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Know the West

A tree-climber's tale of harvesting cones to save whitebark pines


You wipe the sweat out of your eyes with a sap-stiffened glove, clinging tightly with your other hand to the one live branch, thick as a hammer handle, that is keeping you up here and alive, 30 feet or so above the rocky earth, while your boots struggle to balance on twigs and your knees try to grip the tree's little weather-blasted top. Every tree is different, but one thing is constant: Once you've strung your rope around the bushy shoots of the treetop, collecting them all together into one, ideally weight-bearing, anchor, and tied your arborists' knot, when you finally have the holy rope to hold you there, the sweating slows, the spit returns to your dry mouth. Then you can settle your weight against the padded waist strap of your harness, and let your flip rope -- the one you climbed the tree with -- hang free, push back your climbing helmet and look around at the surreally beautiful landscape of Montana's Beartooth Plateau stretching forever in the incandescent September sunlight.

This particular tree is a whitebark pine, heavy with a crop of cones. The crown cones in front of your face are the color of dark rich chocolate, encased in sap that protects them from the furious high-altitude light. In the early morning cold, the sap is hard as refrigerated bubble gum. Later, during the heat of the day, it will drip, clogging carabiners, harness and helmet buckles, pocket-knives. It gums your eyelashes shut and tastes like a primitive soap.

The giant yellow vinyl bag you've dragged through the lower thickets of branches, the one they call "the pig," which is always either hung up below you, or on the wrong side of the tree, or so heavy with cones that you cannot move it at all, is empty now. You tie it off with a simple hitch around a branch that looks stout enough to hold it. The carabiner that holds it to your harness is stuck open with sap. As you twist the cones free and drop them into the pig, they land with hollow thuds that remind you that the day is just beginning. Hours of climbing are ahead of you, hours of stripping a sap-hardened rope through your knot as you work down this tree and the next and the next, hours of hauling bushel bags of cones back to the truck or rally point, hours of cold rain or blazing sun, of fear and danger and the joy of being free under the vast eye of heaven, making good money and, just maybe, helping ensure that this species of tree survives.

I'd worked harvesting cones before that morning in 2009, mostly climbing ponderosa pines around Montana, in the Bitterroot and Sapphire ranges and south of Big Timber, and even plucking, twisting, cutting cones -- thousands of them -- from felled trees piled in the dust and heat of a logging unit in South Dakota's Black Hills. But for anybody who has ever spent a lot of time up high at timber's edge -- skiing peaks, scrambling, climbing, wandering -- the whitebarks have a grandeur beyond that of the mightiest ponderosa, or the stately, disheveled western cedars in their shadowy cathedral, or even the ship's-spar of a western white pine, towering over the rest of the canopy.

The whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulus) is mostly found clinging to the treeline -- more or less the last stop in the life zone -- in a core range that extends from the U.S. Northern Rockies into Canada, and some outlying island populations in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. They're the sturdiest, most obstinate of trees, scarred by lightning, sculpted and bonsai'd by centuries of the kind of weather that destroys lesser plants and animals. They inspire reverence in every true mountaineer, simply because they embody what is most powerful about alpine climbing: the ability not just to survive, but to thrive under the harshest conditions that this ruthless part of the planet can dish out. I heard recently from an expert that there is a whitebark pine on Railroad Ridge in Idaho's Sawtooths that is 1,275 years old. Yes, indeed.

The current whitebark crisis alarms Western conservationists: A combined attack by fast-moving native mountain pine beetles and white pine blister rust, a slow disease spread by an invading fungus, is passing over the Rocky Mountains like a grim wind, leaving hundreds of thousands of the trees -- entire subalpine forests, many of them in iconic places, such as around Yellowstone National Park -- in skeletal ruin. A succession of warmer winters, hotter summers and precipitation shifts has left already-stressed trees especially vulnerable to the beetles, which are erupting in the largest outbreak ever recorded. Most of the news headlines shriek about how the beetles are wiping out lodgepole pines, but they pose an even greater threat to whitebarks.

The whitebarks and another high-altitude five-needled conifer -- the limber pine (Pinus flexilis) -- form a cornerstone of the region's ecology. Their seeds, which glisten like bits of ivory-colored lard, are a favorite of grizzly bears and Clark's nutcrackers, as well as of the tough little alpine squirrels on which martens, fishers and raptors prey. The birds carefully pick apart the rock-hard cones to get the seeds, and the squirrels patiently gather thousands and stash them in middens that they then cover with duff, stocked up for the austere winter months to come. Black bears haul themselves into the trees and perch in them, biting cones and extracting the seeds. Grizzlies, not built for arboreal pursuits, simply seek out the squirrel middens, digging them up and eating their fill -- devouring the cones whole.

Whitebarks are an important food source for Yellowstone-area grizzlies, and they also play a crucial role in regulating spring and summer runoff. The distinctive thick "bottle-brush" shapes of these trees and other five-needled pines catch and hold snowfall, and the snow lingers in their shade, melting slowly. When whitebarks die off, snow piles up on the newly unshaded ground, so that warm weather and spring rain bring chaotic floods rather than the gradual quenching runoff produced by a healthy forest. The familiar image of endangered grizzly bears, starving for whitebark seeds and dying in conflicts with men while seeking alternative food in the crowded lowlands, is only part of the bigger picture.

Humanity's role in the whitebark crisis is so clear that it seems to beg for divine retribution: So that the Lord could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which you have committed; therefore is your land a desolation, and an astonishment, and a curse, without an inhabitant ... (Jeremiah 44:22). But this kind of misanthropy is the featherbed of the modern nature lover, the lazy endpoint of every exhausting conversation about the mismanagement of the world. It's way too easy to be a misanthropist.

And it's wrong, at least in this case, at least so far. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the whitebark pine meets the criteria for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A chronic shortage of federal money means that for now, it won't be formally listed as threatened, but the agencies and conservationists are mustering all their resources on behalf of the trees (see sidebar on page 18). As part of this effort, tree-climbers are paid to fan out in the high-elevation forests, harvesting whitebark pinecones so that the seeds can be used to grow new stands of whitebarks in U.S. Forest Service nurseries. So far, the rate of new planting doesn't come close to replacing the rapidly dying whitebark forests, but it's a start.

I got into picking pinecones thanks to a couple of guys -- Dave and Gabriel -- I met while rock climbing in Kootenai Canyon in the Bitterroots of Montana in 1994. They were both 15, spending long days in the canyon, swimming the creek, lounging on the rocks and sport climbing bolted 5.12s barefooted. I was 31, a trad climber, setting gear that included already-ancient hex nuts that I'd used on the sandstone of Alabama and Tennessee and hauled everywhere, from Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows to the Bitterroots. I had a worn-out pair of original Fire Boreals -- the earliest sticky-rubber climbing shoes -- clipped to my over-the-shoulder climbing rack, and could climb, at least on top rope, hard 5.9 in my Galibier mountain boots.

When I met Dave and Gabriel, and for long years after, I worked in the woods, thinning timber, logging on private land, and doing everything from treeplanting to digging fireline to building trails on public lands. When Dave and Gabriel reached their 20s, they figured out how to get contracts for the pinecone harvest -- a natural job for an expert climber. In 2002, I found myself, tied-off high in a ponderosa over Sleeping Child Creek in Montana's Sapphires, subcontracting for them.

Back then, we harvested mostly ponderosa pinecones, or spruce or larch cones, for silviculturists who were looking for seed from sturdy, healthy trees to reforest logging units or reclaimed mining ground, or places where fires had burned so hot that, left alone, the land would take decades or longer to recover.

Those trees are not endangered, so you can climb them more easily than you climb whitebarks -- with heavy spurs that strap to your boots and go up your calves like a brace, with another strap below the knee. You set your spurs into the tree's bark, toss your flip rope around the tree trunk and secure both ends of it to your harness, and move upward, flipping the rope up with you, spurring and climbing. If your spurs slip, the flip rope will catch on something and keep you from hitting the ground, but it's more than a safety device, it's the way you climb, putting your weight onto your harness and leaning back so you can stab your spurs deep into the bark. Scary at first, but the motion feels natural. When you reach a live limb, you grab it, unclip your flip rope, flip it above the limb and clip back in. You are truly safe then, though it takes a while to convince your mind of that.

Once you spur-and-flip-rope your way up to the top of a ponderosa, you set your mainline -- the rope you will use for your descent -- and start sliding down it, harvesting cones and dropping them into the pig. You can use your hands to twist the cones off the tree or use an extendable pole pruner to clip off the cones, which allows you to reach farther to work the tree from a more stable stance without moving around on your rope so much. The farther you extend the pole pruner, though, the faster you exhaust your wrists, forearms and elbows by holding it up and pulling the cord that operates the little cutting jaws at the end. The pole pruner is efficient until it gets clogged with sap. It's also the tool most likely to cause tendonitis in your elbows, while preventing the tendonitis in your wrists that you would get from twisting off cones by hand.

With the radical decline in whitebark forests, though, the harvesting of their cones is done more delicately, making it more interesting, and a bit more dangerous.

No forester in his or her right mind would permit a climber to stomp steel spurs into the last of the planet's whitebarks. You have to tackle the whitebarks in boots or shoes that won't hurt the tree. You can still use your flip rope for safety if you get spooked or exhausted, and let it dangle along behind you if you feel at ease. The one absolute is that there can be no loops, because anything that can snag, will snag, and it will snag at the worst possible time -- Murphy's law rules the heights of rock and ice and tree alike. As you climb, you jerk the pig through the branches, and drag your mainline -- sometimes a special arborists' rope that handles very nicely, or if you're a jackleg part-timer like myself, a sap-blackened old rock-climbing rope, clipped to a steel ring on your harness, right below your belly button, at your center of gravity.

When you get to the top of the tree, you secure yourself to the trunk or to a group of branches, using your flip rope. Then you unclip your mainline from your harness (shuddering, because if you drop it, you lose your finest ally, your partner in all that is safe and good), so you can pass it around a part of the trunk that is at least four inches in diameter, and tie the free end back to your harness, using a bowline or figure-eight knot that has about five feet of tail. Then you wrap that tail three or four times around the part of the mainline that is hanging down to the ground (you hope), making the high-friction, slide-able arborists' knot. You are now "tied in," and if you use your right hand to slide the friction knot down the mainline, you can control your descent, bracing your legs against the trunk or branches, leaning way back into the harness, removing the cones and placing them one by one into the pig instead of dropping them to the dirty forest floor, where they might be spoiled by fungus or other contaminants.

But before you start your working descent, there is usually one more adrenaline-pumping job: Crown cones that must be picked, way up there where the tree trunk is much too slender to support your weight. You must strip the required number of feet of slack through the arborists' knot, make sure that slack is not in your way, and climb up into that treetop. If you fall, if the top breaks out -- and they do -- you will go for a terrifying ride until your mainline catches you. Taking the crown cones is like leading a rock climb, and sometimes, at the end of exhausting days, or in the rain, or on bleary hungover mornings, you have to do it even when everything in your body is screaming, begging you to stay safely on your flip rope, safely tied in, with no slack in the system, no slack anywhere, please Lord.

And for whitebarks, in addition to no spurs, you can't use the cutting jaws of your pole pruner,  because they also might damage the tree or transmit fungus or disease. You can only use the pruner as a hook, to pull distant branches toward you to get the cones, an all-day pulling exercise that no rowing machine or wrist-curl bar in any gym can quite prepare you for.

When the pig is full of whitebark pinecones, you lower it so your partner can empty it and bag the cones in burlap, labeled with a meticulously filled-out tag, identifying species, date, place and the number of the tree or area. Then you tote bushel bags to the drop-off point and everything is loaded into a truck for transport to a big walk-in cone cooler at the nearest Forest Service work center.

The pigs are abysmally heavy and awkward when full, and the several-times-a-day lowering of a heavy pig, using a branch as a belay point, burns the kind of calories that can't really be replaced during the climbing season, no matter how much Nutella or cream cheese you slather onto your Fig Newtons, or how many Milky Ways you gobble down.

2009 was a big pinecone harvest year. I went back to the woods for the best month, starting out Sept. 1 on ponderosas in the dry sauna of the Black Hills of South Dakota, and ending the month with ponderosas in the snow, in the Ekalaka Hills of southeast Montana, with a long stretch in the middle for harvesting whitebarks on the Beartooth Plateau above Red Lodge, Mont.

Dave and Gabriel had been out earlier in the summer "caging" -- carefully placing plastic or metal mesh cages over developing cones on whitebark trees across Montana and into Wyoming. The foresters had picked out what they believed to be the best trees and flagged them with orange streamers, and the climbers then went up, hauling the pig, which at that point contained only a stack of cages and plastic zip ties to secure them on the branches around the cones. Caging has become necessary in most cases -- wild animals love whitebark seeds so much that most trees are stripped of their cones before they fully mature. Too often, a climber who has worked hard to scramble up into an uncaged tree in search of a valuable bushel of cones will find that somebody else got to them first: Clark's nutcrackers, maybe, leaving plundered cones that look like little exploded nut-brown afro-wigs.

Because I came late to the game that year, I missed some of the fun stuff: 50-foot-tall whitebarks in Montana's Flathead forests that grew as straight as lodgepole pines. Those were climbed with a long ladder pressed up against the tree, kept in place with the leverage provided by the climber's flip rope. Foresters hoped that the ladders would be less harmful to the trees than normal climbing methods, but Dave said they were a huge hassle. For one thing, you have to carry them for five miles or more up narrow trails. Then, the bottom of even the tallest whitebarks is usually a bristle-brush thicket of branches, and you simply can't get the ladder flat enough against the tree; the top of the ladder winds up feet away from the tree trunk. So the crew devised another not-very-intrusive method: "For some of those, we used the beanbag," Dave said, "throwing the beanbag with a string on it, way up and through the branches, letting it fall on the far side of the tree, then tying the climbing rope onto the string, hauling it through and over some fairly stout limb or around the trunk, then tying into the rope. Your partner sets up a standard rock-climbing belay, and you hug the tree and head up, busting through the lower branches with your helmet, shimmying and hoping. If you fall before you get to the bigger live limbs, he catches you."

We never really made a camp that September. The work was so scattered across the West that there were few nights spent in the same place. There were four of us by then: Dave, Gabriel, Jeff -- a Bitterroot Valley construction contractor, whom we had all known for years -- and me. I was the only one who had not been making a good living in construction prior to the collapse of '08, which hit the Bitterroot particularly hard. Dave had his own construction business and bought two houses during the boom times. Now his mother occupied one of them, and he was struggling to hold on to the other, where his wife and three children lived. Jeff went into the pinecone harvest business to try to hold onto his house.

There is money in this work: A climber harvesting most varieties of cones, including those from uncaged whitebarks, gets paid by the bushel. In a caged tree, where you might only collect a dozen cones, the climber is paid by the tree. The pay varies, but it beats the hell out of most laborer's or writer's wages; in a good year, when the trees are producing and the Forest Service needs cones, a strong climber can make a few hundred bucks a day.

This was nothing like my other woods work, the tree-planting of the 1980s, say, with its wild anarchist encampments, rife with beer and dope and drifters. Nothing like constructing trails, with the punishing logistics, tools, colossal backpacks, damp tents, tiny campstoves, cosmic levels of effort, innovation and exhaustion. Nothing like firelining, slashing, thinning, where you sometimes work for days alone, earplugs in tight, lost in the alternate universe ruled by the saw, the oil, the gasoline. This whitebark work was climbing, with its total insistence on focus; it was silent, except for whatever songs you could remember to keep you moving. It was not until late in the day that you noticed a sudden irritation with the rope, an enraging branch that lashed you across the face, a pole pruner that you could no longer hold upright, when you realized just how weary and hungry you were.

Nights we went our separate ways to cook and eat and clean up, and then gathered to sit around a small fire if there was a place to build one, drinking beer and telling stories, making plans. Dave was living in his ancient Volvo station wagon, and each night, he unpacked it, setting coolers and cookstove on the roof, and making a space on the folded-down backseats for his sleeping pad and bag. I did the same in my Chevy Blazer, with more room. A lot of nights, we all packed up after supper and convoyed to wherever we would be working the next morning. On those nights, too tired to clear a sleeping space, I just unrolled a pad and bag on the ground, waking later to the shift of the wind and a wild roil of stars. It had one thing in common with the woods work that had occupied so many of my years: It was a life stripped to the bone, lean and weathered, where a drink of water or a bowl of noodles or a cigarette really mattered. I had not lived that kind of life for awhile. It felt good.

I have no real faith that human beings, as a species, are capable of making the kind of choices that might ensure our presence in the distant future. Search as I might, I can uncover few historical precedents to nourish that kind of hope. In the long term, I -- like a lot of the people I know, like the ones I stand around with at campfires after work or hunting, or drink with in bars, or talk with as they walk home from the little church near my office -- foresee a whole lot more trouble ahead. Not just the rapidly unfolding ramifications of climate change, but also the faltering, debt-laden, rigged-with-inequalities economy we've created for coming generations. But in the moment, hope burns hot. I draw much of my hope for the whitebarks from the effort to save them, and the people dedicated to it. Tree climbers like my friends provide for their families while working from before dawn to after nightfall -- what rural Western old-timers call "from can't see to can't see" -- in whatever weather, and doing it day after day while the season lasts. Saving the whitebarks is a tall order, almost lost within the dense matrix of tribulations that we humans have created for so many of our fellow inhabitants on earth. But trying to do it, with all that it entails -- jobs, research, close observation of the systems that, in the end, support every human and non-human endeavor -- is the irrefutably right thing to do. When we are at our best as a species, this is the kind of work we do.

Trapper Peak is the tallest in the Bitterroots, a dramatic 10,999-foot tower of a mountain, like something out of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. There are sub-peaks around it, spires, cirques both hidden and obvious. In the late spring, you can buck old drifts at every north-facing bend in the logging road, and make it all the way to the trailhead to Baker Lake, hike up to snowline and ski to the summit, or jump a backbone ridge and wander the dangerous avalanche and cliff country that lies north and west. There's a secret notch, and if you start at Baker Lake, and skin or kick steps uphill on the steep snow-covered talus, you will emerge at a flat, from which there is a line that will take you straight to Gem Lake, and one of the main couloirs below the peak. In the summer, it's an elk and goat trail. The travel there is easy, among giant monarch whitebark pines that are cartoonishly huge and widely scattered, as if they need isolation even from each other. Most are still alive and thriving, and the sturdy, twisted old skeletons of their predecessors stand there still, their bare wood blasted and polished by centuries of powder snow, until it attains a smoothness and swirling depth of color that seems almost supernatural. I'd like to think that those trees, the living and the beautifully dead, will be around when humanity has moved beyond the juvenile cleverness of today, maybe even attained a kind of wisdom to match the gift of that place. I am working toward that goal, and so are a hell of a lot of other people.

Hal Herring, based in Augusta, Mont., has written about environmental issues for the past 14 yeas for High Country News and a range of other publications including The Economist and Atlantic Monthly. He's a contributing editor for Field and Stream magazine.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.