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Just a lil bit (higher)

Tired of droppin' it like it's hot? Go climb a tree.

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I'd been shooting the breeze with Cam Taylor and Joseph Pate for about 20 minutes when I looked down and remembered, Oh yeah, I'm suspended from a tree limb 30 feet above the ground.

Yikes!

Actually, I was surprised at how soon I became accustomed to hanging out in midair so high up. I was also thankful for the breather. I'd worked up a pretty good sweat shimmying up the old willow oak tree using a technique called "self-belaying," one of the new terms I learned during my crash course in recreational tree climbing.

Taylor and Pate, both 30, have spent the past five years climbing some of the tallest and most spectacular trees in the Southeast, including some in Fancy Gap, VA, where the two camped out in a massive poplar tree about 80 feet up. The friends agreed to meet me in Kannapolis, at the home of Taylor's grandparents, to show me the ropes.

Tree climbing, it seems, is the latest alternative outdoor sport to make its way to the Charlotte area. But don't confuse what Taylor and Pate do with the kind of tree climbing you may have done in the backyard as a kid. This requires training, practice and, best of all, lots of gear. With all the gear, even if you have no idea what you're doing, you can at least look cool. Unless, of course, you fall. Which is very uncool. Not to mention potentially fatal.

After we arrived at the towering willow oak, Taylor secured a rope to a branch about 50 feet up, then attached it to a harness he wore around his waist. Using a complicated series of knots, clamps and straps, he self-belayed up the rope and hopped onto a branch about 40 feet high. Seemed easy enough, I thought to myself. So with Pate's guidance, I started to climb - sort of. Unlike Taylor, I thrashed about as I worked my way up the rope until finally I reached a branch, which I grabbed for dear life. Pate effortlessly scuttled up the tree behind me, and the three of us sat around in our harnesses and enjoyed the view — which included an elderly woman in polyester pants cutting the grass next door. Ah, the great outdoors.

In an effort to network with other local climbers, Taylor and Pate hope to launch a recreational tree-climbing school in the near future. In the meantime, they offer trips to nearby places such as the 50,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest near Troy, where anyone interested can learn the basics.

"I hope this sport takes off," Pate said. "It's fun, safe and relatively inexpensive."

Both guys said the sport helped them conquer a fear of heights. "It's not actually the heights I was scared of," Pate said. "It was the falling."

Someone who could offer Taylor and Pate some expert assistance is Colleen Hoffman, one of the few competitive female recreational tree climbers in the South. In March, Hoffman, who moved to Charlotte last year, competed in the International Society of Arboriculture's Southern Championship in Savannah, GA. (What's arboriculture? It's folks who spend way more time in trees than is natural.)

"I was first in the women's division," Hoffman said, then laughed. "Of course, I was the only woman competing."

Had she been ranked with the men, Hoffman would have come in 12th out of 30 entries based on the climbers' speed, skill and rescue abilities. In August, Hoffman heads to the International Championship in Nashville, where 65 people (including 12 women) are expected to compete.

Hoffman's tree-climbing skills serve her well at her job with Bartlett Tree Experts, where she is the only female arborist. I caught up with her recently as she and a few others were doing some work in a neighborhood off Carmel Road. Even dressed in green khakis, work boots and a long-sleeve, buttoned-down shirt, Hoffman radiated a natural femininity. At 5-feet-4 and 120 pounds, she's deceptively petite. She has a seriously firm handshake, and her ropy, muscled forearms are marked with little nicks and cuts.

Hoffman gamely agreed to show me the basics of the "footlock" climbing technique. After securing a rope to a nearby tree, she grabbed the rope, pulled herself off the ground and then expertly looped it around her feet. Using this as an anchor, she muscled her way up the rope and within minutes was staring down at me from about 40 feet high.

Hoffman, 23, grew up in Alaska and was involved in all kinds of outdoor sports, including rock climbing. She left home to attend Clemson University, during which time she took a tree-climbing course. She was immediately hooked, and decided to pursue arboriculture as a career.

"When they told me I could get paid to climb trees, I was like, 'OK, sign me up.'"

If you'd like to learn more about recreational tree climbing, contact Joseph Pate, director of Pfeiffer University's Haltiwanger Retreat Center. You can find him at www2.pfeiffer.edu/~jpate/splash.htm. And you can find Cam Taylor at treeclimbnc.dynserv.net or via his email address, icabodcam@hotmail.com. The duo's next trip to the Uwharrie National Forest is scheduled for Sept. 30 - Oct. 2.

If you have an idea for Urban Explorer, contact Sam Boykin at sam.boykin@cln.com.

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