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A 200-year-old patient

In May 2019, I accompanied Cyril Hausin and Severin Murer on a job to trim three sequoia trees on Rheinau Island near Zurich (Switzerland). Here is a quick peek into a day in the life of an arborist and a few key techniques to safely climb in and around big trees.

September 30 2019

Tree care

Treecare Rheinau - Kloster Rheinau

The day starts early in the morning, with the birds singing as the sun begins to rise. A long ride from the French-speaking part of Switzerland to Rheinau, near Zurich, is ahead of me. I plan to meet with Severin Murer, a young 25-year-old state-certified tree care specialist, to accompany him and his colleague Cyril Hausin, as they spend their day taking care of several big trees. Cyril is an independent arborist working with the company Happy Tree Friends. He hired Severin as extra help for today’s work. From my train seat, I comfortably watch the Swiss countryside slowly awaken.

Once in Rheinau, I take the path to the old monastery located on a small island in the Rhine. The convent was built in 858, and bears witness to a long illustrious history. However, the buildings are not the only ones here with stories to tell about another time, the surrounding trees also date from long ago. I am not surprised when Cyril explains that today’s “clients” are 200 years old: three giant sequoia trees anxiously await their makeovers and to have several dead branches trimmed away.

Treecare Rheinau - Installation

After quickly evaluating each tree, Severin and Cyril prepare to toss the AIRLINE to raise their work rope. Severin throws the line, sending the small sandbag to soar through the tree. Unfortunately the JET slams into a branch that happens to be in its trajectory. It takes several attempts to properly position the AIRLINE in the tree. While skill always helps, a little luck never hurts! After setting up the work rope, they install their clamps and begin climbing. When I see just how quickly the two young arborists disappear into the upper branches of the tree, my subsequent ascent seems painstakingly slow.

Once in the crown, we catch our breath and take advantage of the amazing view of the Rhine. Shortly thereafter, Severin and Cyril start removing deadwood. The two work efficiently, effortlessly waltzing around the top of the tree. My beginner movements appear much clumsier. However, after taking the time to adjust to this new environment, my technique becomes much smoother and I am even able to “swing” through the tree. Time flies, and the branch-clearing work in the first sequoia, more than 45 meters tall, is finished. We move on to the other two trees.

Treecare Rheinau - Ascension

After removing the dead branches from the three sequoias, two lime trees also need some deadwood cleared. I let the two arborists finish their workday without me. When I sit down in the train, I can see a thunderstorm brewing. I hope that Severin and Cyril will finish in time. I think about the day’s work. The tree care profession is interesting and varied, and requires experience with a wide range of techniques as well as in-depth understanding of botany.

While working, we had plenty of time to talk about Severin’s profession and the gear he uses.

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Severin, how long have you worked as an arborist?

I have worked as an arborist for three years, and received state certification in August 2018.

How would you describe your profession?

An arborist specializes in tree care, from planting a sapling to caring for old trees, as well as special situations. We can do just about anything with our quiver of rope techniques.

The other aspect of the profession involves assessing a tree’s stability. We analyze the potential danger if the tree topples, define and apply the necessary measures to protect the tree, and provide an expert written evaluation.

What do you like about your profession? What types of surprises do you experience from one day to the next?

The work is really varied. Every day we work at one and sometimes several different sites, and each time we face a new challenge. The work is always interesting and stimulating. What I really like is climbing in big, tall, old trees as well as working on special cases.

What dangers and challenges are you exposed to in your profession?

We work at height where a fall could have fatal consequences. In addition, we never use standard anchoring points in our climbing systems. Trees are not 100% predictable, which is why it is always important to stay within a safe zone, to have the necessary knowledge and experience, and to always discuss the situation with your colleague. When trimming or cutting down trees, we work with sharp and dangerous tools in sometimes impossible positions. Mastering a wide range of climbing techniques is useful to increase safety and improve work positioning. It is also essential to properly assess the stability of a tree to keep from breaking or toppling it over.

What Petzl products do you use?

I use the ZIGZAG mechanical Prusik, the CHICANE auxiliary brake, as well as a wide variety of carabiners and connecters. The ZIGZAG is great and provides the same comfort and reliability whatever the weather. Pairing it with the new CHICANE now allows me to legally climb a single rope. Due to a lack of certified devices and technical notices in every one of Switzerland’s official languages, using single rope technique was illegal until now.

Treecare Rheinau - ZIGZAG

What I like about the PANTIN foot clamp is its small size. It doesn’t bother me when I’m climbing and there’s little risk of damaging the tree’s bark.

I also really like the simple and compact PERSONNEL 15L bag.

Petzl’s new carabiners are reliable and hold up well against dirt, which increases safety.

In addition, I use the new SEQUOIA SRT harness, which is really lightweight and comfortable.

What needs to these products fill for arborists?

The most important requirement is that our gear be safe and reliable. Since we work all day long with our gear, it also needs to be comfortable to use or wear, and high quality. In general, arborists choose their gear based on their individual needs, comfort, and handling, regardless of the brand.

If you could modify and improve certain products, what would you do?

If I could choose, I would like to have a ZIGZAG that can be used without a secondary friction device for SRT (Single Rope Technique). I would especially like to see more SRT-certified gear. A bigger 20L version of the PERSONNEL would also be nice.

What new products provide you with an additional advantage for daily use?

Thanks to the CHICANE, I can now climb using SRT, which provides me with more options when working in a tree. This is a whole other way of climbing. What I really like is that I can quickly switch from DdRT (Doubled Rope Technique) to SRT and vice-versa.

Treecare Rheinau - Chicane

Until now, when cutting down a tree, the false crotch was too small beyond a certain trunk diameter. Now I can simply wrap my rope around the tree and, using the CHICANE, lower myself without any additional friction complicating the task.

Double rope rescues are now simpler with the ZIGZAG PLUS and the CHICANE. Until now, as soon as there was additional friction, rescues were complicated and awkward; the CHICANE provides a simple, ergonomic, and very quick solution. I think that it will revolutionize the rescue competition during the European Tree Climbing Championships.

The KNEE ASCENT LOOP is also a great all-in-one system for ascending a single rope.

Do mechanical ascent devices provide you with a greater sense of safety?

Not necessarily, since mechanical ascent devices have their own risks, like cross loading, which does not occur with knots. There is a greater sense of safety that comes only with knowing how to properly use your gear as well as regular PPE inspections.

Are you a big fan of anything new or do you prefer tried and true techniques?

I like to try new things, since techniques, tools, and gear are constantly changing. But just because something is new does not mean it works, and sometimes we go back to old tried and true techniques. However, every new technique increases my knowledge and opens my eyes to other possibilities.

Do you prefer to use a single or double rope setup? Why?

The two techniques have their strengths and drawbacks, as well as situations where each works best. For small trees as well as felling, I prefer double rope technique. For big trees or cutting dead branches, I prefer single rope technique, which allows you to much more easily move around the tree and position yourself with an anchor without any additional friction.

With doubled ropes, I like the soft, elegant ascent. With a single rope, weight can be distributed along several anchor points, increasing safety. Depending on the circumstances, ground-up rescues are also possible with a single rope, since it usually reaches all the way to the ground. It is important that you and your colleague know the ins and outs of the techniques being used and that you know how handle each situation.

In Switzerland, the current problem with single rope technique is that most arborists don’t know it or are not very experienced with using it.

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Treecare Rheinau - Treecare

Thanks to Severin for the fascinating discussion and to Cyril for his patience. 

#Moveintrees

Text & photos: © Christian Peschel