"For God's sake, don't drop him,"James Aldred's sister warned one day. The 'him' referred to Sir David Attenborough, whose safety James would be responsible for as he was commissioned to get the British television institution high in a canopy on a production in Costa Rica. Fortunately, James is an award-winning cameraman who specialises in natural history and filming at height, so Sir David was in safe hands.
James has worked around the globe for industry leaders such as National Geographic, the BBC, the Discovery Channel and DisneyNature for over 20 years. Unsurprisingly, adventures in rainforests and woodlands around the world have led to interesting encounters with extreme weather and wildlife of all sizes - from botfly maggots to orangutans. He's just released a book with tales of his travels, called The Man Who Climbs Trees.
'He has the job every kid wants: He climbs trees for a living,' the Washington Post declared. I sent James some questions to find out more about his work and his love for climbing trees...
My enjoyment flows from a deeply rooted belief that every tree has a unique personality that speaks to the climber who is willing to listen.
Where did your interest in trees come from?
Mostly from growing up in the New Forest. I was passionate about wildlife as a kid, and growing up in an environment dominated by trees it was perhaps inevitable that I'd gravitate towards them and the wildlife they provided a habitat for. Several of my mates trained up to be tree surgeons when we were teenagers, so they had access to the climbing gear and rope knowledge required to get us safely up into the branches. From that moment on I was hooked. The canopy really is a hidden kingdom floating above our heads and I spent every spare moment I had exploring it with my camera.
When and how did you start to work at height in them?
My first canopy film job was a 6 week expedition to Borneo in 1998 for the BBC. The natural history unit in Bristol needed a camera assistant and rope rigger to help get their cameraman up into the branches to film orangutans and gibbons. I was still climbing on 3-strand nylon rope and a manky old prusik loop; using a hand me down T22 Whillans climbing harness. It didn't have leg loops and was pretty moth-eaten and chainsaw-chewed. This was fine for the small to medium sized trees I was climbing in the UK, but the Bornean jungles are home to the tallest tropical hardwoods on the planet, so I needed to use safer and more efficient techniques to access such a high, dynamic world. I did my IRATA L1 shortly before heading out there, then (making a lot of mistakes en-route) I gradually built on these basic access skills to devise additional jungle-specific methods and systems. Basically, I made it up as I went, learning a huge amount from the numerous mistakes I made: in at the deep end.
Are you a rock climber too?
No. A lot of my mates are, so I live the terror vicariously through them! I am in awe of big wall climbers - such an alien and extreme environment to me.
There are many rope access jobs out there in different environments. What is it about working among trees that that you enjoy?
I'm going to nick a few lines from my book to answer this one...
"There's just something about trees that enthrals me and keeps me coming back to spend time with them. In many ways, I feel that they embody the very essence of nature. Providing us with a living connection to our planet, somehow bridging the gap between our own fleeting lives and the world around us. I feel I'm being offered a glimpse of a half-remembered ancestral world when I climb into them, and for some reason this makes me feel good. It helps me remember my place in the scheme of things. But above all, my enjoyment flows from a deeply rooted belief that every tree has a unique personality that speaks to the climber who is willing to listen. Whether the soft shimmering glow of a beech canopy in springtime, or the vast sun-blasted canopy of a tropical giant, each tree has a unique character, and it is the privileged feeling of getting to know them a little better—of physically connecting with them, if only for a short while—that draws me back into their branches time and time again. I believe that as living ambassadors from the past, they deserve our deep, abiding respect, and I'm willing to bet that most of us have experienced an emotional connection to them at some point in our lives."
You book focuses on environmental themes as much as your adventures. We all should know why they are important. What message do you hope your work and your book spread about their importance?
We only have one planet. It can be heart-searingly beautiful, but is also infinitely fragile and complex. Nature is so much more than the sum of its parts and there are worlds within worlds hidden up in the branches of even the smallest trees. We don't own nature, or trees for that matter; we are simply passing through and I believe we don't have the innate right to compromise nature's ability to function properly after we are gone.
What techniques and equipment do you use to ascend and descend?
I use a pretty dirty mash-up of arborist, rope access, caving and made-up rope systems to get around the canopy efficiently. The ability to improvise is very important, but there are a few golden rules I try never to compromise, such as always using two points of attachment. I've had too many branches snap, and too many ropes chewed through by animals and insects to ever feel completely comfortable about relying on just one line for any amount of time. My basic core kit comprises catapults, throw bags, fishing line, static rope, hybrid arborist / SRT sit harnesses, side strops, twist-lock krabs and friction hitches.
How do you ensure that your rope techniques don't harm the trees?
I always use a cambium saver whilst utilising fast running rope systems, such as friction hitches. It's all too easy to burn through bark when descending on a prusik (especially if you're a heavy lump like me).
This sounds like an interesting set-up: "Two skeins of ancient hawser climbing rope, two ragged harnesses, and a motley bundle of jangling carabiners — some of them clearly homemade."
Yeah, that was back in 1991, years before anything like LOLER had been introduced. Actually, it was a good grounding in that it taught me to have faith in the gear and that modern climbing PPE is hugely well engineered to tolerate impressive forces if used correctly.
Tell us about some of your most exciting work! You were commissioned to get Sir David Attenborough high into a tree in Costa Rica - how did that go?
Working with Sir David in Costa Rica was obviously a dream come true. That was back in 2001 on his Life of Mammals series, but I subsequently went on to work with him on numerous other projects around the world. He is a very smart, enthusiastic and passionate naturalist with a keen eye for the way rope systems work: he always wants to know what rope's doing what and takes the time to enjoy the experience of ascending up through the forest's higher levels. The Costa Rica job went very well. I had to get him 220' up into the epiphyte laden canopy of a monstrous tree, then send a camera towards him down a 400' long horizontal cable to get a forward-facing tracking shot revealing him in the jungle canopy. The camera travelled around 35 mph and came to a halt 20' away ready for him to deliver his lines: "The rainforest canopy is one of the most diverse habitats..." etc. All in all, it was an extremely memorable and humbling experience.
You've had a few encounters with wildlife and infectious diseases - tell us about those!
Crikey - where to start?! The rainforest is a pretty interactive and immersive environment and each visit generally involves some extreme highs, along with some fairly memorable lows. The highs have included coming face to face with a silverback gorilla 150' above the forest floor in the Congo; climbing alongside orangutans in Sumatra and climbing into a harpy eagle nest in Venezuela. Lows include being hospitalised with cerebral malaria and getting infested with more than 90 flesh-eating bot fly maggots. Most of them in my groin. Nice.
Which is/what are your favourite tree species to work amongst?
The Dipterocarp trees of Borneo are hard to beat, as are strangler figs. Redwoods are pretty high on the list too; and then there are the ironwood trees of Papua New Guinea, not to mention the old-growth cedar's of the Atlas mountains. In fact - sorry - there are just to many to choose from...
A topical concern for many climbers recently (certainly those in the Peak District) has been the battle to save Sheffield's trees on its streets and surrounding areas. This must be a concern close to your heart too?
Personally I think it is absolutely disgusting, irrational and embarrassingly short-sighted!
The Man Who Climbs Trees - £9.99
This is the story of a professional British tree climber, cameraman and adventurer, who has made a career out of travelling the world, filming wildlife for the BBC and climbing trees with people like David Attenborough, Chris Packham and Helen Macdonald.
James's climbs take him to breathtaking locations as he scales the most incredible and majestic trees on the planet. On the way he meets native tribes, gets attacked by African bees, climbs alongside gorillas, chased by elephants, and spends his nights in a hammock pitched high in the branches with only the stars above him.
This book blends incredible stories of scrapes and bruises in the branches with a new way of looking at life high above the daily grind, up into the canopy of the forest.
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