Fork Ridge Tuliptree climb
All the variables needed for the climb of the tall tuliptree Ian Breckheimer located last May finally came into place. An NPS research permit, good weather, and competent arborists convened last week for the initial ascent and modeling of the super-tree. The expedition members were Josh Kelly, Hugh Irwin, Michael Davie, Mike Riley, Nich Maidment, Aaron Knoblet, Ana Poirier, and I. I should note that this group consisted of a collaborative effort of FIVE tree care companies! Ian Breckheimer and his father Steve, whom found the tree, also joined us later in the day.
The hike in was around four miles (6.7 km). We set up a base camp and decided to go ahead and haul the climbing gear in to the tree, verify the height, and if time permitted, rig it with ropes for the next day of measuring. We decided to access the location of the tree from an adjacent ridge, opting for a descent to the site rather than a potential nasty bushwhack up a steep slope with heavy packs. This added a good bit more hiking but left the unknowns to a minimum. Unfortunately, Ana lost a boot during the first stream crossing and she and Josh stayed back to try to locate it.
All I had to go on was a GPS point that Josh gave me. He was not in the climbing group that went up for the rigging so we entered unknown territory. The slope was ridiculously steep and the effort to stay upright was compounded by the weight of the gear. In a semi-controlled slide we dropped off the ridge and down into a steep, rich cove. The transition from dry ridge top to lush, tall cove forest was abrupt. We scouted ahead and spotted what we thought may be the tree. Nope; farther down we went. We did not know what to expect- except we knew it was a large tree.
Michael Davie and I were leading the group and at the same time we saw “the tree”. This time, it was obvious! It was also a lot bigger than I imagined, especially in the crown. Just to be sure we roughly measured the height. Various expletives echoed in the steep cove as both Mike and I measured the height of the tree to over 190 feet (58 m). Yep, we found it!
The rest of the group tumbled down and we assessed the tree. I was most worried about rigging it and climbing among the large amount of deadwood present. Josh Kelly had thought the lowest branch was around 85 feet (26 m). Well, the first fork was closer to ~102 feet (31 m); the second at ~115 feet (35 m). Neither was suitable in the slightest for rigging the tree; they were too tight and too large to scramble over even if we could get a line set there. Also, potential pitches between the upper branches were few and far between. I explored with the laser scope and found the only available spot for an ascension rope. It was solidly 160 feet (49 m) above the base. This height is beyond any human capacity to hand-throw and out of the reasonable range of conventional rigging devices such as slingshots.
Fortunately, I anticipated this being the case and with the help of my son, Aven, built a pneumatic throw-weight launcher. This device uses compressed air from a bike pump to propel a 12 ounce throw-weight with a thin line attached to it. The bag with thin trailing line is launched into the tree, over a suitable branch, and then a climbing line is attached and pulled through. This allows us to ascend up the rope, not the tree itself. Traditionally, at least in eastern trees, a pole-mounted slingshot is used. But we needed something easier to carry, more predictable and capable of greater range. Our collapsible device had launched the throw-weight and line 300 feet (91 m) vertically in testing. Now it was time for the real test.
I located a spot with a clean shot to the intended branch fork. As most arborists familiar with tall tree climbing know, the first shot is always a “calibration shot” and often results in a deployment tangle nightmare of throwline. I had full intention of a blown shot, so while the others were getting out their cameras to film the “real shot”, I opened the valve. Much to everyone’s surprise the bag sailed cleanly through the intended fork and clear out the other side of the tree! With a bit of finagling with some minor tangles the tree was rigged. A single shot rigged the tallest tree yet climbed in the eastern US!
We only had 300 feet (91 m) of static rope so we had to anchor one end upslope to allow the other end to reach the ground for climbing. With my rigging fear in the past, we had time to climb the tree and return to camp before dark. I was the only one who went up, and I did an initial inspection and tried to come up with a plan for the next day. Shortly before I ascended Ian and Steve joined us. Ana and Josh also had just arrived after an unsuccessful attempt to find her wayward boot. She hiked in Josh’s way-too-big sandals stuffed with socks and duct-taped to her feet.
The hanging rope illustrated how the tree slightly but significantly leaned and also how offset the top was. I was not sure which top was the tallest but we were definitely rigged on the correct leader. The tree forked into three main tops. All of these were stout and alive with new leaves just emerging.
I ascended the rope and watched the trunk taper a bit and then remain virtually unchanged for over 80 feet (24 m). The bark was thick and indicative of an old tree. The first limb fork was huge since the trunk was still nearly four feet thick. Epiphytic birches were present in the debris of the closely squeezed fork. No rope would ever have fit in there without locking up. Same for the next fork, which was the top of the main trunk. This point was 115.5 feet (35.2 m) above the base and 46.5” (1.18 m) diameter.
Above the last fork the three main tops spiraled and spread apart. There were virtually no more straight sections as the tops wound their way upwards. Huge pieces of deadwood teetered and shook as I climbed into the crown. I left the ascension rope and switched to a double-rope climbing technique. At 175 feet (53.3 m) I stopped climbing higher and scouted the tops. The lead I had climbed was not the tallest point but within a foot or two. I decided I could reach the tallest point with a pole the next day for the tape drop. I set my line, descended to the other rope and rappelled down to the ground. We also identified and set the midslope position with pins. The tree was ready!
We left the gear hung in the trees and dropped down the cove to check out the stream crossing as a possible better option for the return the next day. It was a far better option, and much quicker.
The next morning was cold but clear and we were relatively unencumbered by heavy gear. Five climbers went up for the volume modeling; Mike, Nich, Ana, Michael and I. I was the primary data recorder while the others traversed the crown and relayed the measurements. I had full intention of doing the 3D crown mapping this day but soon became overwhelmed with the complexity of the tree and the logistics of doing it without a survey laser. It was all but impossible in the amount of time we had.
The focus thus changed to a tape drop and volume modeling of the entire tree. I climbed up near the top and with a 17 foot (5.2 m) pole was able to isolate and measure the highest twig. The highest point was not over anything solid- and originated on a twisted part of the main central lead. With a clinometer I transferred the measurement to the other lead that Mike Riley was on so we could drop the tape from there and have it as close to the trunk as possible. The tape was dropped and Josh was on the ground and “zeroed” it on the midslope tack.
We were anxious to know how tall the tree actually was. The “Boogerman Pine” at 188.9 feet (57.6 m) was the number to beat. The pine has had the reign as the tallest eastern tree since 1995. Well, the Boogerman has been surpassed. The tape drop of the great tuliptree was 191.9 feet (58.5 m)! This is the first tuliptree ever accurately measured to exceed 190 feet (57.9 m) and it now stands as the tallest native broadleaf tree known in all of temperate North America- surpassing a black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) in Olympic National Park by over 10 feet (3 m)!
We went about the volume modeling for the rest of the day. It actually didn’t take all that long since there were not too many pieces to measure. Not having to monument them in three dimensions really did speed things up.
Back at camp, Josh and I were speculating on the volume of the tree. I estimated ~2,600 cubic feet (73.6 m3) when it was thought to be 187 feet (57 m) tall. After the tape drop we both thought it may be closer to 3,000 cubic feet (85 m3). Admittedly, that is a lot of wood for a moderate sized tree. However, some of the hemlocks Jess Riddle and I had modeled for the Tsuga Search Project were surprisingly large for the relatively small basal dimensions. This is because although rather slender, they were very tall trees and had really long, slow-tapered trunks. Ditto on this tree- and our suspicions were correct.
Table 1: Sampled tree lengths, volume and relative distribution
Length (ft ) Length (m) Volume (ft3) Volume (m3) Percent
Main trunk 115.5 (35.1) 2,015.8 (57.1) 70.9%
Segments 438.32 (133.6) 791.3 (22.4) 27.8%
Branches 573 (174.7) 37.1 (1.1) 1.3%
Tree totals 1126.82 (343.5) 2,844.2 (80.6)
At 2,844 cubic feet (80.6 m3) this is not a small tree. It is likely larger than most other “big ones” of much shorter height. The large size of this moderate tree has us rethinking the size of some of the other big tuliptrees we know of but have heretofore not thought seriously about. Since they are short or have a short main trunk with a large crown we have regarded them as being smaller than a larger trunked tree. Curiously, the main trunk volume of this tree rivals the volume of some of the modeled giants with considerably larger diameters but shorter trunks. This, coupled with the relatively small crown of this tree still having nearly 800 cubic feet of wood has got our attention!
In addition to the climb, tape drop, and volume modeling completed by the climbers, Hugh, Ian and Josh worked on a .2 hectare (.5 acre) circular plot of the woody stems surrounding the target tree. The exceptional growing potential of the site is further demonstrated by the results of the plot which included the heights of the surrounding trees. Including the target tree, there are nine Liriodendron in the plot, all over 31” dbh. Two of the trees adjacent to the target tree are over 170’ tall (see table 2) – both tuliptree. There has been some discussion about this, but this plot certainly has eye popping above ground biomass. Whether old-growth stands such as this have higher biomass than second growth stands is a worthy topic of future research.
Table 2: Dominant and Co-dominant Trees in plot
Species DBH Height (feet)
Liriodendron tulipifera 49.15 (114.7 cm) 172.7 (52.6 m)
Liriodendron tulipifera 48.2 (122.4 cm) 172 (52.4 m)
Liriodendron tulipifera 54 (137.2 cm) N/A
Liriodendron tulipifera 41.7 (105.9 cm) 157.4 (48 m)
Liriodendron tulipifera 47.8 (121.4 cm) 167.5 (51.1 m)
Liriodendron tulipifera 42.8 (108.7 cm) N/A
Liriodendron tulipifera 55.5 (141 cm) 149.1 (45.5 m)
Liriodendron tulipifera 31.7 (80.5 cm) N/A
Liriodendron tulipifera 67.8 (172.2 cm) 191.9 (target tree 58.5 m)
Betula lenta 23.3 (59.2 cm) N/A
Tsuga canadensis 31.1 (79 cm) N/A
Fraxinus americana 34.2 (86.9 cm) 140+ (42.7 m)
It appears the crown volume of these trees is considerable and adds up to some serious volume. The “Greenbrier Giant” in Tennessee comes to mind immediately. This is a fat, stumpy tree but it has an immense crown. Another big tree in Deep Creek that we took some time to measure may fall into this category. This giant is 21’1” CBH (6.4 m) and 179 feet (54.6 m) tall. It has a rather short trunk but what a crown! This tree could very well rival the huge 4,013 cubic foot (113.6 m3) Sag Branch Tuliptree that has the current reign as the largest tuliptree known.
These superlative titles of height and volume may soon pass to trees yet to be discovered within a new study just initiated by ENTS. This three year study of superlative tuliptree in the Smokies (NC side only) is a permitted study. Locations of the trees cannot be given on publically accessible sites such as the ENTS BBS. However, all ENTS are encouraged to participate in this project and assist in the field efforts.
Thus, the climb of the Fork Ridge Tuliptree is the beginning of a new understanding of the species. It is also the tip of the iceberg- as it is quite likely that we have not found the tallest one yet. LiDAR strongly suggests taller trees may out there. They are remote and it will take some serious effort to document them all.
The National Park Service plans to submit a press release next week about this tree and the work of ENTS. This should get some great exposure for the park and the resources it protects, as well as the important work we ENTS are doing in the eastern forests.
Submitted by Will Blozan (with special thanks to Ian and Josh) on behalf of the ENTS LiDAR and NPS Tuliptree study crew