Tree hunters find world's tallest (known) sugar pine

At 255 feet, the top of this giant gives pause to even the hardiest of climbers, who plan each step
Will Koomjian takes a rest while ascending the world’s tallest sugar pine near Tiller. “When you are at the top of a tree, you can feel the tree moving,” Brian French said. “But sometimes it sneaks up on you, and you feel this real deep movement in the tree. When that happens, your stomach just drops.”Jamie Lusch

TILLER — Two turkey vultures floating on the thermals may have wondered why Brian French and Will Koomjian were perched high in the tall sugar pine in the Umpqua National Forest.

But they needn't have hung around in hopes of a potential meal: the two veteran climbers were using extreme caution as they scaled the giant to get a precise measurement to determine whether it is the tallest of its kind on the planet.

Protecting the giant

Estimated to be some 400 years old by the U.S. Forest Service, the world's tallest known sugar pine near Tiller survived a girdling by vandals in 2000.

Apparently employing a chain saw with a long bar, the vandals cut into the cambium layer completely around the tree.

A $2,000 reward was offered for information leading to the person or persons responsible for girdling the tree, but they were never apprehended, said Donna Owens, ranger in charge of the Tiller Ranger District.

"This is a legacy," she said of the tree. "I remember looking at a map before I came here (in 2010) and seeing the world's tallest sugar pine. It is definitely a treasure."

The information gathered Friday by the climbers will be used as the agency works to preserve the forest giant, she said.

District silviculturist Pat Murphy said the big boy appears healthy, despite having been girdled a dozen years ago.

"It looks good," he said. "They were estimating it about 10 years ago as about 400 years old. It's getting up there in years. But it could live another couple of hundred years.

"The top is still putting out growth," he added. "It's putting out cones."

The agency will not take any action which could threaten the tree, he said, noting it is in a protected riparian zone of nearby Jackson Creek.

"When we go into areas, this is the type of forest we are trying to achieve with a multi-canopy and multi-species," he said.

"Today we are going to prove this is the world's tallest known sugar pine," observed Michael Taylor, 45, a mammoth-tree hunter hailing from Trinity County, Calif.

"There are a couple of sugar pines in the Sierras that are 253 (feet tall)," added Taylor, an engineer by training. "But this tree has at least two feet on them."

The world's tallest known sugar pine had been one in Yosemite National Park, rising to a little more than 269.2 feet, Taylor said. But that tree died about five years ago, taking it out of the running, Taylor said.

Taylor and the big-tree hunters have discovered a 268.35-foot champion ponderosa pine west of Grants Pass in the Wild Rivers Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It is the tallest known pine tree — of any pine species — on the planet.

Its location is not being released out of fear of potential vandalism. But road signs direct travelers to the big sugar pine some 20 miles east of Tiller.

"I think the top of this tree is still growing," Taylor said as he looked up at the tall sugar pine. "It is going to get taller. It is still vigorous."

At chest height, the trunk is more than 71/2 feet in diameter. Perhaps the cremains — cremated human remains — found scattered at the base are helping fertilize the big fellow. Taylor figures they pay tribute to the tree, left by someone fulfilling a loved one's last request.

The sign near the behemoth in the Tiller Ranger District announces it is the tallest sugar pine at 265 feet. But the height was apparently measured through the triangulation process. Taylor and fellow tall-tree aficionado Mario Vaden of Beaverton measured the tree at 255.1 feet in February, using a laser range finder. The computerized device, which considers factors such as the angle, determines how tall a tree is by measuring the time it takes the light to reflect back to the receiver.

However, dangling a measuring tape down from the top is one of the best ways to get an accurate measurement while assessing the tree's health, Taylor said.

French, 33, and Koomjian, 30, arborists living in Portland, are the founders of "Ascending the Giants," a group dedicated to measuring, preserving and focusing the spotlight on the wooden giants.

"We're excited about going up and taking a look at the crown," French said before the climb. "We want to do an assessment and collect some information about the health of this tree."

After the two climbers started the group in 2007, they took the Oregon Champion Tree Registry under their wing to help that program identify and preserve the state's biggest trees.

Since then, they have been measuring trees in such far-flung places as Hong Kong, Indonesia, China and Australia.

"One of our main motivations when we started doing this was we could use our skills as tree climbers to make people excited about big trees," Koomjian said. "We love trees. We're fascinated by trees."

Climbing a tree gives them a unique perspective, French explained.

"It's a real special place to be," he said. "It's a different perspective on the whole forest. It's kind of like the difference between driving a car and riding a bike. It's an intimate kind of perspective."

Ascending a tree can also be exhilarating, he noted.

"When you are at the top of a tree, you can feel the tree moving," he said. "Maybe it feels like being on the top of a really tall boat mast. You start to feel the sway a little bit.

"But sometimes it sneaks up on you, and you feel this real deep movement in the tree," he added. "When that happens, your stomach just drops."

Safety is the primary concern even before they begin their ascent, the climbers stressed. They thoroughly check and recheck their gear. Each step up the tree is carefully planned out.

"A little fear of heights is not a bad thing," Koomjian observed.

Once they near the top, they often use a telescoping pole that can be extended to measure the rest of the height, he said.

On Friday, the climbers first tried to use a crossbow to shoot an arrow with a rubberized tip and a fishing line attached over a limb.

"Hopefully, we will get the ideal branch we want," Koomjian said of a stout branch that would hold a climber.

The idea is to let the arrow drop down over the limb, attach a rope to it and pull that back over the limb, he explained. They use only ropes — and don't use spurs — to avoid damaging the trees, he added.

However, the first limb on the tree is about 130 above the ground, making it a challenging shot.

After four tries from the crossbow failed, they employed what amounts to a giant slingshot, firing a bean bag with the fishing line attached.

The bean bag flew over a large limb. Fortunately, the line was near the trunk, creating a safe purchase for the climbers. A rope was soon attached to the line and pulled back over the limb. One end of the rope was then tied securely.

Within an hour, French started climbing the secured rope, using a "frog" climb with his feet hooked into rope stirrups. He then used a combination of ropes, experience and strength to reach the top.

Koomjian would later join him in the vertical walk to help measure the tree.

The height was measured precisely at 255.44 feet, Taylor reported.

"That makes it the world's tallest (known) sugar pine," he said.

But he and the others believe there may be some bigger sugar pines yet to be discovered in the region.

"I think there might be a taller sugar pine around here," Taylor said. "I'd really be surprised if there was not."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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