On a recent sunny afternoon, Nick Johnson tossed a bag of lead weights into a tree in Richfield, over the fork where two branches parted.
He tied a larger rope to the line, pulled the rope back through the gap, tied it down and started climbing.
For the next half-hour he dangled from the tree, cutting dead branches with a handsaw. He explained his job in an interview.
Q: How long have you been climbing?
A: I've been climbing for like 12 years. My dad started his own business back in the mid-90s. As I grew up, I spent my summers hanging around with him, and it just sort of turned into full-time. He shut down his business last fall, and I came to Rainbow Treecare because they're renowned for training good climbers. I also have my own business on the side.
Q: What do you spend most of your time doing? Hanging from a crane, swinging a chainsaw around? Or are you on the ground a lot?
A: I climb anywhere from two to seven or eight trees a day.
Q: So you climb up the tree. Tell me what happens from there.
A: We basically just prune away dead sticks, especially limbs that have shut down because they've been shaded out or have other problems. We cut them free. We clear buildings and wires, get the branches out from interfering with the facade of people's houses and electrical lines. We raise the branches up for people mowing lawns. Cosmetics for the tree.
Q: How do you climb a tree?
A: Essentially we're just climbing a rope. We have cammed ascenders on our feet. People use a different combination of ascenders, whatever's most comfortable for them. I use a foot ascender and a knee ascender, and then my hitch climbs the rope. What I do first to get the rope up into the tree is I throw a beanbag of lead weights attached to a eighth-inch diameter cord. I throw that up into the tree into a position that it can carry my load, and then pull the rope that I intend to climb, back through the same crotch. Once it's through, I tie it off to the base and then climb the other end to the top, and continue to work. You usually try to sit in your harness the whole time and just kind of move from the top down. Once you're on the ground, clean up and move on to the next.
Q: What's a memorable tree you've worked on? Are there any?
A: Working with Rainbow, I've gotten to use considerably bigger cranes than I've been used to in the past. The first pick that I've taken with them was over 5,000 pounds, a chunk of tree just kind of floating away from you up into the air. That kind of got me going.
Q: So you cut it off at a certain point and the crane carries the top away?
A: You strap it up at many different points so that it's a static load. Cranes don't really handle dynamic loads, they don't handle it flipping or twisting much when they take it. So you've got to balance it perfectly and then get in there with a saw and kind of hope it's all balanced right. Usually it goes right, but in rare cases, with guys who are inexperienced, they make the cut and it finally springs free, you can imagine what kind of damage 5,000 pounds can do. It's one of those things that gets your heart pumping for sure.
Q: You get your head out of there quick.
A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: How do you balance it? If it's attached to the rest of the tree still, how do you know whether you have it strapped up right?
A: The majority of it is experience. When you rig smaller pieces off using just a rigging line and not doing it with a crane, you find where the wood balances and where to attach it. Once you scale it up to that crane job, you just figure out your cubic feet for approximate weight of each limb. You kind of try to find where the limb bends. Sometimes you have to strap it up five different places for it to balance properly. We have different slings to hook to the crane that we run down to the spot needed.
Q: Where do you do most of your work? A certain part of the metro?
A: I've been working in the southwest metro, so basically anywhere from south Minneapolis, Lake of the Isles, to Chaska.
Q: Is the gear all yours? The hardhat and the chainsaw?
A: When I first started with Rainbow, they bought all my stuff for me. They kind of set me up with gear that was pretty substantial for the industry. I figured out my own way to climb and so went out and got my own stuff, my own gear. I have enough of my own gear to get like three people up in a tree.
Q: I guess you don't really have to hit the gym?
A: Yeah, it's nice. A little gym at work. I feel like I have to keep the muscles stretched.