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On The Ropes: Q&A with Professional Tree-Climber Waldo Etherington

Waldo Etherington grew up in Bridport, Dorset — just 10 minutes down the road from FIREPOT HQ — but his love of trees has taken him around the world, from the tops of the tallest redwoods in California, to the tropical canopies of Borneo, working for clients including the BBC, National Geographic and Walt Disney.

Bridport is famed for rope-making (our new HQ is in fact in one of the town's former threadmill buildings). As a child, Waldo would be given sacks of rope for his birthday, fished out of local skips. He’d spend days fashioning it into equipment, which he’d then test out in the Jurassic coast's ancient woodlands.

Now aged 29, this childhood hobby has become a career. He works as a tree surgeon in the UK, and a rigging specialist for conservation projects, TV shows and private clients around the world. A regular day for Waldo might include anything from scaling a British cliff-face to removing an overhanging tree, rigging a tree in the Tropics to setting up shots for a film crew, or teaching traditional rope work for mountain rescue teams.

Waldo has been an early adopter of our FIREPOT meals — not least because our kitchen chef, Tim, used to work at one of his favourite Dorset pubs, The Bottle Inn in Marshwood. Here's our quick-hit Q&A, which we managed to snatch from a moment he wasn't climbing in Somerset's Cheddar Gorge.

Do trees have souls?
It feels that way sometimes. They encapsulate so much character. In many places around the world, trees are associated with ancestral spirits and gods. Compared to rocks, there’s definitely more of a connection — they're alive and they move (sometimes a bit more than is comfortable!). Reading the body language of the tree is an integral part of understanding what is safe and what isn’t, so in a way I guess you get to know a tree in a soulful sense for sure.

What single trait would you change about yourself?
My speed. I often cram way too much into my days and end up going 100mph, especially juggling work in the UK with regular expeditions abroad. I miss the quiet and calm sometimes. More often than not, I find these moments at the tops of trees.

Do you sleep with your door closed?
Well I live in a van….so yes. Especially as it's cold this time of year. But I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping in hammocks so I’ve got use to the fresh air. It’s sometimes hard to adjust to sleeping in a closed space, on a flat mattress.

You’ve just reached the top of the world’s tallest tree — what now?
The tallest trees are only the ones we know about — there are always more to be hunted down and measured.

What expedition do you most want to do?
A free tree climbing expedition. This essentially applies the free climbing philosophy to trees. I've been developing this technique for a few years now and there's a couple of plans growing legs — currently top secret, so watch this space...

Night climbing... why?
Night climbing is amazing. It's climbing into the unknown. I often night climb a tree if it's in a top location because that usually means you're not allowed to climb it. There are so many incredible trees in the cities around the UK that you’d never get permission to climb recreationally. Once you're past the level of the street lamps and have pulled up your ropes, no one can see you up there. It’s often referred to a Ninja Tree Climbing.

Describe a place in Dorset that means something to you, and why.
The Waldich Valley, just outside Bridport. This unassuming spot is home to some of the most beautiful beech and oak trees in the world — trees that I started climbing over 15 years ago. I learnt the ropes here, and these trees have become almost family to me. I know them so well that I've even done some ascents with my eyes closed.

Is the world coming to an end?
Hell no! Now more than ever, it’s important to hold onto optimism and inspire people around you to keep standing up for what is important. I often hear people stressing about overpopulation and climate change, which are massive issues, but ones that can be resolved. Population numbers are estimated to level off at around 11.5 billion — a figure that we’ll reach in around 50 years. If humans can sort out three fundamental issues, then we stand a good chance of handing over a sustainable way of life to our grandchildren.

One: Getting off fossil fuels.
Two: changing what we eat (less meat-rich diets, for example).
Three: protecting what we have left of our ancient forests and oceans.

You can make one wish - what would it be?
More trees for everyone. Probably for global forest cover to increase a hundred-fold overnight.

What’s the first thing you notice about a person?
Their gait — the way they move.

When was the last time you cried?
About a year ago, out of happiness.

Fear: what does it mean to you?
Something that regulates decisions and keeps you on your toes.

What superhero do you most want to be?
Spiderman

Three things = happiness: what makes your shortlist and why?
One: Friends and family. My friends reinforce so many aspects of my life and inspire me to keep living life to the fullest. My family have always understood that I want to do what I love (climb trees) and they have always spurred me on, despite my decision not to go to university, and instead spend all my money on hair-brained expeditions to far-flung corners of the world. And of course my partner, Telma, who refreshes everything in the world for me and gives me a superhuman energy to keep going and chase my dreams.

Two: Climbing trees - It's just awesome. Who doesn't feel happier after climbing a tree?

Three: Money - Now this is a weird one, but I was brought up on a shoestring. We had no tables or chairs and barely enough for food, so I learnt a lot about living minimally growing up. I've always considered money as a kind of evil aspect of life, but if you have just enough (not too much and not too little) then you can live happily and stress-free. I just want to be able to pay the bills and buy the odd bottle of wine...

What’s the closest you’ve been to heaven?
When I had a line tangle in my speedwing (which is like a tiny paraglider) whilst launching off some slabs on the North Face of Piz Badile in Switzerland. I almost crashed into a cliff 800m above the ground. I’m still surprised I came away alive and unscathed. This experience recalibrated my life somewhat, and since then I kind of feel like I've been in heaven.

Tell us your favourite fairytale and why?
Jack and the Beanstalk — it's essentially just a big tree!

What would you pack into Noah’s Ark to save from the Apocalypse?
Spaghetti, a hammock, head torch, penknife, GPS, my climbing equipment, a Windburner stove and a bunch of gas canisters. Plus my friend Ian (he's really useful sometimes) and a couple of saplings to plant when we eventually find land...I might even chuck in my girlfriend and some family members too.

Favourite meal if we could dehydrate and put into a FIREPOT bag?
Dorset lamb shank and smokey mashed potato.