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Land of the Giants

Veteran tree climber Will Koomjian studied the two towering ponderosa pine trees for a moment as he pondered how to cross from one to the other.

"What I'll do is set a line in the other tree and traverse over," Koomjian said, then added, "But it's going to be airy."

As in 220 feet of air between him and the forest floor far below.

An arborist by profession, Koomjian, 29, is a founding member of Ascending the Giants, a group of tree climbers whose tasks include measuring trees in Oregon nominated for the National Register of Big Trees kept by American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

The Portland resident, along with fellow tree-climbing arborists Damien Carre, 30, also of Portland, and Augie Schilling, 41, of Ashland, was physically measuring what its finders believe is the world's tallest ponderosa pine in a heavily forested basin in the Wild Rivers Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Big-tree hunters Michael Taylor of Trinity County, Calif., and Mario Vaden of Beaverton had discovered the big fellow they have dubbed the Phalanx on Jan. 3.

The basin is south of the Rogue River and within 24 miles west of Grants Pass. The tree hunters asked that the pine's exact location not be identified because of the potential for vandalism.

Early on Thursday, the three climbers, who had never before been to the site, used a GPS to find the area of the big pines. Figuring the tree with the biggest trunk was the tallest of the two, they used a large slingshot to shoot a weight attached to a thin throw line over a large limb high in the tree. From there, they pulled a climbing rope capable of holding 5,000 pounds of dead weight over the limb.

Koomjian then climbed up the rope and secured the line to the trunk in anticipation of the ascent, with Schilling to measure it with a tape.

But there was a glitch. That other big tree about 80 feet away, the one with the slightly smaller trunk, was actually the tallest, Vaden explained when he arrived.

No problem, Koomjian said. To save time, he would climb back up the rope on the shorter tree, throw the weight tied with the light line over a stout limb on the nominated tree and lower the weight to the ground, where a climbing rope would be attached. The rope would be anchored and pulled taut, providing access to the other tree, he explained.

"It's going to be awesome," he said of the traverse.

The bottom line, he said, is that they were in the land of giants.

"You could go through a forest for weeks and weeks looking at ponderosa pines and not find a tree this amazing," he said. "That is a special tree."

As they prepared for the ascent, the three climbers talked about their profession, from its allures to its inherent dangers.

"Every time we go up a tree like this it is inspiring," Carre said. "These are majestic, living organisms. They are going to live on this planet much longer than we ever will. And they've seen a lot. They were around when grizzlies and wolves were here hundreds of years ago."

"A lot of people look at a tree in a forest and see it as just like the one next to it," Koomjian said. "For us, each of these big trees has its own story, its own personality. Like any living organism, it is a mix of its own genetics and its environment."

They compare tall tree climbing to scuba diving in that they enter a different world, thanks to the creatures that live 200 feet above the ground.

Like the water currents below, there are air streams that impact the arboreal world. For instance, the wind can bend a tree, definitely catching the climber's attention, noted Schilling, who has been climbing trees for 20 years.

"You can easily go 10 feet, maybe 15 feet, off center," he said. "When you are up there doing that, it feels like it will never stop. You get out there and think, 'Wow. Maybe this is going to keep going.' It takes a while before it stops and you head back the other way.

"We are a bug on a living thing," he added. "There are many times I feel so insignificant compared to these trees."

Because of the danger, safety is paramount, Koomjian said. Once the climbing rope is pulled over a limb as close to the trunk as possible, they test the limb's strength by having several climbers hang on the rope at the same time, he said.

"It can look fine but it has to pass what engineers call the 'proof test,' " he said.

Like wilderness campers, their goal is to leave no trace behind of their passing.

"The tree is not used to having humans on it," Carre said. "The bark is solid but it is still kind of frail at the same time."

"You tread as lightly as possible when you are in a tree," said Koomjian, whose tree climbing has taken him to Hong Kong and Borneo.

It's common practice to measure a potential champion tree with a laser first, followed by a measuring tape, he said. Taylor employs a laser range finder whose computer considers factors such as the angle and determines how tall a tree is by measuring the time it takes the light to reflect back to the receiver.

His laser reading placed the tree's height at a world record 268.3 feet.

"Michael Taylor is very, very good at measuring trees with a laser," Koomjian said. "If he measures it with a laser and says it is that tall, I have a very high degree of confidence that he is spot on. He is one of the best."

With his feet hooked into rope stirrups, he began climbing the already established rope, using a "frog" climb perfected by cavers and rock climbers. Once he got to about 220 feet, he threw the weight over a stout limb on the other tree. Within an hour, he was ready to traverse over to the nomination tree.

Upon reaching the halfway point, Koomjian took a break. Down on the ground, Carre checked in via radio.

"Everything good up there?" Carre asked.

"Everything is good but I'm telling you what — this is scary," Koomjian replied. "Man!"

"You've definitely got some exposure now but you've got good ropes on you," Carre told him.

As he watched what amounted to a high-wire act in the forest, Carre observed that his fellow climber has faith in his gear and his abilities, two factors that have taken him through past experiences that have tested both.

"We love to do what we are doing," Carre said. "But we also want to live to keep doing it."

Upon reaching the nomination tree, Koomjian radioed down to Carre, "Man, I'm telling you that was nervy."

A few minutes later Schilling was climbing the nomination tree to help Koomjian measure it. He quickly disappeared into the canopy.

Before the climbers lowered the tape, Taylor did a ground level survey to determine the precise ground level.

The tape slowly snaked its way down through the canopy where Carre and Taylor checked the height.

"I would call this 268 on the nose," Taylor announced. "This is the tallest ponderosa pine in the world, confirmed by Ascending the Giants."

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

Will Koomjian traverses to the world's tallest ponderosa pine, 268 feet tall, in the Wild River Ranger District of the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch