The view from the top of a 320-foot, nearly 2,000-year-old redwood tree is something few humans get to witness, and that’s what we set out to capture. But the phrase I kept hearing in my head was: “Bring your crew back in one piece.”
Our mission in Mendocino County’s Montgomery Woods was to film a UC Berkeley team of biologists installing a weather station at the very top of a giant coast redwood for a QUEST TV story. The weather station, and 15 others the scientists are installing atop redwoods up and down California, will help them figure out to what degree ancient redwoods can withstand climate change.
For associate producer Josh Cassidy and me, the February trip was the culmination of nearly two months of planning. We had the good fortune of finding a director of photography, Lincoln Else, and a sound engineer, Owen Bissell, with rock-climbing experience. Lots of experience, actually. Lincoln worked for several years as a rock-climbing ranger in Yosemite. Neither he nor Owen had ever climbed a redwood. Who has? But they were both excited to check redwood-climbing off their to-do list of extreme outdoor experiences.
I, on the other hand, was a bit of a wreck.
Not that I’d be climbing the tree myself. I wouldn’t, since I had no climbing experience and no time to get any. But in preparation for the trip, I had done my best to understand how one climbs a giant redwood. You pull your full weight up along a rope for approximately as long as it would take to climb a 30-story building. When you get to the top, you hang from the branches with short ropes. The biologists are very experienced and cautious. But even circus workers have safety nets. These folks don’t.
It also turns out that I know Lincoln’s father. Jon Else was my documentary filmmaking professor at UC Berkeley 14 years ago. A parent’s suffering is not to be taken lightly: I’d make sure nothing happened to his son.
We drove three hours to Mendocino County and spent the better part of the afternoon filming on the forest floor. The biologists were taking longer than expected to get up into the tree. The afternoon wore on. Then towards the end of the day, the opportunity for the crew to climb arrived. This is what we had been waiting for, but I was torn. I felt Lincoln might be too tired, but unwilling to admit it. I imagined the first paragraph of the news story that would be written if something went wrong: “Exhaustion is believed to have contributed to a climbing accident that left two members of a film crew seriously injured…”
I read somewhere that not even a healthy dose of paranoia can protect you from tragedy. Or as a friend concluded after getting caught in crossfire on an otherwise calm street, in a reasonably calm country: La tenemos prestada. Life is on loan to us.
After a few agonized moments I acquiesced. Lincoln climbed up. He filmed great material of the biologists steering the weather station components through the redwood branches, then hanging boxes and bags at the top like Christmas tree decorations – moments we would have missed if we hadn’t filmed that afternoon. Later in the edit suite, I realized that we needed every bit of video we had filmed.
A few weeks later I emailed Lincoln to ask him to send me some photos he had taken up in the tree. Yes, his recent filming trip to Nepal had gone well, he emailed back. Up until the point where it hadn’t. He had suffered a fractured skull while filming for National Geographic in a cave. A rock had fallen on him in an area where rocks aren’t supposed to fall. He’ll make a full recovery, but the ordeal was harrowing for him and his family.
In the documentary filmmaking business, caution can make for a mediocre career and an unhealthy sense of the path not taken (if only I had gotten that shot!) Luckily, for this story I have no regrets.