Tree Rigging – Is it really Safe?

Ah, the weather has turned beautiful, it’s great to be outdoors, you don’t want to be stuck in a stuffy studio. Wouldn’t it be lovely to rig your aerial fabric to a tree and practice in the arms of Mother Nature? Plus wouldn’t it be so much cheaper than paying those pesky class fees?

Not so fast! There’s a lot of problems with rigging aerial apparatus in trees and before we dive in, there’s a LOT involved in this subject.

RISKS TO THE AERIALIST

When you’re climbing and moving on your aerial apparatus, you’re creating dynamic load on the rigging point and the forces can be much greater than your static weight when you’re not moving. If you move rapidly, those forces increase sharply, that’s called shock load. Just climbing onto your apparatus can create a shock load of about 3 times your static weight, and rolls and drops can be anywhere from 5- 10 times that. So if you weigh 125 pounds, your aerial movements will generate dynamic loads ranging from 375 to 1250 lbs.

In indoor rigging, industry standard is for a rigging point to have a minimum breaking strength of at least 8000 lbs, or at least 6 times your maximum expected shock load, like from one of those really big spectacular drops. In simple terms, your rigging point should be strong enough to hold up a small car. Is that tree branch really capable of doing that without breaking? Trees have evolved to handle the weight of squirrels and birds, but when was the last time you saw a 1000-lb squirrel?

And what happens when (not if) that branch breaks? Obviously you fall, usually head first which means you break your neck, spine, and skull. But then a 100-lb branch also falls on you, so you’ll be crushed by that as well, so add a shattered pelvis, broken ribs, and internal injuries to the mix. Basically, it’s like jumping headfirst off a 16-foot ladder and then having someone drop an anvil on you. Ew. You’re not going to walk away from that.
broken leg

RISKS TO THE TREES

Trees are living organisms and many variables affect their health and strength: age, species of tree, soil conditions (type of soil, moisture level, how compact or loose it is), insect infestations, disease, root systems, bark and circulatory system, internal conditions of the trunk, and weather conditions. These variables change on a daily basis, not just year to year. You can’t know how strong a tree is just by eyeballing it casually and looking for a thick branch. Trees often have damage that isn’t visible to an untrained eye, and they can drop large branches (like the one you want to rig on) without warning. The only way to assess the health of a tree is by having an experienced arborist do a full inspection of the tree and surrounding area. This typically takes 6-10 hours to complete – and

you’re paying them by the hour, this ain’t cheap! They also need to inspect the tree for wildlife, especially endangered wildlife. Most countries and states have laws against disturbing endangered wildlife and the fines are expensive. Your arborist also needs to know that you’d be shock loading the tree repeatedly, the forces from aerial movements are very different than what they usually see in their work.

Now even if the arborist approves the tree for rigging this week, what about next week when there’s a thunderstorm that leaves the soil too wet and starts to rot out the root system? Or next month when it’s so dry and hot that the soil is too crumbly to hold the roots in place? Or next year when an ant colony starts to eat out the inside of the trunk? And what happens after the branch has been damaged by your practicing on it this week? How do you know the tree isn’t about to drop that branch because of those changes since the inspection? Are you going to have arborist inspect the tree before and after every practice? That would get very pricey very quickly.

People usually rig to a tree either by wrapping a sling or rope around a branch and attaching the apparatus to that, or by throwing a rope over the branch, pulling the apparatus up and tying the rope end to the trunk. Both these methods are inherently dangerous to the tree and by extension, to the aerialist. Wrapping a sling or rope around the branch literally chokes off the circulatory vessels in the branch, eventually killing it. Imagine someone putting a tourniquet on your arm, yanking on it with several hundred pounds of force repeatedly, and then leaving the tourniquet in place after. Ow. That’s what you’re doing to the branch. What happens when the branch dies? It either drops off as the tree tries to survive, or it breaks off when weight is put on it. Bad news if you happen to be hanging from it or even just standing under it when it goes.

Throwing a rope over the branch and tying the end to the trunk to anchor it isn’t any better, it actually DOUBLES the load on the branch. So there you are trying that big spectacular drop and instead of 10 times your body weight, the branch experiences 20 times your weight (or the equivalent of 2 of our half-ton squirrels). Still think the tree can take the pounding?

Every shock load on that tree adds more damage to the branch, the bark, the trunk, and the root system. If the tree was healthy before, it may not be by the time you’re done. The next time you practice on it, that might be the final straw that results in catastrophic failure.

If that tree happens to be on public property, you may also be violating civic or state/ provincial laws. You could easily be held liable for any damage to the tree or the surrounding property.

Are there ways to rig from a tree safely? In theory, yes. In reality, it’s far more complex and expensive than you’d expect: you need to secure and support the branch and trunk with multiple guy wires and ground anchors in multiple directions to counteract all the forces you’re generating. This type of rigging requires a LOT of time and expertise to do correctly, it needs to be done by an experienced arborist, and again, you’re paying them by the hour. Add up the costs of inspection, time to set up the rigging, time to dismantle it, pre- and post-rigging tree care, hardware, and specialized equipment, and you’ll be looking at a cost of anywhere from $8000 to $10,000 USD easily. For that amount, you could buy a LOT of classes at an aerial school, or at least 3 portable aerial rigs. Or a really nice Vespa scooter.
broken branch

RISKS TO THE PUBLIC AND AERIAL INDUSTRY

This all boils down to one word: Professionalism.

Like it or not, we all represent the aerial industry to the public – teachers, students, performers, riggers – and what we do directly affects their perception of aerial arts. There really isn’t such a thing as private practice anymore with social media; if you are out practicing in a public park, you can bet someone will snap a photo of you and post it on Instagram with the caption “hey, that’s cool, I’m gonna try that too”. Even if you think you’re only risking yourself, others see the example you set and potentially follow it. We can’t control what other people do, but we can be responsible for what we do and aware of how our actions affect others.

I’ve sometimes heard people say, “Oh, I only practice on a tree at home, it’s only me and I always tell others to practice on proper rigging only.” Honestly, that’s a lot like telling your kids “Don’t drink and drive!” and then climbing behind the wheel of a hummer right after chugging an entire bottle of vodka. It’s pretty hypocritical, it sets a really horrible example for others, you’re trashing your own reputation with your actions, and in the end, someone ends up getting hurt. Badly.

Every accident reflects badly on the aerial industry. This means that insurance rates go up or brokers refuse to insure aerial arts at all, making it far more difficult or just plain impossible for anyone to continue teaching, performing, or taking classes. Poor practices will destroy the art form and peoples’ livelihood. Also, if you or anyone you know is an aspiring performer wanting to get hired by Cirque du Soleil or similar companies, be aware that professional circus companies scour through social media as a way of narrowing down candidates for auditions. They look for evidence of unsafe and unprofessional training practices, and rigging from trees is a HUGE red flag. It won’t matter how great you are technically, if they see photos or videos of you practicing in a tree, your resume will automatically get chucked in the garbage, end of story. You won’t even make it to the audition. Rigging from a tree will end your professional career before it’s even begun. If the discussions about the risks to your body and to the tree aren’t quite enough, then please think about how your actions affect others in the industry and your own potential career.
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So what’s an alternative?

Two words: Portable rig. If you don’t have access to an indoor space, consider an engineered free-standing portable rig! They can be set up in your lovely forest, park, or back yard with the help of a few friends and dismantled later, all without any damage to those trees. Most importantly, these rigs are built for aerial uses – the manufacturers spent years designing and testing them before making them available on the market. They’re easily available through the companies’ websites (hello Interweb!), and well worth the investment, between $2000 – $3000 USD. That’s cheaper than hiring an arborist and far cheaper than hospitalization, spinal rehab, law suits, or funerals.

If you’ve made it this far through this blog, I’ll finish off with a personal experience:

Several years ago, a large tree in my parents’ yard sheared in half during a wind storm (just wind, not a lightning strike). This tree appeared to be perfectly healthy from the outside, lots of leafy branches, and no apparent damage that we could see prior to the storm. After it was torn apart by the wind, we saw that the trunk was badly rotted out and completely hollow. All that was left was a thin ring of wood 2-3 inches thick. Half of the tree is still standing years later and it’s still growing lots of leaves and fruit every year as if nothing had happened, but there’s a massive gaping hole in the

trunk where it sheared apart. I am infinitely glad I’d never tried to climb this tree, never mind rig an aerial apparatus. There’s no way I could’ve known the tree was completely rotted out just from looking at it. I would’ve been trusting my life to a large wooden drinking straw. There’s no way in hell I’m taking that kind of chance with my own life and I sincerely hope none of my students and fellow aerialists would either. After seeing that, I’m sticking with rigging only on engineered and tested structures. I’ll admire the trees from below on the ground and think about that hypothetical half-ton squirrel. I think I’ll name him Nigel. Yes, Nigel the Half-Ton Squirrel. He’s my new aerial safety mascot.

Be safe, aerial friends!

Written by: Liz Cooper –  Aerial Instructor at Monica’s Danz Gym
For more information check out Steven Santos of Simply Circus’s detailed description pdf.

Images: Adobe Stock & flamingfun.com

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