The towering Siberian elm had seen better days.

Planted on the glorious grounds of the Daly Mansion close to 80 years ago, the tree was doing what every living thing does as it nears the end of its days.

It was slowly starting to fall apart.

One of its main branches had a huge gaping crack. Up in its highest reaches, there were dead and dying branches that posed a hazard for anyone walking underneath during a squall.

On this warm spring morning, David McNeill was fearlessly creeping along the top of one of stoutest branches near the highest part of tree. Hooked to his harness, a small chainsaw swung back and forth just beneath his feet.

When he neared the branch’s end, McNeill gave the line attached to his saw a tug. Within seconds, he was pruning branches that crashed to the ground below.

With one hand shading out the sun, McNeill’s wife and master arborist, Sylvia McNeill, kept a close eye on her husband’s progress.

“The tree is really old,” she said. “We’ve been doing this long enough to know what has to be done to prolong its life.”

This season marks the 46th year that the 62-year-old McNeill has climbed into the highest trees to do what it takes to keep them alive.

“It’s what I love to do,” he said. “Not only do you have the adrenaline rush that comes with the danger and thrill of heights, you also are making decisions that very important to a biological life form.”

McNeill was introduced to the world of serious tree climbing after a police officer took an interest in a 15-year-old troubled youth then living in Northern California. The officer was well known for skills of climbing and caring for the huge redwood and eucalyptus trees that were prominent in the area.

“I was really, really fortunate to have him find me,” McNeill said. “He would pick me up in the morning and we would go to work. I was really athletic. I couldn’t believe that I was being paid to climb up in these beautiful trees and be outside all day.”

Over the ensuing decades, McNeill has tried his hand at different vocations, but nothing came close to the feeling that he had working in the tops of tall trees.

Changes in techniques in climbing trees have allowed McNeill to continue with what he loves to do best.

While you can make an argument that age brings wisdom, McNeill said strength doesn’t necessarily follow along.

“And you certainly don’t get any quicker,” he said. “My days of swinging through the trees like Tarzan are over. Tree climbing is kind of like gymnastics. You don’t see old gymnasts. Gaining altitude used to be the hardest part of this job. Now it’s the easiest.”

Before technology changed the game, McNeill had to rely on upper body strength to climb the ropes that hung from the highest branches of the tree. Today, he uses a single rope technique that essentially allows him walk up the rope like a ladder.

The new system also provides better security in a fall.

“These systems are designed to allow you to take a big fall similar to what a rock climber might experience,” he said. “These are designed for fall protection. If you fall 10 or 15 feet and hit a branch, you’re going to get hurt. I do everything I can to prevent that.”

Still, there are inherent dangers when you climb high over and over again.

At a conference the McNeills attended several years ago, the speaker asked everyone over 50 who was still climbing to raise their hands.

“He then said, ‘Every one of you needs to quit. You need to quit right now,’ ” Sylvia said, with a smile.

The two have worked together so long that she knows when her husband is in a tough spot.

“Over time, you get a feel for trees,” she said. “I can tell what a tree is doing just from David’s body language. I can tell what he’s feeling about his level of security or lack of it. We both know how far he can push the envelope.”

The two remain in constant contact through radio communication.

“I also know that he’s extremely good at what he does,” she said.

The Siberian they are working on today presents a good deal of challenge. They’ve already decided the huge branch with the open split will have to go.

“No choice is really great for this tree,” she said. “We also know that anything is possible when it comes to a tree. They have an incredible ability to be able to recreate themselves.”

That’s part of what keeps the McNeills in the business of caring for trees.

“You learn a lot of about trees when you work with them every day,” David said. “But we also know there is so much more to learn…there are microorganisms living on trees that haven’t even been named yet. We all still have a lot to learn.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.


Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.