The OU Trunking Project

I’m back in Norman for what looks like the next two-and-a-half years. It’s time to get this show on the road again!

Shout-out, if you’re a photographer and you’re reading this I would love for you to take some pictures for me so we can make trunking posters and stuff for publicity. Perks include cool friends and maybe getting your pictures published in an upcoming guidebook.

I’m also working on setting up a facebook page for trunking.

The University of Oklahoma Trunking Project began on a sunny spring day when I first attempted to climb the largest tree in OU’s South Oval. Wearing regular tennis shoes, I had to take a running start and throw my arm to grab the lower edge of a cut-limb scar. If I caught it–usually the third try–I had to pull quickly so my other hand could grab the scar’s upper edge. From there, I set my feet against the trunk and shifted my weight to the left so I could side-pull a vertical indentation in thick bark. I would grab the right edge of the dent with my other hand and shift my feet to the left again where, finally, I could reach out and grab the first real branch of the tree. Beyond that everything was easy, reminiscent of childhood adventures.

I started bouldering the fall before this, and the short, focused intensity of the sport caught my attention. The movements required power and balance, intensity and grace. Each problem was its own little world with its different challenges for each body type. Best of all, bouldering didn’t require the extensive gear and investment of traditional climbing, just a pair of shoes and some chalk to improve friction. The community is friendly as well, always willing to share tips and chat idly during rests. The only flaw I’ve found in bouldering is its limited availability: beyond the rapidly-growing indoor gym scene, bouldering is highly localized to a few choice locations, few of which exist in or near Oklahoma.

Inspired–for better or worse–by bouldering, I began to seek out new situations to climb. I left at night to climb buildings and crawl around on parking garages. Once, because the swings by the dorm were squeaking, I pulled my way up their beams with a can of WD-40 in my pocket and greased their hinges while hanging from the bar with my other hand. I tried and failed to convince my friends to climb the water tower. I even climbed the trees around the dorms, but it wasn’t until I climbed the tree on the South Oval that I realized what tree climbing could become.

Above the branches, or the crown, tree climbing becomes, by comparison, relaxing. You can crawl all the way to the top, testing your bravery as the limbs shrink under your feet, or you can settle onto a good lower branch to rest and observe the world from above. You can, if so inclined, launch projectiles onto victims below or quietly read a book, shielded from others’ casual perception. These options are all rewards for the initial conquest, the exertion to ascend beyond the far-less accommodating trunk. The burst of adrenaline and commitment necessary to break above that first layer makes each tree climb an adventure. Often a mixture a strength and technique, each trunk presents a problem to be solved.

It’s obvious where I’m going with this, right? Climbing the trunk of a tree plays out almost exactly like a bouldering route. If you don’t believe me, re-read my first paragraph and count the bouldering terms I use. For the type of person motivated by bouldering routes, climbing the trunk of the tree to the first branch (with some exceptions), or trunking, carries all the same intrinsic value. Unless you’re Chris Sharma climbing a redwood, the routes are never so long as to be exhaustive, instead focusing on a few powerfully controlled moves. An edge of bark holds like a bouldering crimp. Tree knobs feel like classic slopers. The top-out is every bit as rewarding. There are a few core differences that only make the two activities more compelling and complementary. While bouldering problems usually have one active face, trees are round, giving plenty of options for starting point and possibly spiraling solutions. Best of all, trees are almost everywhere. The University of Oklahoma has gorgeous, strong trees all over its campus, providing even more trunking routes than Climb Up and the Huff climbing wall combined have bouldering routes.

My realization of trunking’s potential to expand on bouldering’s newfound popularity seemed obvious after the fact, and I was surprised to find that no real precedent for it exists. It seems most people simply grow out of tree climbing as a childish activity. Whatever the reason, it felt just as important to me to pursue this new approach to climbing and see it grow however I could.

The OU Trunking Project has three aims. First, to introduce the idea of trunking in a way that preserves both the joy and the ethical responsibilities of such an activity. Even more so than rocks, trees require our respect and active protection. Trunking should serve these goals, first out of appreciation for what trees offer, and second so that it is sustainable. Second, to build a community of trunkers, first at OU and then hopefully on a larger scale. It is impossible to develop any sport without a community to perpetuate and validate it. I may be overly ambitious in this, but I truly believe there are people all over the world that would enjoy trunking, at least as an accessible outdoor alternative to bouldering. Third, I aim to catalog the best trees on OU’s Norman campus and develop a standardized rating system for tree climbing. If all goes well, this catalog will form the basis of the first trunking guidebook, based right here on OU’s campus.

 – Nate Richbourg


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