Big Canopy Campout

Paul Pritchard | 06 November, 2020

Paul Pritchard was a stand-out rock climber and mountaineer of his generation, until an accident in 1998 left him suffering with hemiplegia—a condition that has robbed him of movement and feeling in the right side of his body. This year he joined other activists in takayna/Tarkine forest for The Big Canopy Campout 2020. Here is his account:

“Sat in my portaledge I peer down at the thick carpet of moss and lichen that shrouds the rainforest like dust covers an old home. Everything is covered except for the leaves on this big old sassafras tree in which I have made my nest. 

Each individual sporophyte has a tiny droplet of water delicately poised, about to fall. In the filtered morning sun these billions of droplets make a shimmering jeweller’s shop of the forest. This is the most beautiful forest I have ever seen.

As a rock climber I’ve slept hundreds of nights in portaledges, suspended above the void on cliff faces from Patagonia to the Arctic. Ascents that have included 21 nights on the huge 1200m East Face of the Torre Centrale De Paine, establishing the route we called El Regalo De Mwomo, and 11 nights on a first ascent on El Capitan in Yosemite. We spent a similar number of nights on the first ascent of the vertical kilometre of granite that is the west face of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island. However, until now I had never slept a single night up in a tree.

The Big Canopy Campout (BCC) is about one special night of action in treetops all around the world and there is a groundswell of love for the movement. This year, climbers camped up in the canopy at 132 campouts around the globe, from threatened tropical rain forests to trees in the local park, in 27 countries from Wales to Japan. The climbers do this to draw attention to precious habitats being destroyed right before our eyes.

© Tim Cooper
© Tim Cooper
© Tim Cooper
© Tim Cooper

The BCC2020 has chosen to raise funds for the Bob Brown Foundation in my home state of Tasmania. Bob, who created the world’s first Green Party back in the ‘70s, is attempting to save one forest in particular – takayna in the northwestern region of Tasmania (or The Tarkine as non-Aboriginal people call it).

It is the largest tract of temperate rainforest in Australia and one of the largest such forests on earth. At this very moment takayna is being brutalized with access roads chopping the forest into coupes, the size of football stadiums, that are imminently due for logging. Much is already lost. I couldn’t sit back any longer.

When the first settlers arrived in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was named back in 1803) the great myrtle trees of this forest were already 600 years old. Interestingly, these myrtle forests are virtually the same as those in Patagonia and point to Tasmania being part of the supercontinent of Gondwana, which broke away from Pangaea between 600 and 240 million years ago.

Over the years I’ve written about forest conservation issues for the Guardian and Observer newspapers. I reported on Forestry Tasmania when they killed the largest hardwood tree on earth, El Grande (at 79 metres tall and with a girth of 20 metres).

However, direct activism, tree sitting, is something I have never done. Even though I care deeply about these precious forests my spastic body often just finds it too difficult. Except for short windows when I have my therapeutic Botox injections - then my body is nice and relaxed. I have twenty deep needles down my right side three times a year to relax my muscles.

You see, I am paralysed down my right side after a brain injury on the famous Totem Pole (I think I had a hand in making it famous). A laptop sized flake of dolerite split my skull open 22 years ago. After a year in a wheelchair in hospital and ten years walking up increasingly sizeable hills, I re-booted my climbing career. Though this was a full 11 years after my accident, I could not have tied into the sharp end any sooner. I led my first route, a runout slab, at Arco in Italy – it was graded 2c but I think it was at least 3b [Ed: These are very easy climbing grades].

© Matthew Newton
© Matthew Newton

But I digress… I had been making a sort of pilgrimage every year to visit the Totem Pole but in about 2014 I thought to myself, “I reckon I could stand on the top again.” So, I set about developing a funky one-handed two-to-one pulley system to ascend a rope. That is how I climbed The Totem Pole in 2016, which was the subject of the award-winning film Doing It Scared.  

Ever since then I have had shoulder problems. Ascending a rope one handed is very shoulder heavy, and as I need my left arm now more than ever, I made a vow after The Totem Pole to stay away from rope ascenders and prussik knots. But this is important business and I simply could not turn my back on this forest. Thus, I found it easy to break that promise I made to myself.

This patch of takayna, impersonally named Coupe No. BO102A, is slated for logging and destruction this coming summer. But these brave tree sitters will be there, in the canopy, waiting to stop the chainsaws and bulldozers.

We must strive to protect any ancient forest but such a profoundly important forest such as that of takanya deserves special recognition.”

You can still support Big Canopy Campout and the Bob Brown Foundation by buying an item from their shop such as a special edition DMM Eccentric pulley or XSRE Lock Captive Bar.