A Climber's Guide to Tree Inspection

Leaning Trees

leaning treeA tree with a lean may present particular challenges and benefits to a climber. Trees leaning out over water or hillsides can offer a beautiful view of the surrounding area. However, climbing dangers include the possibility of the tree uprooting or breaking under the added weight of the climber. Check for the following before climbing a leaning tree.

  • The trunk base opposite the tree lean. Rake back the leaves around the trunk opposite the lean and look for air spaces between the dirt and the trunk, which can signal a tree in the process of uprooting. Fungus or decayed roots opposite the lean increases risk significantly.
  • Raised soil. Inspect the ground for raised or cracked soil opposite the lean and/or broken root ends emerging from the soil. These signal a tree in an advanced stage of uprooting.
  • Cracked trunk. Leaning trees often produce visible cracks produced by the tremendous weight stress. Carefully look around the first ten feet (3 meters) of the trunk. The cracks are usually obvious because of the exposed lighter colored sapwood or raised seam ridges over older cracks.

Dead Trees

Never climb a dead tree. This is a risk for professional tree workers, only when they have to take a dead tree down. Dead trees can topple at any time. Do not even walk under them, as they can shed branches or fall apart at any time. It's not hard to distinguish a live tree from a dead tree when foliage is present. However, during the winter months the difference is not so obvious. Here are some clues which indicate a tree which is dead or dying:

  • Dead branches on the ground. Wind and rain will naturally break off dead branches. If you spot some dead branches lying on the ground, especially large ones, step away from the tree and look up. Try to locate where they came from. You can usually see where they have broken off. If you see numer­ous broken branch ends above you, consider the tree dangerous and unsafe. Needless to say, if you see a tree with few branches left attached to a tree, it has been dead for a considerable length of time and should not be climbed.
  • Missing bark. When a tree dies, sections of bark will drop off. Sometimes a branch or only a part of the tree will die, and the bark will eventually drop off the dead section. If you see that a tree is totally devoid of bark, the tree has probably been dead for a while. Softwoods, such as pines, will lose their bark more quickly than hardwoods, and are much more unpredictable. Move away from the tree immediately!
  • Discolored bark. Obvious areas of discoloration, like blotches of gray, can often mean fungus attack. Don't get discoloration confused with lichen or moss growth, which is natural in humid regions.
  • Absent buds. Look at the bud ends with binoculars. If the branch ends lack bud ends or they appear stunted, the tree or branch may have recently died. It may be helpful to compare the bud ends with trees of the same species living in the immediate area.
  • Fungus growth. Tell-tale fungus grows only on dead and decaying wood. If it’s found on the ground, there is usually root decay. Fungus growth on the trunk signals dead or decayed wood. Branches with dead or decaying sections can also harbor fungus growth.
  • The presence of leaves in the middle of winter. If you see brown leaves on a hardwood tree in the middle of winter and there are no other trees of this species with this sign, consider this tree dead. It died the previous season and the normal process of leaf fall (abscission) did not occur. Move away from the tree immediately.

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