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Panola Mountain offers visitors tree climbing excursions

Panola Mountain offers visitors tree climbing excursions

Conyers resident Brian Lanier is the tree climbing director for the Georgia State Park system and offers monthly tree climbing excursions at Panola Mountain State Park, 2600 Highway 155 in Stockbridge, every third Saturday of the month. The next climbs are at 1 and 3 p.m. on July 19. (Special Photo)

Conyers resident Brian Lanier is the tree climbing director for the Georgia State Park system and offers monthly tree climbing excursions at Panola Mountain State Park, 2600 Highway 155 in Stockbridge, every third Saturday of the month. The next climbs are at 1 and 3 p.m. on July 19. (Special Photo)

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Climbers hang from their ropes and explore the high branches of this tree during a tree climbing excursion at Panola Mountain State Park. (Special Photo)

As transplants to Conyers seven years ago looking for some enjoyable recreational activity, Brian Lanier and his wife discovered that Panola Mountain State Park offered tree climbing excursions. The pair visited the park, suited up with a saddle, ropes and helmet, and set about easing their way into the treetops.

“Once I did it, I was like, ‘This is really cool,’” said Lanier, whose climbing skills and encouraging way with people led the former treetop director, Jodi Rice, to train Lanier to take over the job. “Basically, I got hooked and once I started volunteering pretty soon I’m monkeying around in the trees all the time.”

An architectural draftsman in Social Circle, Lanier now spends at least one weekend a month leading treetop excursions at Panola Mountain State Park, as a part-time job.

The third Saturday of each month (and more often in the warmer months) the park offers the tree climbing events at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at trees near Panola Mountain’s Lake Alexander.

Designed for people age 8 and up (though Lanier said he’s been able to accommodate those as young as 5), the climbing involves donning gear and belaying up into the treetops, where climbers may simply take in the view or jump from branch to branch, hanging on rope.

“When you’re 30 feet in the air and you can swing 30 feet across, that’s one of those thrills that you don’t get to do (very often),” said Lanier. “It’s a blast.”

Lanier said the park provides all the climbing equipment, including the ropes, the saddle (similar to a rock climbing harness), carabiners and helmets. A double rope technique is used to attach the rope to the tree, and the climber is clipped onto the rope. He then inserts his foot into a loop and pushes down to make himself ascend. If a climber’s arms get tired or he gets blisters on his fingers, he isn’t using enough leg power to push his way up.

Usually, climbers who don’t get the technique on the first climb, figure it out on the second, said Lanier.

“It’s a matter of getting your balance and weight right,” he said.

The main tree climbers will ascend at Panola is a Southern red oak, named Naomi Ruth, and there are 10 other trees on the site fit for climbing.

“I encourage people to come out and give it a try. It’s like nothing they’ve ever done before,” said Lanier.

Lanier said he even welcomes those with a fear of heights to give the climbs a try.

“A lot of people who say they are afraid of heights, I remind them that they are not afraid of heights, they are afraid of falling. We strap them in and when they get up there, they forget all about it,” said Lanier, who added that he and other volunteers belay the climbers down so that they can control the speed of their descent.

“We’re just there to make sure they have fun and are safe, and we just want them to come outdoors and play.”

In addition to the tree climbing introduction sessions, the park also offers moonlight climbs, done in the evening during full moons, and overnight climbs, where people gather, cook their supper on an open fire and then climb up into the tree for the night to sleep in a hammock.

Lanier said the next overnight climb will most likely be in September and he recommended checking the website, www.georgiastateparks.org/panolamountain, for the schedule.

Cost is $15 for a day climb; $20 for a moonlight climb; and $75 for an overnight climb. Lanier encourages people to register ahead of time by calling the park at 770-389-7801.

Lanier said nothing matches the sheer joy of being in the trees.

“You can get into places that most people can’t and you can climb trees that nobody else can. When you climb a 150-foot tree and you’re above all the other trees, there’s nothing like it. When you’re strapped in and you can go from branch to branch there’s a flying freedom,” he said.