Climbing the Amazonian trees

An intrepid tree lover leads adventure travelers high above the Brazilian rain forest.

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AMAZONAS, BRAZIL (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Suspended 100 feet above the rain forest floor, I finally understand why I traveled thousands of miles to the Amazon to climb trees.

Through the lattice of leaves I glimpse a loftier, greener world where only the cries of howler monkeys and macaws pierce the silence. As I inch higher, the canopy grows closer: Its branches stretch over the forest like an awning, shielding the earth from the equatorial sun. I ease back into my climbing saddle to rest, stretch my fingers, and watch the sunset as I sway beneath the rope that supports me. Then I make a mistake.

I look down.

When I see my feet dangling more than ten stories above the ground, I panic and freeze. Recreational tree climbing has an impeccable safety record: Tree Climbers International (TCI), the sport's flagship organization and first for-profit school, has facilitated lessons for more than 100,000 climbers since 1983 without any fatal accidents. This statistic escapes me, however, as I stare down at giant fronds that look like the tops of tiny pineapples. As I white-knuckle the rope connected to my saddle, my instructor, Tim Kovar, swings closer to me. "How's it going?" he asks.

I tell him I'm about to throw up.

Kovar, a sunburned giant with tattoos covering his limbs, smiles and tosses a connecting cord between us. "Up here, you can only throw down," he laughs.

I smile back but clench the rope even tighter - low humor isn't comforting at high altitudes. He slowly guides me upward through the branches, but I'm too tense to appreciate the breathtaking panorama. After a few minutes of hanging in the bottom of the canopy, I head back down.

Kovar, 37, has guided more than 3,000 students into the trees since 1993. While working as a cook in Atlanta, where TCI is based, he met the organization's founder, Peter Jenkins, at a local karate dojo.

Jenkins offered him a job at his tree landscaping business as an arborist, a professional who repairs and heals trees. Entranced by the recreational-climbing lessons that he saw Jenkins giving at TCI, Kovar decided to become a teacher instead. Today he is one of only six TCI-certified instructors in the country, and he runs his own school, Tree Climbing Northwest, in Grants Pass, Ore.

The site of my first big climb is a 200-foot angelim tree about 93 miles north of Manaus, a densely populated city perched at the confluence of the Amazon and Negro rivers. This is Kovar's third expedition to Brazil. In coming months, more trips are slated to the Amazon, as well as to the Philippines and South Africa. International expeditions cost upwards of $2,500, not including the flight. More frugal climbers can visit Tree Climbing Northwest's Oregon home, where prices range from $12 for a beginners' group lesson to $900 for a private weeklong trip.

My expedition began two days before I climbed the angelim. After we flew into Manaus, Eduardo "Dudu" Cunha, a local climbing enthusiast, drove Kovar and me two hours north to the Amazon Bioregional Village, a small community focused on sustainable rain forest living. The village is home to Amazon Tree Climbing, a native startup that Cunha launched last year under Kovar's guidance. Much like the 25 or so other climbing schools around the world, the new business hopes to attract everyone from researchers to ecotourists to extreme-sports fanatics.

The morning after my arrival, Cunha and his business partner, Tassio Jacques, 22, slung ropes over their backs and forged into the jungle to make sure the angelim was safe for climbing (this involves assessing the stability of the branch that will hold the climbing rope).

Meanwhile, Kovar showed me the basics of tree climbing. You're really climbing a rope, pulling yourself up with your arms and legs. Out in the forest, you start by weighting one end of the rope and shooting it over a high branch using a bow-and-arrow-like contraption. During my practice session, Kovar attached the rope to a wooden rafter in our open-air cabin. He then handed me a "saddle," which is a giant belt with two cushioned loops, one for each leg. I stepped in, hooked the saddle up to a pair of metal clips used for ascending and descending, then connected them to the free end of the rope with carabiners.

Once I got the hang of assembling the system, I shifted to a squat avocado tree to practice climbing higher. While not terribly strenuous - as I panted, Kovar reminisced about teaching a pair of septuagenarian women - climbing is still a workout. At several points, fatigue forced me to pause and bob in my seat like a baby in a jumper toy. Kovar offered words of encouragement: "Tree climbing isn't about racing to go higher or faster. It's about spending time in the trees and developing a respect for them," he said.

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