this life, just this one act would be enough for a good lifetime! Warms my heart deeply. Thank you.

  10. Melissa Layer
    Melissa Layer says:

    My heart thrilled to read of this lovely experience, Christina! It reminded me of one my favorite stories, ever: “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Guessing you know of it? Oh how I love that story and the image/feeling of that courageous young girl climbing the massive trunk of that old tree until she could actually glimpse the sea in the distance… and then the moment she also catches sight of the mysterious white heron. Here’s to courageous young men and women… and Nature Grannies!

  11. Laura Collins
    Laura Collins says:

    I finally had a moment to read this. What an experience! Jaden is so, so fortunate to have you and Christina as grandmas, and you are blessed by his life.

    Thank you for sharing with us.


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