I patted the nearest branch like an old friend. When I pulled my hand back, it was covered with ants.
After the next day's nerve-racking climb on the angelim, I returned to the cabin, weary and shaken. As we dined on a giant peacock bass fish in pitch darkness, Kovar told me stories about former students: honeymooners who wanted to "sleep" in the trees, a group of disabled kids who pulled themselves aloft using only their arms, and distinguished author Richard Preston, who fell in love with climbing and went on to write The Wild Trees, a New York Times bestseller.
We strung mosquito-netted hammocks (called Treeboats and designed to hang from branches) from the rafters of our cabin, and zipped ourselves into our makeshift beds. The whirr of insects was soporific, but I couldn't shake the nauseating sense that I was still suspended ten stories above the ground. I finally fell asleep when rain started pounding against the wooden roof.
At daybreak we left the village and drove down to Manaus. After stocking up on Brazil nuts, pineapples, and Bohemia beer at a local market, we boarded a houseboat and set sail on the murky Negro River toward a 275-foot ceiba, the tallest species of tree in the region. Along the way, a crew member speared a piranha with his cooking knife, grinned, and thrust it toward me while Kovar gazed dreamily at the trees lining the riverbank. I was reminded of how he closed his eyes and solemnly thanked every tree after he climbed it. (At first, I thought he was thanking some unknown deity for not letting me plummet to the ground.)
The tree-climbing world is close-knit and not terribly competitive. No climbing school stands out as an industry leader - Kovar even recommended that I look into schools other than his.
"Tree climbing is a quiet thing to do," says Sophia Sparks, 59, owner of New Tribe, a climbing outfitter in Cave Junction, Ore., that made our hammocks and saddles. "Most businesses aren't actively marketing themselves or aggressively competing."
Nevertheless, both the industry and the community are growing. Sparks estimates that ten new schools have sprouted up in the U.S. over the past five years. New Tribe was the only business making recreational tree-climbing equipment until recently, when SherrillTree, based in Greensboro, N.C., entered the field.
Kovar is happy about the spike in popularity but worries that new companies will forget the sport's environmentalist roots. "Tree climbing is about protecting the trees," he told me repeatedly.
As we neared the ceiba, he asked whether I wanted to try another climb that evening. Surprisingly, I found myself eager to get back in the saddle. But it was sunset, so we skipped the climb in favor of a game of soccer on the riverbank.
The next morning, after a breakfast of fried plantains, we left the boat and trekked into the jungle. When we reached the ceiba, which was about as wide in girth as a garden gazebo, Kovar, Cunha, and Jacques launched our climbing lines into the air. As if by magic, the ropes wrapped around high branches and zipped back toward the ground. While my saddle was attached securely to the line at three different places, I was reminded that it still hung from a living, breakable branch.
Once strapped to the rope, I started climbing. After several days of practice on smaller trees, I was no longer pausing every few seconds but was using the muscles in my legs to ascend fluidly. After about 30 minutes I was more than halfway up the trunk, or about 125 feet from the ground. When I realized how high I'd climbed, I hesitated. Kovar shouted encouragement from a nearby limb. "Just ten more feet, and you'll be over the branches!" he cried. "You can't miss this."
This time, instead of looking down, I focused on the horizon and kept climbing. After I pierced the foliage, I was rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the rain forest. Above the canopy, the jungle floor disappeared beneath a blanket of treetops. I saw the Amazon River snaking into the distance. It's a place that few humans ever experience, and I could understand why climbers are so protective of their pastime.