Sequoia adventures 7/2-7/9/2009 - Day 3-5-
Will Blozan
October 7, 2009


The time had come for the 3-D mapping and volume modeling of the World’s tallest known giant sequoia. Growing just over the ridge from Whitaker Forest, this tree had been rigged and tape-dropped but the entire mapping process- including foliar, twig and cone sub-sampling- had not yet been performed. Two mapping teams were assembled for this project which was expected to span a full three days. Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine were one team and Bob Van Pelt and I the other. At 94.8 meters (311’) this tree stands just centimeters taller than another tree in Redwood Canyon.


Composite stitch of the tallest tree


Marie and Bob working on a basal tape wrap


Redwood Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park, where the tree grows, contains the lion’s share of superlative tall sequoias (and areas of high potential to this day remain unexplored…). Thus it is analogous to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Big Fork Ridge, Cataloochee, NC which contains the vast majority of the tallest known eastern hemlocks. It also contains one of the true giants mentioned in Bob Van Pelt’s superb book, Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast. The “Hart Tree” grows on a slope of Redwood Canyon and is among the 20 largest sequoias known. I noted that I was now climbing the tallest known of the largest western evergreen conifer in a superlative forest reserve just I had done in the Usis Hemlock in the Tsuga Search Project in the east. Like Bob, I was among the few climbing the giants east to west.


The superlative tree stands in a vegetation plot Bob and his colleagues had already set up. Captured in this plot as well were several super-tall sequoias including five others over 91.5 meters (300’) tall. Within sight was another tree 93.0 meters (305’) tall. The plot and surrounding forest was dominated by dense sequoias with white fir and a scattering of sugar pine. The standing volume was incredible with large trees nearly touching each other. One section of the plot had nine sequoias forming a tight grove. You could stand in the center of this grove on a thick bed of needles and be surrounded by walls of wood. It certainly would be a nice bedroom for a giant. I shot a video of the grove which I would like to post.


Dense grove in the plot


The hike to the tree was rather steep and the dusty trail made for lots of sneezes.  As before, the mosquitoes were hungry and kept us moving briskly. Wildflowers were in full blast, many of which I recognized to genus. The assemblage of herbs on the forest floor was oddly familiar to the eastern forests. The presence of the wildflowers was due to the lack of the grazing cows seen in Whitaker Forest. I loved the contrast of the lupines, charcoal and the red bark of the old sequoias.


Lupines and sequoia


The massive debris from fallen giants was also a new sight in contrast to the logged forest of Whitaker. The trail was routed through the debris- as the debris was too large to cross.



Bob passing by a fallen giant on the trail


Bob mentioned that the tallest known white fir at 69.2 meters (227’) was adjacent to the tall sequoia. A tree 70 meters (230’) tall was thought to be possible and thus was the “Holy Grail” number to shoot for. Indeed, the white firs of Redwood Canyon were incredibly tall. During the hike down I had a laser on hand to scope the forest for more tall ones. 61 meter (200’) firs were absolutely everywhere and I located several close to 67 meters (220’). I took note of a shafty tree not far from the plot just up the canyon. Clumsy shots with the heavy pack indicated a height around 70 meters. While the ropes and reference tapes were being set for the mapping I went back to take some detailed measurements. A clear top shot and basal reference set above the clutter of the 1.28 meter (4.23’) diameter trunk yielded a height of 70.4 meters (231’). SCORE!


New height record white fir 70.4 meters tall


We all took turns pulling the 183 meter (600‘) climbing rope up the tree and through the pulley. It was stubborn (stuck on a stub) and we thought we may have to re-rig the tree. It finally came through and Steve ascended first to anchor and reset the ropes for a dual ascent [one climber on each side- the pulley and anchor point was 89.2 meters (292’) up]. Once anchored, two climbers could ascend at the same time then transfer to a separate rope once at the top. Typically the data recorders stayed anchored to the ascent/descent rope while the measurers traversed the canopy on separate lines.


I ascended the opposite side that Steve went up while Marie went up after Steve. Steve and Marie were to start mapping at the top while Bob and I taped-wrapped the main stem all the way up to them [at 5 meter (16.4’) intervals]. We would then join them in the canopy mapping and divide the tree into mapping sections. Free of branches for over 46 m (150’) the trunk was awesomely open and a deep red in the brilliant morning sun. Bob hopped on the rope Marie had just left and we began to gather diameters from the ground up (Bob will do a footprint map as well). My rope was set so high and the trunk so free of branches that I was literally able to swing the entire circumference of the trunk after anchoring one end of the tape in the soft bark. Little did I know that this task was so incredibly easy compared with what was to come… However, on one swing my feet slipped out of the soft bark and I made the mistake of holding the end of the diameter tape with its claw hook. As I swung back around the tree the claw hooked deep in my thumb, ripped out and then sliced through my forefinger. Let’s just say the bark was a bit redder than usual after that.


My shadow beside the trunk shadow of the tallest tree


My thumb and finger were wrapped in duct tape which did not help my grip as we ascended the tree higher and higher. The central trunk was amazingly slow- tapered and dropped from 3.64 meters (11.9’) diameter at 10 meters (33’- where the trunk became circular) to still over 2.0 meters (6.6’) in diameter at 66.2 meters (217’). As we ascended and entered the lower crown I discovered that “my” rope had passed through an impassable tangle of branches originating from an epicormic fan. When Steve reset the rope after being stuck none of us could see that it had passed through where it did. I recall this being about 50 meters (165’) up. I had to disconnect from the main rope and use my lanyard to secure to the tree while I wrestled my way up, around, and over this mess of slippery branches. I was secured to the tree but was nervous nonetheless since the whole epicormic system could fail and I would go with it. An unlikely event- but no backup plan since I could not reconnect to the main rope until after I had passed the tangled mess. I disconnected reluctantly and grabbed the branches to pull myself around. I successfully made it over but while I was reattaching to the main line the branch I was sitting on failed. This was a live 5 inch diameter branch! Man, these trees are weak! Fortunately (and deliberately) I was straddled over several such braches and they held. I definitely strained some clenching muscles I did not know I had! I noted the cracked branch (it had not been mapped yet) and continued upward. The trunk wraps became more challenging as I could no longer swing around the trunk and the branches and limbs were huge. The trunk was still over 2.45 meters (8’) thick even though we were 56.6 meters (186’) off the ground. Bob and I tossed the tape to each other as best we could.


The main trunk ended at 87.9m (288’). From here and farther below the top bifurcated again and again into a literal forest of thick stems. Some were dead, partly dead and two ascended into the highest points of the tree. Steve was on the highest leader. I ascended the other leader which topped out at 94.5 meters (310’). I was tied in to the tree at 305’- my personal highest climb.


Top bifurcations and reiterations at ~79 meters (260’)


Me in the top. (Actually, this is in a different tree…) Photo courtesy and © of Steve Sillett.


Steve and I were the canopy scramblers and carried with us various instruments. We had lasers for distances, carpenter’s tapes for shorter distances, diameter tapes, compasses, as well as climbing gear; straps, pulleys, carabineers etc.. Some were duplicated in the event of dropping a piece of gear. Of course, all were tethered but descending out of the top of the tree to retrieve a diameter tape was not a reasonable option. Besides, after falling several hundred feet the tape would have buried itself deep in the duff layer and would never be found.


With this gear Steve and I measured the crown of the tree in its entirety. Every branch and every limb and every trunk was measured and referenced in three-dimensional space. The point where a branch originated was known; its height, azimuth and distance from ground zero (the center of the base of the tree). For each branch we also measured how long it was, the slope and direction it was growing, the diameter, and the amount of foliage it had. We also counted cones (live and dead) on a subset of branches. Each live branch was assessed as to how many foliar units it supported. A foliar unit was a concise amount of live foliage that can be quantified on a small scale. Thus, the cumulative assessment of the foliar units on each and every branch would indicate the amount of foliage on the entire tree. Prior to data collection we all calibrated since foliar units were not physically measured but subjectively estimated. Later, a sample of a branch would be excised from the tree and carried back to camp for detailed sub-sampling.


The highest point of the tree. Note that it is cracked and leaning to the right.



Bob at about 43m (141’) with Steve above. Note one of two original branches above Bob.


Bob and I started the mapping process methodically from the top down. He would select a limb or branch system and we would map it in its entirety before moving to the next. This way the tree was divided into a logical progression and confusion was minimized. Each system had a distinct name based on the hierarchy of the mapping system and its placement (height) in the tree. Some systems took hours to map and some were quick. It all depended on the complexity of the system. This was a very old tree and thus very little of it was not complex.


Live reiteration off a branch of a dead reiteration off an epicormic sprout off a dead original branch…


…with Steve by it for scale… pondering what the %#$^ this thing is- and how to map it!


Epicormic fan with epiphytic Corylus plants at 61 meters (200’)


Marie and Steve eating a delicious boiled egg breakfast at the beginning of the second day of mapping. The dead stub below the twisted mass of epicormic gnarlage is the remains of the original branch. These brittle chunks of wood were the skeletal remains of the original tree’s branches. All but two were long dead.


Better view of the dead original stubs and live epicormic sprouts surrounding them.


In fact, the entire crown of this tree contained only two original branches. The rest of the crown including the entire top was composed of epicormic sprouts and reiterated trunks. The remaining two original branches were absolutely huge and differed immensely from the epicormic sprouts. The original branches were close to each other and heading in the same direction. They were in fact, entwined. What was so wild about these two relics of the original crown was that both were plagiotropic- that is they grew in a cascade down the trunk. The lower and larger branch system, ~.6 m diameter and originating at plunged about 18m (~60‘) down the trunk. It also extended about 10m (33’) from the trunk and had small, vertical reiterations erupting to try growing upward. Climbing out (down) on these draperies of gnarliness was actually rather easy. I would literally slide my way down while lowering myself in elevation. I was connected to the structure via my lanyard which kept me on the branch. As I got farther out I set a redirect to anchor my tie-in point so a big, nasty swing to the trunk wouldn’t be the result of an errant slip while repositioning my lanyard.


Here I am after redirecting my rope to descend even further out a plagiotropic branch. Note reiterated trunk below, right of me. ©S. Sillett


Steve among the numerous foliar units and a sea of young fir below.


Marie laughing as Steve is swallowed by an epicormic octopus- see his feet?


The mapping of this tree did indeed take three days. The last day we were assisted by Brian Kotwicka- the fantastic artist for the Sherrill Tree catalogs. He climbed to extract a branch out of the tree to carry back for further dissection and analysis. Although only 7.0 cm in basal diameter the branch took three of us to carry it out. It is a good thing we finished when we did as a forest fire entered the opposite side of the canyon and the trail was closed the next day by the Park Service. On the way out Bob and I measured another white fir I spotted off the trail. Growing at the base of a steep slope and wedged in with towering sequoias, this tree soared to another record height of 71.5 meters (234.5’)!


Bob dividing up the sample to share the load. The cones were HEAVY!


Forest fire burning into Redwood Canyon. The last day of the mapping was quite smoky.


Smoky view on the last day of mapping


And the fourth day we rested. Well, sort of. We spent a long day exploring a granitic dome and Sequoia National Park- including the Grant grove and Giant Forest with the four largest trees on earth. This stunning trip will be the next installment…


Will F. Blozan

President, Eastern Native Tree Society

President, Appalachian Arborists, Inc.

Continued at: