The High Climber
Updated 28/02/05

In June 2004 me and my father went to Portland, Oregon, USA for a couple of days to visit the place
where my grandfather, between 1910 and 1922, was working as a High Climber.

One task was also to find an article about my grandfather, which was published in The Sunday Oregonian
the 13:th of November 1921. We found the article at OHS Research Library in Portland and here
is the fascinating story about Axel Hallgren, The high climber - The ace of woods.

If you want to contact us about this subject, please do it to Gunnar Hallgren, Sundsvall, Sweden.
I will forward the message to my father, Glenn Hallgren, who lives in Sveg in Sweden.

Best regards

Glenn Hallgren and Gunnar Hallgren

 

Ace of woods flirts with death

Axel Hallgren
1892-1939

High climber is industrial forlorn hope. He labours alone, and encounters numerous dangers.

The high climber is the ace of the woods. His life and limbs are in imminent peril all the time he is working.
Necessarily he must labour alone. Like the diver and the steeple jack his job is an industrial "forlorn hope".
Like them, too, he has to be an all-round master of the require ments of his work. He has to set the ponderous
and complicated tackle and guy ropes with which the spar tree is fitted to enable it to stand and to drag to the
loading point the reluctant heavy logs in its tributary territory. This part of the work alone is well night a trade
in itself and having to do it while clinging, buglike, at masthead height by no means eases the task.

Master of axe and saw

The exertion he has to make is exhausting in the extreme. Burdended with axe, saw and wedges, limbs weighted
with heavy leg irons, carrying the climbing spurs, he jerks an lift himself hundreds of feet under a strain that
would probably bring collapse to a record-braking college athlete.

Then, to, the high climber has to be past-master of saw and axe. When the lofty tree bows its proud head to him
one may be sure that the executioner's work has been done with the fewest possible strokes. In form he
must he must also possess the craft of the ground faller. He must accurately gauge the "lean" of the tree and the
direction and pressure of the wind.

On the ground a faller can run if the "lean" or a change of wind deflects the falling giant from the undercut - always
made to direct the fall - and intervening trees may check the crashing doom, but up at his lonely elevation the high
climber has only his eye and hand, sixth sense and quick wit, to save himself from almost inevitable death should
his arboreal victim fall amuck. In any event, when the top falls the "stump", sways and weaves with great violence
and the climber must hold with tooth and spur, and this experience anywhere from 150 (46 metres) to 280 feet
(85 metres) above ground is racking in the extreme. Not infrequently the climber is badly nauseated and cases of
unconsciousness have occurred occasionally during the shaking period while the tree is in its death shudder.

Axel Hallgren ready to start on perilous journey.
(Note the saw under him)

Best of trees for lead

The high climber is a specialist in every way. His profession is one created by the exigiencles of logging under the
peculiar conditions encountered in the Pacific Northwest. Here the stand of timber is exceptionally dense, the trees
of huge girth and lofty heigh. Those forest giants literally weigh tons, and when they are felled the problem is to
handle them to the ground. This is where the high climber comes in. The lead trees are particular ones selected
only after careful inspection of the tract to be logged. They must be of firm foundation, strong enough to stand
terrific strain, and tall enough to handle all of the logs in a large acreage.

This tree once selected, generally in the center of the tract, all of the rest of the lodge are "yarded" to it; that is,
it is the central point and the sections of the fallen trees,ä after being trimmed and out for the sawmills, are hauled
there, assembled, and the sent on the next stage of their journey which is only completed when they are sawn
and built into the structures of which they become an integral part. Thus the lead tree may be the initial stage
on the trip of the log to Europe during when time it undergoes a number of manufacturing processes, much
handling a thousands of miles of travel.

Knights of woods dare death

The fallers working on the ground are generally paired off, the teams taking the trees in turn and sending them
crashing to earth. In this skilled labor they first undercut the great tree and then by means of wedges can usually
direct its fall and get clear in time. This only serves to accentuate the danger of the climber's work, for he has no
chanse to take advantage of the artificial aids possible when working on the ground.

Harry Veness tells of trying a climb at one time when he visited one of the Sunset camps at Sutico near Raymond, Wash.
Veness went there in the course of is work as a field man for the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen and
found Ed Kendall emplyyed as climber. Kendall, it might be noted, is a college man and on of the outstanding
figures in the woods, and most of the high climbers will be found to be men of marked intelligence. Veness
donned the heavy and complicated tackle, and, though he is quite an athlete and was in perfect trim, could not
get up more than a few feet. The resultant racking of bone and muscle left a memento of pain for hours following
his attempt that he afterwards characterized as insignificant.

Humans squirrel scales trunk

The exceptional pictures shown with the article were made near Knappa, Oregon, at the camp of the Big Creek
Logging company, and show Axel Hallgren in action. The tree that Hallgren scaled that day must have been about
300 feet (91 metres) high, for it is 240 feet (73 metres) from the ground to the point where he is shown cutting off
the top. It was six feet (1,8 metres) in diameter 10 feet (3 metres) from the ground. This tree was unusually high one,
for the top is usually out off these high lead trees at from 160 to 200 feet (49 to 61 metres) from the ground.
In his work the high climber starts at the bottom, climbs to the first limb and cuts it off with saw or axe, depending on
the size of the limb, and the climbs on, to the next one, and so on up the trunk. Thus it is easily seen that the size of
the job, depends on the number and size of the limbs.

Axel Hallgren is such am man as you often read about in fiction. He has followed the woods for most of his life
and is about 30 years of age. He weighs 190 pounds (86 kilograms) and stands slightly over six feet (183 centimetres)
tall. He is one of the highest paid men in the employ of his company and his only duty is to climb.

On his trip up the tree the climber takes with him an axe, a saw and a water bag. He is equipped with spurs
somewhat like those worn by lineman, but they are longer and sharper, for they must penetrate the bark and
hold firmly in the green wood underneath. He also uses a rope to assist in his climb, long enough to throw around
the trunk of the tree. In this case it was about 20 feet (6,1 metres) long. With this rope about the trunk and his spurs
set in the wood, he sticks on the side far from the ground like a woodpecker and lops off the limbs. Occasionally a limb
is missed or does net fall completely away. One limb can be noticed on Hallgren's tree clinging onto the side far
below the insect-like figure of the climber.

In doing this job it took Hallgren about one and a half hours to climb the tree, cut the top off and get back to earth.
It is an interesting sight to watch a climber come down one of these trees. In this case Hallgren resembled nothing
more than a red squirrel and it was estimated that I took him less than a minute from top to bottom. This particular
tree was used as a high lead for sex weeks and about 60 acres (24,3 hectare) logged to it. When the tree is stripped
a pilot block is set on the top and the tackle strung from here to all points in the area it is to handle. The logs are the
dragged in over the rough ground. This method of logging has been perfected in the western Pacific slops as the most
efficient. In the camps in the middle west, around the Great Lakes and in the New England states they used to skid their
logs over the ice in the winter and the haul them on runners or drive them out on the rivers when the spring freshets
came. In eastern Oregon in the yellow pines they use what is called the "big wheel" system of logging, picking up the
logs in bunches and hauling the away by horses, but none of these methods would do here. This section is damp, rough
and the timber is exceptionally heavy. This necessitated the perfection of the high lead system with auxiliary delivery
to the streams by means of logging railways, huge motor trucks or caterpillar tractors.

Eighty minutes later tree stripped, climber 200 foot (61 metres) from the ground.
Do you se him? If not, look at the close-up picture below.

 

Close-up picture of Axel Hallgren in action.

Thrills common in climber's work

After the pilot block is set the climber is hauled up and down by a donkey engine and the insouciant manner with
which they soar and descend is unforgettable. The necessary nerve is not due to obtuseness, as the work cannot be
done except by a man of more then average bodily and mental development. Injuries in the calling are, of course
common and death all too frequently takes place.

In one case the climber lost his spur grip in some unaccountable manner and becoming reversed in his belt hung
head downward at a sickening height. No other man is the camp being able to climb, a fellow-worker in a near-by
camp was sent for. But woods communication is slow at the best and when the newcomer finally reached the sufferer
exhaustion had done its work and he was beyond aid.

Just last April Jack Olson, high climber for the Saginaw Timber company at their camp near Vesta, Wash near Aberdeen,
lost his grip on his safety line and fell 80 feet (24 metres) to the ground, dying one hour later. Olson was 45 years of age,
a skilled man at his work, and had followed it for several years.

Very often nothing but the operator's coolness and presence of mind saves his life and the unprecedented nature
of the work occasions many instances of self-preservation that are consummately thrilling. One of there took place
when, at a height of 200 feet (61 metres) the tree commenced to split downward. In either ground or lofty felling this
is one of the most dangerous breaks of a falling tree. Usually the undercut prevents it, but sometimes a sudden gust of
wind or an extra lean in the tree or a foreign streak in the grain of the wood will cause the tree to fall before the cut has
reached the calculated braking point. Up high the result is easily predleted. As the split descends it options and the
climber's encircling rope, attached to his broad belt, is expended by the awful weight of the falling tree top.

In the case in question the climber saw the split start. Luckily he was using a hemp climbing rope and, desperately
clinging by knees and spur, with one hand he coolly dropped into the widening fissures his axe and wedges, with the
other hand holding to the broken edge of the split. When the top finally broke and the huge sliver sprung back to place,
the tools kept it open and the man thrust one arm and leg trough the opening, and, thus supported nonchalantly
awaited relief.

Still more moving is another similar episode - an exhibition of presence of mind that would be hard to overmatch.
Again the tree started to split. The climber was hanging in such fashion that his rope circled upward as in the
illustration accompanying this article. To drop he would have to first free it and for this there was no time. Its position,
however, did give him opportunity for a wide axe swing, so, leaning far back, with life an wife an children in mighty
stroke, he cut through the rope an also sank the axe so deeply into the tree that with one hand on its handle and the
other on the top of the stump he was able to hold against the vibrations of the tree. Then he climbed on to the stump,
splices his rope and descended to the ground. The only comment be made was an eloquent remark in regard to losing
his pipe, which was shaken loose by the swinging tree.

Humours incidents also arise. Once a climber dropped successively his axe and saw, being completed each
time to make an 180-foot (55 metres) descent to retrieve them. On the second trip General Dawes himself could have
taking a lesson.

But anyway, to be a climber, as Kipling remarks, you "have to be a man, my son!"

 

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