Host Sue Stockdale talks to Vicki Tough, an arborist, tree climbing Instructor and Rope Access Level 3 Work at Height professional about the highs and lows of her job and finds out about the Big Canopy Campout, and annual tree top event that connects tree climbing and forest enthusiasts around the world. Vicki grew up in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland which set the scene for a fascination with the natural world. After pursuing a Zoology Degree at the University of Glasgow, Vicki’s first experience of a rainforest in Ecuador became the catalyst for her career as a Work at Height Professional, Arborist and Tree Climbing Instructor. She founded Sylvana Alta to combine these professions and promote scientific exploration in forest canopies worldwide, believing that the greater understanding of its value will better protect it for the future. Vicki has organised, participated in, and led research expeditions for over 18 years assisting and contributing to scientific studies in South America, Indonesia, Europe and Australia.
An IRATA level 3 supervisor Vicki has over 12 years of industrial rope access experience; working on large scale construction projects throughout the UK and Europe and contributing to the less than 1% of females in this role. Working in these contrasting environments has enabled an appreciation and understanding of technical rigging solutions and the importance of teamwork in often challenging conditions. In 2017 Vicki and several other climbing professionals set up Big Canopy Campout C.I.C and the event has grown to encompass participants from 36 different countries raising money to support grassroot organisations in their fight to protect their local forested areas.
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‘The whole scope of the Olympics was so huge. Not only the buildings, but also just the grandeur of the event and it bringing the whole world together.’
‘Everything takes 10 times longer and you really need to prepare before you set out.’
‘I would wear overalls that looked like they were designed for my father.’
‘It was just this drive to explore and to ask questions. I was always such a curious child.’
‘When I show researchers how to climb they’re just so enthusiastic, trying to get up this tree so that they can see the thing that they want to research that they’re not bothered by the height.’
‘Tree climbing and rope access, comes with stereotypes. It comes with a lot of people thinking, you gotta be fast, you’ve gotta be strong. you’ve gotta have muscles. A lot of people are a little bit surprised when I rock up – eight and a half stone and five foot six.’
Vicki Tough Transcription
Sue: Welcome to the podcast, Vicki. It’s great to speak to you today.
Vicki: Oh, it’s amazing to be here Sue thanks very much for the invite, it’s great.
Sue: Its lovely to have another Scottish accent to enjoy though I know you’re not in Scotland, just now. Where are you based normally?
Vicki: I now live in Germany. I’m in the Southwest of Germany. So I haven’t escaped the winter, but I’m over here primarily work-wise and also my partner lives over here, so I get to enjoy things like well baked bread on a daily basis. and good beer can can’t forget the good beer.
Sue: Well, that’s definitely a treat by the sounds of it, who doesn’t like freshly baked bread.
Sue: And you mentioned your work there, Vicki. I’m fascinated to discover more about your work and your interest in working at height in particular.
Vicki: I do work at height. Yes. You wouldn’t think it would be a difficult question when people say, what do you do? My day job varies between an arborist, which is like a tree care specialist. I climb trees for a living and also rope access level three. Which means that I climb buildings for a living. So yeah, I am a professional dangler from ropes, really in every sense of the word.
Sue: I wonder if you could describe to us what the world is like at height up there in the trees or the top of a building, just to give us a sense of what it feels like to you when you’re up there.
Vicki: do you know, it gives you a completely different perspective on the world. And it’s not just the perspective of looking down. It’s the perspective of being in the moment because you are very aware, physiologically, and psychologically that you’re probably not meant to be there. or at least you should be aware of the safety issues and the fact that, yes, I don’t have a tail or wings. So, you’re very in the moment. And what’s beautiful about it is that it allows you to really take stock of your environment and where you are. So, although there is an element of isn’t it incredible to see the views and to see the world from that level, it really does give you this idea that that kind of the body and mind connection, because you have to be completely aware or completely safe in, in yourself. But then you’re also going, this is amazing. I’m up here and I shouldn’t necessarily be up here and I’m completely safe, but also, I have a job to do so you’re, you’re pulled in these different directions and yeah, it’s an incredible space to be in. It really is. It’s a real privilege.
Sue: And when you got all of that experience that you’ve had over the number of years, is it 12 years I think of experience or longer than that.
Vicki: I got my first rope access job in 2010 in London. I was working on the Olympic stadium. But I was actually in the trees a few years before that in 2008. So, yeah.
Sue: So with all of those years of experience and climbing different structures, What’s been the most memorable one?
Vicki: Oh, for structures. For me, it was definitely the Olympic stadium in London. it was also the first one. And it was so huge and there was such an incredible group of people. We were really a big gang of vagabonds that came from all different ways of life and had all different interests. We were kind of thrown together in this motley crew of about 25 and just the whole scope of the Olympics was so huge. So not only the buildings, but also just the grandeur of the event and it bringing the whole world together. So it was like being part of something really huge. And then our little part you could see where it fit into the bigger picture. That was incredible. That was wonderful. But I must admit that was possibly the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life. Cause sometimes dangling off a rope in mid-winter in London when it’s quite windy, you’re not moving that much. And so yeah that was also the coldest I’ve been. But that’s definitely the most memorable for the people for the London skyline is incredible. Absolutely incredible. And I think it’s probably my favorite in the world. I recognize all the buildings.
Sue: And in terms of your work on the Olympic stadium and the activities around it, what did you have to do?
Vicki: So we were actually building the roofs for the temporary stadiums. And we were working on the Olympic pool. So they have the big seating arrangements on either side. I mean, what stunning kind of masterpiece of architecture there. So we were building these temporary roofs so we were really at the top of everything. And yeah, it was great. Cause you could see everything and everyone, and it felt like you were with your own little team, your little gang up there and you were there the whole day. So it was big on teamwork as well.
Sue: So now I’m thinking the practicalities of being at height all day.
Sue: How do you cope up there?
Vicki: And you get really good at bladder control and yeah you’ve constantly got a bag of snacks. And because sometimes you can say, okay, I’ll go up and do this job, but it might take you 40 minutes to get there. And then it’ll take you another half an hour to climb up, and then you realize you’ve forgotten the tool you need to carry out the job. So you either go down or someone else brings it to you. Everything takes 10 times longer and you really need to prepare before you set out. And yes so clothing, clothing is a big one, but that’s also difficult because you quite often have to really exert yourself to get there, whether it’s climbing up the rope or getting out on onto the barriers and then you get there and you’re sweating and then you take layers off but you’re in your minus temperatures within 20 minutes, you’re freezing. So, then you’ve got to have enough layers and enough food. Yeah. It’s a lot of planning, a lot of preparation and you also need to communicate really, really well with your team.
Sue: And how are you doing that, given that it may not be working immediately beside you? Or is that always the case that you’re altogether?
Vicki: You’ve you never work alone. That’s, that’s a big rule as well. You’ve at least got one person with you at all times, but yeah, quite often you are split at other ends of the roof. And there it’s radios, it’s phones. It’s what usually happens is that you got a plan, you get up there, the plan never works. So, then you have to go to plan B, C, D E, and then yeah. You just kind of make it up as you go along by that point, because nothing ever goes to the actual plan, but that’s part of the fun, the problem solving.
Sue: Does a contractor or whoever you’re working for provide the equipment, or do you have your own specialist equipment that you can trust and rely on when you go into these situations?
Vicki: Your, your equipment. So you’re talking, your harness and all your connectors and your rope we were responsible for that. Some rope access companies will provide you with your own equipment. So it’s their responsibility to keep it safe and up to date.
But for most self-employed people, we would buy our own and we would have our own equipment because it’s a little bit like having your own, your own toolkit and your own armour. It has to fit you. And especially being a small female it took me a long time to get the specific pieces and to get it to fit me and to work for me as efficiently as it would for somebody bigger than it was designed for. So no, we took many years of trial and error getting the right bits of equipment. And I mean, sometimes if I’ve been on the ropes for maybe 12 hours or something, And you come down and you take your harness off and you feel a bit naked cause it’s just a part of you after that. It’s just, it’s your armour. It’s your, your kind of your cape. It’s what you need to be able to do the job. And if you’re, if it doesn’t fit properly or it doesn’t work well, or you don’t take care of it, then you can’t do the work to the best of your ability.
Sue: Hmm, that makes real good sense to have the proper equipment and clothing that’s going to suit you. I know from one of the first polar expeditions, I did Vicki the clothing I had to use was designed for a man because they’d never been a woman doing really expeditions of the nature I was involved in at the time. I’m wondering in your industry, is that a kind of similar case when you started out?
Vicki: Yeah. Drove me absolutely nuts. It’s better now. I work more in the trees now. It’s fitted. Better now there’s many more women now in the industry. And so then there is a market, so people are starting to make it better, but no within rope access I would wear overalls that looked like they were designed for my father. I would have to roll them up and it’s dangerous to have baggy clothes, on the ropes. You don’t want things snagging. And then they started to think they were getting better and all they would do is shrink it and pink it, and I would be furious if anybody would try and put me in anything pink, not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just like, stop it. They know I’m female. You don’t need to put a label on me. And actually, my favorite color is green. So, yeah, it was, it was a real problem and it’s still not great. It really isn’t.
Sue: Well, at least it’s perhaps moving slowly in the right direction to accommodate people of different genders. Now I’m also thinking, as you’re speaking Vicki, that I don’t imagine that as a young girl being brought up in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland, I understand. Did you have your heart set on doing the job that you’re doing when you were young or did you have other career plans when you were a wee girl?
Vicki: No. Do you know when I was six years old and I don’t know where I got this from, I was obsessed with whales and the ocean. And I wanted to be a Marine biologist. I don’t know where I learned that word. My mom doesn’t know where I learned it, but I would just repeat it wherever I went. And then something switched. And I actually went on to study zoology but it was always the natural world for me. It was this wonder and fascination with things that humans didn’t control. I think looking back now, I was just utterly fascinated with animals and plants and just the general natural world. I mean, getting to grow up in the Cairngorms, you’re exposed to quite a raw piece of nature there and you can see processes working firsthand. So I think that real curiosity and then it was just this drive to explore and to ask questions. I was always such a curious child and I always just wanted to be as close to whatever it was I was looking at. I was picking up frogs and, looking at flower colors and things. It was, just this drive of, of fan of curiosity and wonder.
Sue: And then how did that turn into climbing and ropes?
Vicki: good question. So I went to the university of Glasgow, which I absolutely adored to study zoology and there was an exploration society there and every summer. You could apply to go on these expeditions abroad. And, and I got into one that went to Ecuador in my second year. So I was 19, 20 naive, naive to the world, but I thought, oh, I want to try this.
I want to go there. That looks cool. And , I got to go and I have never felt wonder like it, when I got there, it was just, yeah, even now I go back to that childlike feeling when I think of other rainforest and the sounds and the smells and the sights and the animals, and, and I thought even back then, I was like, whatever happens in my life, I would love this environment to be a part of my life in some way. And I think it was just that that set a foundation for say I don’t ever want to lose that, that feeling of wonder I don’t ever want to feel like there’s not that colour and noise and amazement, in my life. And When I left university, I realized quite heartbreakingly that I didn’t fit the academic world.
It was wonderful for the fact that it gives you answers. And I think my respect for research and for scientists goes. just beyond anything and for their ability and their dedication to finding the answers for things. But I didn’t have that quality in me. I’m a little bit more like a squirrel, I see something and then I’m like, oh, well, what’s that? Oh, something else shined and then I’m off in another direction. So didn’t quite have the discipline perhaps in that sense, for that work. But I didn’t want to leave that world. And I was still very outdoorsy. And there was a company that did tree climbing for film and media it was called canopy access and they were looking for instructors at the time. And so, I went and did the course and, and applied and that’s, that’s how it started. But of course, their work was only seasonal. And I knew of rope access growing up in the Northeast because of the large rope access companies there on the oil rigs and such. And I thought, okay, if I can do a rope based job, back in the UK. I can increase my skills to take it to the rainforest where I can use it in an environment that I wanted to do. And that’s kind of where I kicked off from. So yeah, I had no plan really was stumbling along.
Sue: I think that squirrel approach sometimes works pretty well.
Vicki: It does.
Sue: Now you mentioned there Vicki around scientists, and we could add perhaps into that researchers, part of your job now I understand is to support scientists and researchers who are going into the forest environment to help them have access to what they need to do to do the research.
Vicki: Yes. So what I’ve done is I’ve kind of combined my passions of climbing and being in these environments and my respect of science and research. by creating a company called Sylvana Alta. And this company is specifically designed to give the training and the skills required to safely get into trees as perhaps a non-professional climber for work-related purposes and research to just get up there and so that we can learn more. The forest canopy along with kind of deep sea it’s one of the last frontiers that we really don’t know a lot about because of its inaccessibility. And, as technology is charging ahead with climbing equipment these days and our ability to stay safe and be efficient. It means that more and more scientists can actually access these areas and conduct their research. And we can start backing up our beliefs and hypothesis with real science. So that in turn, we then protect these areas that are sadly, are disappearing on us and they’re so important. We’re just scratching the surface of how complex these ecosystems are and how somewhere like the Amazon. In south America affects our water systems over here and yeah, we still don’t know how it’s all connected. We’re just getting these little pieces of the puzzle, but it’s so important that we find out as much as possible before it’s too late.
Sue: As you’re speaking, Vicki I’m just imagining all these scientists and researchers all around in the world who have now got these tree climbing skills that they’ve gained.
Vicki: Yeah. And do you know what they are wonderful? What I love about them so much is because their research has everything to everything, to them, and they’re so dedicated and they, you know, they will study this very important, but quite simply very specific question that they, that they need to answer. And they’ll take years and painstaking amounts of effort into creating the best way of answering this question so that they can get the papers and the answers out. So, when I show them how to climb, they’re just so enthusiastically trying to get up this tree so that they can see the thing that they want to research that they’re not bothered by the height or where the rope is that they don’t see the hazards that perhaps I would as a, as a trainer.
And they also have this kind of wonderment to them. It just is the best experiences working with researchers and scientists, because they’re so dedicated and enthusiastic about their work. And if I’m just there as a little bit like a mother hen say, okay, no, no, that’s too, that’s too high. It’s maybe come down a little then yeah, it’s great. And you see the results it’s working, you know, they’re getting the research, they’re getting the data and we’re getting some more information.
Sue: It must be very satisfying for you. I imagine to be able to be supporting that type of work.
Vicki: It really is because they also, tree climbing and rope access. It comes with stereotypes. It comes with a lot of people thinking, okay, so you got to be, you got to be fast. You’ve got to be strong. You got to have muscles. A lot of people are a little bit surprised when I rock up in my, my eight and a half stone and kind of five foot six. And what I love is that I can kind of, blow apart these stereotypes and what I really like is being able to let them work out how they can climb to the best of their ability. I mean, it’s not using my body, they use their body and it’s, it’s a little bit like dancing, everybody dances differently, everybody climbs differently and it’s just these little tweaks and movements. I can fit it to them and their body and their mind and how they learn and suddenly they’re flying. And it’s a beautiful thing to see them overcome these hurdles that they’ve got in their head.
Sue: Wow. That’s amazing. I’m also curious to hear a little bit about the big canopy camp out that yourself. And some of the climbing professionals set up in 2017. I understand.
Vicki: Yeah. So back in 2017. So, a very good friend of mine, John pike who was also a tree climber, but he went on to become a doctor, a medic. And this is years ago, and he got in touch. So, he had this, this great idea. John’s fantastic for these ideas. And he gets everybody pulled in. And we had spent the last kind of 10, 15 years meeting these amazing people all around the world. And they were all just dedicated to their little plot of forests or their even one tree or their research. And they were kind of these unsung heroes. We’re just beautiful in every way. And we felt very lucky to have met them.
And as technology with the internet and connecting around the world was getting so much easier. We thought, well, it’s never going to be possible to get everybody in a conference room because that takes a lot of money and a lot of privilege. And that would only allow maybe academics there, but we had all these people that worked as park Rangers, as guides, as research assistants. As researchers in areas of the world that wouldn’t be able to perhaps leave their country. It would be, it would just be logistically a nightmare, but we all had the one interest. Climbing trees and being in trees and a favourite pastime was to sleep up in the trees.
So you just sling a hammock up, basically you’re completely connected still in your rope and harness, but you get a hammock up there and it’s mostly in the tropics we did this because of the weather and yeah, we would sleep overnight and it’s an incredible experience. And we thought, well, if we could connect everybody and we did this one night or one weekend of the year, and we could share online, then suddenly we can connect this kind of growing community.
Because another issue is that there’s a lot of people out there with skills that want to help projects and a lot of people with projects that need people with skills and connecting them has been a big part of the big canopy campout, and it’s went from strength to strength. And we now encourage people not only to sleep in the trees, but just below the trees.
It’s more about just being in forests for that weekend and appreciation for these areas and for the people working there and we raise money, and we give the money to grassroots and non-profits. that is protecting native forest somewhere around the world. So, it’s a bit like a little promotion platform for people and projects.
Sue: Wow. It sounds amazing in terms of the connectivity around the world to like-minded people.
Vicki: Yeah. And there’s incredible people that are doing these amazing projects that are just maybe, made of two or three people on there. They’re trying to protect the small area because it’s got this species of plant or animal and they dedicate their whole lives. Doing just that. And they’re up against large scale oil companies, Palm oil, they’re up against people wanting to build roads through it, and they’re fighting it much on their own. And there’s something about that solidarity of that one weekend of the year of where people can go, oh, I can not only share my work and my project, but also take a bit of strength from the fact that there’s all these other people around the world in their own little corners that are doing the same. And you can build and each other up a little bit, just kind of go, okay, this year has been tough, but let’s, let’s do it again for it for another year. It’s yeah, it’s, it’s pretty special.
Sue: Well, I think that sense of community is important for any project to help people feel that they’re not alone. And part of the reason, I guess we created this podcast was to have a sense of community with giving different perspectives to our listeners from amazing people all around the world. And speaking of inspiration, Vicki, who or what inspires you.
Vicki: Oh, well, single-handedly Like first and foremost was David Attenborough. He was kind of from a young, young age until now. Just incredible man, just his attitude and demeanour and love for the natural world. Definitely big inspiration. I’m inspired by just anything insect wise because I just think they’re amazing. I just think they insects, they are everywhere. They’re so diverse. We know so little about them. We’re always learning and and I’m just inspired by all the activists out there also that are standing up for their areas of, natural world, in the face of a lot. Yeah, they’re, they’re up against a lot and I just am constantly inspired by them.
Sue: And just looking ahead Vicki as you think ahead to this year, what are the, some of the highlights you’ve got to look forward to?
Vicki: Oh, well, in two weeks, two weeks tomorrow, I head off to Ecuador and I’m so super, super excited before COVID, I was very privileged to do a lot of traveling and I visited a lot of incredible places. And the last two years I haven’t, and I’ve really enjoyed that, but I’m off to Ecuador which it was my very first rainforest, my very first big overseas trip. And it’s held a piece of my heart since then. So, I’ll be training a group of researchers out in Ecuador, and we’ll be looking into the phonology of trees. So over here, for example, we have apple season and all the apple trees, they blossom and then fruit at the same time in the rain forest and the equator, they don’t do that. They don’t have seasons. So, they want to know, well, do they, are they micro seasons? What makes a tree blossom and change? And why does that one have got fruit, but the one next to it? Doesn’t and so, yeah, that’s going to be a very interesting project and then I’ll be visiting the Sequoya and Molina which is a community of indigenous people in the north of Ecuador, who we raised money for last year through the big canopy campout. And it’ll just mean a lot to me to meet these people in person and to see their incredible way of life and learn a bit of about their indigenous science and medicinal plants.
Sue: Wow. Well, I think I can hear in your voice the love in a way that you have for Ecuador, the forest there and the people.
Vicki: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I really do. I feel I’m ever so grateful for that experience at university. Getting, getting to go out and see this place, because that was showing my age now back in 2004. Yeah. It’s a long time and it just, it has that enthusiasm has not left me and I hope it never will. I hope it. I hope it will just always keep growing.
Sue: Well, I think you’ve shared your enthusiasm for being at height, being in forests and connecting the world in a different way, perhaps through our conversation today. Vicki, I’ve loved speaking to you. If our listener wants to find out more about what you do and to connect with your homemade, you do that.
Vicki: And you can find me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m under the name Sylvana Alta which is S Y L V A N A A L T A and also my website, which is Sylvanaalta.com. That’s probably the best way to get me on. You can also look up the big canopy campout, and that’s just bigcanopycampout.com on all those platforms.
Sue: Fantastic. Well, as always, we’ll put links on our show notes to all of those sites for you, Vicki, I wish you well, next time, you’re up a tree and looking at the world from that perspective.
Sue: and enjoy your, your travels to Ecuador.
Vicki: Thank you, Sue.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)