Up a Tree

A growing sport with a school in Colorado has folks scaling aspens and pines, all in pursuit of adventure (and great views at the top).

Different climbers climbing a tree.
Courtesy Tree Climbing Colorado

When you think about it, it’s really no surprise that organized tree-climbing schools (“groves,” as enthusiasts will call them) exist across the world, and that people of all ages—not just kids—are passionate about scrambling up trees for the sheer fun of it. The urge to get to the top of a tree is one everybody recognizes, left over from our ancient, arboreal beginnings. We used to live up there, after all.

It is perhaps also unsurprising, in a state where people love to scale big things, that one of these schools, Tree Climbing Colorado, is here in our own backyard. Based in Evergreen, the organization operates under the direction of a 68-year-old retired professor of environmental science and part-time employee of the Colorado Sierra Club. His name is Harv Teitelbaum, but you won’t hear anyone call him that in tree-climbing circles.

“We all have tree names,” he explains. “Mine’s Ponderosa.”

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Teitelbaum discovered the sport of tree climbing 18 years ago. It attracted him because, as he says, “it seemed to combine everything I really enjoyed doing…the exercise of climbing, the discovery of getting up into trees, the joy of being out in the forest.” In 2001, when Teitelbaum caught wind of organized tree climbing, the sport was still in its infancy, with its most serious practitioners living in Georgia. Intent on joining them, Teitelbaum flew to the Deep South and immersed himself in training programs with Tree Climbers International (TCI), founded in Atlanta in 1983 by Peter “Treeman” Jenkins. Teitelbaum learned how to climb trees the right way— safely, without harm to man or plant—and started teaching others back in Colorado.

Since then, “I’ve probably taken about 10,000 people up into the trees,” he says. “I’ve been involved in writing guidelines for training and conducting climbs. In 2007, we formed an international nonprofit called the Global Organization of Tree Climbers. We now publish a curriculum for facilitators and instructors all over the world.”

And he really does mean all over the world. “We trained the first generation of leaders, a few dozen of them,” says Patty Jenkins, Peter’s wife, who is heavily involved with TCI. “Those people have gone on to form their own schools and train the second, third, fourth generation of leaders. Anyone who falls into this group, we say they were taught in the TCI tradition.” TCI has trained leaders that went on to start their own groves as far away as Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Korea, and France.

Children learning to climb a tree.
Courtesy Tree Climbing Colorado

They are, by all accounts, a serious but inclusive bunch. Patty is quick to point out that TCI and its derivative organizations are “schools,” not “clubs.” Teitelbaum estimates that between 50 and 75 exist around the world, though an exact number is hard to pinpoint, as many are small and keep a relatively low profile. The TCI website is openly enthusiastic about the formation of new schools, offering to the general public full guidelines for getting a grove off the ground. “It only takes two people to get started!” the website reads.

As for gear, Teitelbaum says, the sport is fairly straightforward. Rock climbing helmets and arborists’ gear—harnesses and ropes—are frequently used, with an auto-locking, tripleaction carabiner as climbers’ main clip-in point. Tree Climbing Colorado offers a basic beginner course for as few as two people; it teaches proper use of the gear and gets people moving right away. “Our students are wide-ranging,” says Teitelbaum. “We have tree-care people who want to learn safe rope techniques. We have photographers. We also have people who just want something new and different in their lives.”

This last group will probably get the most out of the sport. “All trees are different, and each tree is different every time you climb it,” Teitelbaum says. “One of the best climbs I ever did was up Independence Pass. I bushwhacked out to the middle of this beautiful grove and found a nice aspen with a fork in the branching on top. It was a gorgeous day—brilliant blue skies and that Alpine elevation.” It was an experience, he says, that he probably could not recreate. “The total experience depends on the day, the route you take, the season. Sometimes, it’s not just the tree.”

Time Climbing Colorado
Colorado-based tree climbing school