By Michael “House” Tain
Odds are that any conversation a modern tree climber has with a non-industry member starts with an explanation that flying up and down a bare pole on spikes is not what most of the job consists of. Regardless of what they are called — gaffs, spurs, hooks or spikes — the public associates them with climbing. Although tree care professionals realize there are several ways to scale their woody friends without spurs, they overlook the particular skills and techniques that spur climbing requires at their own peril. An inattentive move on spurs that leads to a “pole dance” down several feet or all the way to the ground will, at the least, remind a climber of the need to use gaffs safely and efficiently.
The true name for these implements is climbers; and although they have been a part of the tree climbing toolbox for a century or more — and may appear simpler and easier to use than many of the modern gizmos and mechanisms — they will definitely turn on an inexperienced or inattentive user. As with most climbing tools and techniques, “low and slow” practice and “hands-on” training is the best way to get used to the spur experience. But, prior to that, some basic information will help prevent new users from being rudely introduced to wood fiber in possibly intimate places.
Use ‘em or Don’t Use ‘em
Sadly, this is a question that doesn’t even get asked on many crews in the tree industry; and, if asked, is often given the wrong answer. Gaffs should only be used when the crew is taking down a tree that is to be completely removed. Tree care activities such as pruning, cabling, bracing, or any of the other processes used to care for and retain live trees call for techniques other than spurs. After all, how can a crew call it tree care when they are poking numerous holes in the living tissue of the tree in order to “care” for it? Although there is certainly no argument that at times the use of gaffs may seem to make the job “easier,” the long-term damage to the tree precludes their use. Well-designed spurs have one purpose, to “jab” or “plane” into the tree, providing the user with a secure and stable attachment for one or both feet. In doing so, the spurs are damaging the tree’s protective bark and cambium with each step. Even in large removals, particularly involving trees with large spreading canopies, tree climbers may find the job accomplished more quickly with the use of rope and harness — reserving spur use for when a pole or spar is the remaining structure. Spurs certainly have an important place in tree care, but the first thing to consider is whether the tree at hand is that place.
As with all tree care gear and equipment, maintenance is a key part of keeping climbers functioning safely and correctly. The easiest maintenance step — though one that may affect some industry members’ self-image — is to not wear spurs all around the worksite. Simply put them on at the base of the tree and remove them there when done climbing. After all, those small pointy things at the bottom are what keeps the user aloft and attached to the trunk. Rocks, gravel, and whatnot do not assist the pointy thing in doing its job. In addition, a misstep on the ground with spurs on can lead to neatly shaped holes in various body parts, ropes, saw gas tanks, and other items. The basic principles of climbers have not changed a great deal from their introduction in the 19th century, but new materials and options have made them a great deal more pleasant to use and wear. The majority of modern spurs have a great deal of adjustment available to better fit individual users. Crew members should take advantage of this, as a poorly adjusted or poorly fitted pair of gaffs can make almost any tree job feel like medieval torture. One of the most important adjustments is to the shank — the long metal or carbon fiber support that comes up the inside of the user’s leg. The top of the shank should be adjusted so that it lays approximately two to three finger widths beneath the bony prominence on the inside of the knee. If the shank top is too high it will grind rather alarmingly against the bone; and if too low will dig with determination into the meat of the calf, neither is a pleasant experience when also wrestling with a saw and big wood. Users need to keep in mind that their full body weight is going to be supported on the stirrup that goes beneath their foot, or, in the case of some climbers, on a foot plate attached to the stirrup. Both options can cause some discomfort pretty quickly if poor footwear choices have been made. A stiff shank in the sole of the boot will go a long way toward spreading this force along the whole length of the foot; thus easing pressure. Although large or deep heels are traditionally worn with spurs to keep them in place, they are not required. An additional wrap of the strap over, around, and then under the shank of the climber will secure it in place, preventing the spur from moving around underneath the boot regardless of heel size or depth. The pointy things mentioned earlier — technically called the gaffs of the climber — are the most important part of the whole system, as they are what penetrates into the wood and supports the user. They are designed and intended to enter the wood with a minimum of effort, and be removed the same way. Well-maintained gaffs should “plane” into the wood instead of “punch” into it like a nail; and most manufacturers provide guides for the gaffs to maintain the proper angles. In general, the gaffs should be sharpened from the inside out in a curve. The intention is a curved smooth plane-like edge, not a sharp “spike” or “nail” like point. The beehive, or curved outer edges of the gaff should not be filed; and a whetstone can be used to smooth out any nicks or imperfections that have occurred. The use of electrical grinding wheels, either bench mounted or handheld, is an excellent way to ruin a pair of gaffs; and should be avoided except in the most extreme of cases where a great deal of damage has happened and a lot of metal needs to be removed.
Pole or Tree
The majority of climbers sold through arborist supply companies are going to arrive equipped with tree gaffs, unless the buyer has specified otherwise. The difference between the two gaffs should be fairly obvious to most observers through a side-by-side comparison. Tree gaffs are significantly longer and are intended to plane through the thick bark of trees, particularly coniferous ones, to the safe and secure wood below. Pole gaffs were developed for use on the bark-free poles of the utility world, and are thus much shorter in length. Personal experience has shown that pole gaffs work well in any type of tree, including thick-barked conifers; and are particularly better suited to the hardwood species. This choice will come down to user preference, but new spur climbers should be aware that either pole or tree gaffs are certainly acceptable.
Historically, spur climbing has been done with only a pair of spurs and a flipline or lanyard. But in the interest of safety, efficiency, and the new ANSI standards, climbers would be well served to use some form of climbing system in conjunction with their spurs and lanyard. Climbing with only spurs and a flipline leaves the user with a quick trip to the ground in the event of a “kick-out,” not to mention very isolated with no safe escape path to the ground in the event of a bee encounter or accident. An overhead tie-in point can solve these issues; and for the situation of a smooth pole or spar there are a number of cinching tie-in point systems available, many of which can be advanced up the tree as spur climbing, providing climbing system stability every step of the way. The use of a climbing system in addition to the spurs also gives the user more flexibility for movement, thereby helping get the job done more quickly.
Spur climbing is traveling back to the “roots” of the industry, using techniques and tools begun more than a century ago, but even this modern technological age has a place for these venerable tools and skills. The use of spurs on the right trees, in the right place, and in the right manner can help tree crews get those removal jobs done as safely and efficiently as possible.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.