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Above & Beyond

The world's tallest tree towers above a secret location deep within the lush, tangled backcountry of Redwood National Park. Determined to find this giant, our correspondent discovers something more incredible than he ever imagined.

Before crossing Redwood Creek, we reviewed our clues and concluded that we had
probably been up the correct drainage, but on the wrong side of the feeder stream.
A green-shaded area on the map identified an extensive grove of old growth on
the other side, a little farther upstream. But judging from the bunched-up contour
lines, Hyperion’s potential location would be steeper. Much steeper.

The day before, Redwood Creek had been up to our ankles. Now, after a night
of rain, it was knee-high. If we got more rain, we would need to hightail it
back before the rising water cut off our retreat. As we plunged in, a salmon
jumped next to Katzman. Carrying his pack full of lenses and camera bodies,
Katzman picked his way over slippery rocks through the swift current, balancing
with a walking stick in one hand and a carbon-fiber tripod in the other. I followed
him, scanning the mountainside above us. Somewhere up there, the world’s tallest
living thing was quietly growing ever taller.

Sixty million years ago, redwood forests covered much of the Northern Hemisphere.
But as a result of climate change, and then harvesting, the three species of
redwood are now found in only three small areas. The giant sequoia, the world’s
largest tree in terms of total volume, grows in 70 isolated groves in California.
The dawn redwood, once thought to have been extinct for 20 million years, has
been discovered in remote valleys in central China. The object of our quest,
the coast redwood, is found along a 40-mile-wide, 470-mile-long strip in northern
California and southern Oregon.

The coast redwood is no mere mortal tree, and I mean that in the most literal
sense. Its scientific name, Sequoia sempervirens (forever-living sequoia), refers
to its ability to regenerate. Under the right conditions, a single tree can
live for 2,000 years or longer, protected by a foot-thick bark layer that is
fire- and insect-resistant. Like other conifers, a redwood can regenerate from
seeds. Should it topple, it can also regenerate from sprouts that shoot up from
fallen trunks, thereby keeping its genetic line unbroken over millennia.

But the coast redwood has an Achilles’ heel: a shallow root system that grows
only a few feet under the surface. The trees that blocked our ascent up the
creek had most likely been on the losing end of an epic wrestling match with
the wind. As a gust levered one tree’s roots free of the earth and sent it hurling
toward the ground, the falling giant would have bumped into one or more of its
neighbors, setting off a domino effect that would, within a few seconds, bring
millions of pounds of wood down across the creek.

As Katzman, Southard, and I sat on the mossy rocks, we could see small green
shoots coming up at intervals along the trunk, making tentative forays into
the misty air. We considered our options. The prospects of going over, under,
or around looked equally unpalatable. So we decided to go through the middle.
Beginning with Southard, we burrowed through a convoluted series of gaps that
formed a rough passageway, pausing at intervals to relay the camera gear.

Then we continued climbing up the stream until, at a bend, we began ascending
the steep bank. We pushed through sword ferns seven feet high, getting soaked
in the insanely humid environment. We struggled through fields of brambles,
scrambled over the debris of more fallen trees, and found little solid ground
to stand on. At one point, Katzman slipped and his camera crashed down, lens-first.

As he and Southard continued to barge their way through the prickers, I tried
my luck at walking atop the inclined trunk of a downed redwood. It had looked
like a viable route up the hill, but halfway along I was reduced to shimmying,
riding the slippery tree like a horse. Eventually, the tree bucked me off and
sent me sliding sideways down a carpet of moss and decaying slime. I fell through
a mat of sticks and leaves and into a hidden void. After thudding to the ground,
it occurred to me that if Hyperion really was anywhere nearby, it was in little
danger of being overrun by bushwhacking throngs.

IN THE LATE 1970s, as Congress debated expanding Redwood National Park, the
pace of logging picked up dramatically. Pushing ever deeper into the area that
would soon be off-limits, timber crews set up floodlights powered by mobile
generators, allowing around-the-clock work. By the time President Carter signed
the expansion legislation, about 80 percent of the soon-to-be-annexed land had
been logged. On March 27, 1978, the chain saws finally fell silent, less than
200 feet from Hyperion. The tallest known tree on earth had been two weeks,
maybe less, from its demise.

It would take three decades for anyone to notice the tree. On August 25, 2006,
Atkins and Taylor were bushwhacking through a remote basin that neither had
previously visited. They had recently found two huge trees–371.2-foot
Icarus and record-breaking 375.3-foot Helios–in a nearby grove.

After many years of tree-hunting, Atkins and Taylor had developed a keen intuition.
They knew with a glance which trees might be worth a two-hour bushwhack; they
knew how to find the "sweet spots," as Atkins describes them, from
which a laser shot might be possible.
Taylor was walking about 100 feet ahead when Atkins noticed a redwood crown
looming above its neighbors. Atkins recalls that he got his rangefinder out
of his backpack and shot at a point just below the top of the tree. He couldn’t
see the base, but he estimated that the tree had to be at least 360 feet tall.

"Michael," Atkins yelled. "Get over here. This tree’s incredibly
tall."

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