The Science Behind Chris Sharma's Redwood Climb

The ascent of a giant redwood wasn't all about the climb itself, as valuable data was collected.
Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Chris Sharma with tree scientist Anthony Ambrose © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool
By Andrew Bisharat

“Just living among the redwoods, I was fascinated with how they grew, and how big they can get,” said Dr. Anthony Ambrose, a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley who has been studying redwood trees for the past 18 years. “The beauty and majesty of the trees themselves. I just loved working in them.”

Though Ambrose conducts a lot of research on campus, certainly the most fun part of his job is actually going out to climb the impossible-looking trees that stand more than 250 feet tall.

Ambrose and his research associate Wendy Baxter have been collecting samples in trees around Santa Cruz to determine how global climate change and the California drought, now in its fourth year, has been affecting the trees.

“The trees we studied last fall in Santa Cruz were pretty stressed, more stressed than we’ve ever measured,” Ambrose said.

When rock climber Chris Sharma first approached Ambrose and Baxter with the idea of trying to free climb a redwood, the researchers knew they would get another opportunity to collect some data.

Watch the full "Giant Ascent" video now.

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Putting together a careful plan © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Rigging the tree

“We use rope-based arborist techniques, not spurs, to climb these trees,” Ambrose explained. “We minimize damage and impact associated with climbing.”

So how does the rope get up there?

“We shoot an arrow in, attached to a fishing line, using a high-powered crossbow, then set up a pulley. Sometimes you get lucky and you get up near the top and it can take less than an hour to reach the top. Other times it can take a full day depending on how difficult the initial shot is.”

While rigging the top rope on Sharma’s project in a city park in Eureka, California, Ambrose said he got lucky.

“Sometimes I go through 10 arrows and 20 shots before I can get a line set, but this time I got it on my first shot,” he said, laughing. “It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it always goes this smoothly!’”

“Chris helped us get some measurements on the water status of the tree — how much tension there was in the tree,” Ambrose said. This process involved going to the top, collecting a bit of foliage and putting it in a device that measures the tree’s water status. The result of the particular tree that Sharma climbed?

“The tree seemed to be doing pretty well,” Ambrose said.

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Sharma and Ambrose test samples from the tree © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

The oldest redwoods, most of which are protected in both state and national parks, are up to 2,500 years old.

“One of the things I find so interesting about these trees is just how long-lived they are,” Baxter said. “They’re incredibly resilient. They have such a complex structure. They make you feel insignificant while walking in the forest.”

We saw this project with Sharma to be a proactive opportunity to discuss the ethics of tree climbing

Up until recently, the biggest threat to the redwoods was logging. Sadly, over the last 150 years, humans have logged nearly 95 percent of the old-growth redwoods. That has since stopped, and those old redwoods that remain are protected in parks.

“There is a sensitivity about climbing old-growth redwoods,” Ambrose said. “In state and national parks, climbing is illegal unless you get a scientific permit. So we saw this project with Sharma to be a proactive opportunity to discuss the ethics of tree climbing, and steer it in the direction of how to do it responsibly.”

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Scientists Wendy Baxter and Anthony Ambrose © Marv Watson/Red Bull Content Pool

Ambrose and Baxter agree that climate change is a major threat to the redwoods, and they plan to continue collecting samples around Santa Cruz to see how the trees are holding up to the latest environmental changes. Yet, while working with a species that has outlived the rise and fall of civilizations over thousands of years, it’s easy to feel optimistic about their incredible resilience.

“Over thousands of years, these trees develop unique characteristics and personalities as a result of the individual histories that each one has experienced over its lifetime,” Ambrose said. “How they can survive in a single spot for thousands of years while dealing with environmental change and fires and droughts and who knows what — it’s really impressive.”

The UC Berkeley tree biologists are currently developing funding to evaluate the impact of the current historic drought on redwood trees and forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the southern edge of the redwood range. Visit their fundraising site to contribute.

Watch Chris Sharma’s Giant Ascent on YouTube and Red Bull will donate $.10 for each unique view of the video, up to a maximum of $10,000, to help continue redwood tree research.

Donation offer starts 6/15/15. Offer ends the earlier of 7/31/15 or when 100,000 unique views are reached. Donations are not tax deductible to you. Excludes residents of AL, MA and SC. Void where prohibited. Benefiting Entity: University of California, Berkeley Foundation.*

*The University of California, Berkeley nor its Foundation are affiliated with, sponsor or endorse this promotion.

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