From the base to canopy is longer than a football field
The lowest Redwood branch is higher than the tops of most trees
Bushwhacking in Redwood land involves big obstacles
Above and Beyond Redwood Trees 4
Author Tom Clynes
Normally I wouldn’t let a few downed trees get in the way of a good bushwhack.
But as I surveyed the wall of redwood trunks lying across the creek that had
been my pathway into the mountains, I had to consider the possibility that I
had met my match. Each of these trees was at least 10 feet in diameter, and
more than 250 feet long. Piled up like pick-up sticks hurled by a livid giant,
the fallen trunks created a formidable barrier to further ascent.
My two companions and I sat down on mossy rocks to assess the situation. Going
over the wall of wood was likely impossible without climbing gear, which is
not allowed in the park. Going under might have worked, had we brought along
snorkels and wetsuits. Going around would entail a battle with head-high nettles
that ran up and down the 50 percent grade at creekside. From recent experience,
we knew that the climb could take hours, and several pints of our blood.
We had come to this remote basin in northern California’s Redwood National Park
to hunt for the world’s tallest living tree, a coast redwood nearly 380 feet
in height. Explorers had discovered it last summer, in a remnant stand of old
growth in the southern section of the park. Growing quietly on a mountainside
for centuries, the newly crowned giant is some 70 feet taller than the Statue
of Liberty, or about as tall as a 40-story building. Its discoverers christened
it Hyperion, after the Titan (of Greek mythology) who fathered the sun.
The news was followed, as these things must be nowadays, by a press release.
Emailed from the tourism people in Humboldt County, the message claimed that
Hyperion “is too far from any trail to visit.” But, it consoled, “adventurers
piqued by the discovery have plenty of other opportunities to explore old-growth
redwood groves in Humboldt County, the tallest, largest and most pristine in
Having spent time in Humboldt, I knew the superlatives were well-deserved. But
among my several inveterate weaknesses is an attraction to extremes. I’m a sucker
for the biggest and tallest and fastest, the superjumbo jets and Everests and
top-fuel dragsters. I hit the reply button and typed a message to Richard Stenger,
author of the press release. “Why couldn’t an ambitious backpacker visit
Hyperion?” I asked.
A few minutes later, Stenger was on the phone. “I gotta tell you,”
he said, “this one is really off the beaten path. They say it’s on an incredibly
steep slope with thick underbrush that you’d have to bushwhack through, if you
knew where to go. But the park folks aren’t telling anyone where it is. Everyone
who knows anything about this tree is sworn to secrecy.”All of which sounded,
to me, like a pretty good challenge. And so a few weeks later, I found myself
driving up the Redwood Highway with photographer Mark Katzman and photo assistant
Derek Southard. From San Francisco north to the Oregon border, California’s
coastal population thins out and the forests and fogs thicken. Lacking good
harbors, far-northern California had little to grip the roots of settlers. Fortune-seekers
came and moved on, following the boom-and-bust cycles of the gold rush and the
We overnighted in Eureka, 225 miles north of San Francisco. There, in an Irish
pub, Katzman revealed that he was less than confident about our mission. “So
we’re just going to show up,” he asked, “with no credentials and no
notice, and try to find this tree that no one wants us to find?”
That was essentially the plan–although I had put a call in to the park’s
interpretive specialist, Jim Wheeler. Chief ranger Pat Grediagin was supposedly
the only Park Service employee who knew the exact location of Hyperion. The
New Yorker had quoted Grediagin as saying “there’s been a lot of talk
about this discovery. I’m just worried that someone will get a wild idea to
try to find this tree.”
That would be us. But I reassured Wheeler, on a drizzly Thursday morning when
we met him at park headquarters in the town of Orick, that ours was a responsible
quest. If we managed to find the tree, I told Wheeler, we wouldn’t reveal its
location, either in print or in conversation. But Wheeler, and the other rangers
we would meet, didn’t seem overly concerned about our intentions.
“Mostly,” Wheeler shrugged, “nobody around here thinks you have
any chance of finding it.”
According to the rangers and tree researchers, Hyperion’s location needed to
remain secret for the tree’s own protection. In the past, vandals and over-adoring
fans had injured other champion trees whose locations had been publicized. In
the early 1960s, rangers signposted what was then believed to be the world’s
tallest tree, making it the centerpiece of the park’s Tall Trees Grove. Ten
years and thousands of visitors later, names had been carved in the trunk and
the top of the tree had died–an outcome attributed, by at least one scientist,
to soil compaction around the roots. Researchers found damage in the crown of
another champion redwood, the Mendocino Tree, that suggested it had been clandestinely
climbed. Even Luna, the redwood made famous by Julia Butterfly Hill, was deeply
gouged by a chain saw a year after Hill had saved it from loggers.
But those trees are near roads and populated areas. Hyperion, by contrast, is
far off-trail. Along the Redwood Highway, motorists will happily pay to drive
through a tree, but only a small percentage will actually get out of the car
and hike more than a few yards from a road, no matter what the attraction. Still,
I reiterated to Wheeler that Hyperion’s secret would remain safe with us, if
we managed to find it.
“You won’t,” he said. Jim Wheeler, still boyish at 51, came up to this
area in 1978, “looking for Bigfoot,” he jokes. He has worked at Redwood
National Park for 20 years, long enough to be known as a “homesteader”
among the service’s mostly itinerant staff. Wheeler offered to take us out to
some of the park’s representative areas. We drove up Bald Hills Road, then walked
down a steep trail to the Tall Trees Grove.
“The old-growth redwood forest in Humboldt County is the tallest tree canopy
in the world,” Wheeler said, beginning what sounded like a well-practiced
spiel. Even though all but four percent of that old growth has been logged,
the 39 state and national parks in redwood country retain much of the diversity
of the original forest. In deep valleys and hidden ravines that the loggers’
machines couldn’t reach, there remain thousands of acres of undisturbed old
Set inside a hairpin turn on Redwood Creek, Tall Trees Grove is a treasure of
the national park system. Below the top canopy of mature redwoods are subcanopies
of moss-draped western hemlocks, Douglas firs, big-leaf maples, and tan oaks–many
of which would be considered massive if they were anywhere else. The spot has
a timeless quality that’s reinforced by the sweet smell of California laurel
Industrial logging started in far-northern California as early as the 1820s.
Using axes and crosscut saws, it took the first lumberjacks nearly a week to
bring down a giant redwood. But with the introduction of chain saws, bulldozers,
and skidders, the pace of harvesting increased. The opening of the Redwood Highway
(CA 101) made it easier to ship the lumber out, and towns like Orick boomed.
In 1917, a few prominent conservationists traveled to Humboldt and Del Norte
Counties along a highway littered with felled giants. It wasn’t until they reached
the area that is now Redwoods State Park that they stood in pristine forests.
Realizing that all the big trees could be lost in the not-so-distant future,
they founded the Save-the-Redwoods League to fund land acquisition, education,
We followed Wheeler onto a gravel bar in the middle of Redwood Creek and dug
our lunches out of our packs. It was here that a National Geographic Society
naturalist named Paul Zahl wandered in 1963, following rumors of “great
timber” in this still-unlogged part of the valley. Zahl recalled that he
walked out onto the gravel bar for a rest.
“While catching my breath,” Zahl wrote, “I scanned the treetops
before me and suddenly started. One particular redwood rose above the others
like a giant candle.”
At 367.8 feet high, the tree–at first called the Libbey Tree, then
simply the Tall Tree–would hold the record from 1963 until the late
’80s. More importantly, its discovery would energize conservationists’ effort
to establish a national park.
As Wheeler described the park’s beginnings, I turned discreetly and scanned
the steep, mazelike country upstream. Somewhere up there, Hyperion had been
quietly holding forth for decades, while lesser trees hogged the limelight.
The next day, we would try to find it.Paul Zahl’s discovery attracted worldwide
attention, including a National Geographic cover story. But the region’s newfound
fame would accelerate the economic decline of towns like Orick. In 1968, President
Lyndon Johnson signed a bill authorizing the acquisition of 58,000 acres for
the creation of Redwood National Park. A decade later, Congress expanded the
park by 48,000 acres, effectively forcing out most of the timber mills.
According to silviculturists, the area that became the park could have supported
only two more years of logging before the harvestable timber was gone. But as
2,500 jobs vanished, the park and federal government became scapegoats.
In 1977, Orick loggers put their chain saws to an old-growth redwood log and
carved out a nine-ton peanut, as a sarcastic gift for President Jimmy Carter,
who had approved the park’s expansion. They loaded the sculpture onto a truck
and drove it to the White House with a sign reading, “It may be peanuts
to you, but it’s jobs to us.” Carter’s aides refused the hunk of wood,
and it made the long trip back to Orick.
Over the next two decades, Orick’s population dwindled, businesses shuttered,
and lumber mills were eventually outnumbered by backwoods methadone labs. In
2000, the NPS outlawed camping on the beach south of town, exacerbating the
bitter feelings. Park property has been targeted by pipe bombers and arsonists,
and rangers have been threatened.
That night, we passed the peanut sculpture near the southern edge of town, lying
in a yard near an abandoned hotel. Farther north, the Lumberjack Tavern beckoned,
its neon sign depicting an axe-carrying logger eyeing a pink martini glass.
During boom times, locals apparently stood three and four deep at the bar. But
on this night, maybe 15 patrons were inside, most drinking beer through thick
beards. Bartender and owner Mark Rochester greeted us warmly. He wore a LIVESTRONG
bracelet on one wrist, and a tattoo of a LIVESTRONG bracelet on the other wrist.
Over his shoulder, the Commander-in-Chief peered at us from a picture hung behind
the bar. I asked Rochester if he knew anything about Hyperion.
“That *#*&# tree!” he bellowed, setting down a pitcher of local
microbrew in front of us. “Don’t get me started!” Rochester had recently
purchased the tavern, and was changing its name to Hawg Wild, to attract more
“The Park Service won’t tell us where it is. They’re sitting in their multimillion-dollar
headquarters, made of redwood that they can cut down and we can’t, and they
don’t want us to know where the tree is, even though we supposedly own it. And
you know what? When the liberals get in power there’s going to be even more
Rochester popped a packaged chicken pie in the microwave, then came back over.
“We had no decision in anything the Park Service has done,” he said.
“They have systematically choked the life out of this town.”
As he grabbed a Budweiser for another patron, a woman waiting for her shot at
the pool table came over to our end of the bar. “I got a different take
on it,” she said. “I’m pro-park, and I love trees. But I work at the
mill. Sometimes it feels like working in a graveyard. But it pays the rent.
And no, I don’t know where that tree is.”
Moments later, a woman in the corner of the room caught my eye. She came over
and leaned close to my ear. “I work for the parks,” she whispered.
“And I know too much to even talk to you.”The next day, I sat down
to breakfast with Katzman, Southard, and Jerry Rohde, an educator and author
who’s written several hiking guides to redwood country with his wife, Gisela.
Thin, bearded, and bright-eyed, Rohde had agreed to accompany us on our tree
hunt, though he cheerfully warned us that the bushwhacking would be “brutal.”
We pushed aside coffee mugs and plates of eggs, and laid out Rohde’s collection
of maps. Triangulating various rumors and hunches, we narrowed our focus down
to a few sections of old growth that flanked a couple of small streams that
empty into Redwood Creek.
We drove to a trailhead, then hiked down to Redwood Creek. The seasonal bridge
had been removed for the winter, so we pulled off boots and gaiters to wade
barefooted through the frigid water. On the other side, we put them back on
again–only to soak them almost immediately as we headed up a feeder
As we waded upstream, the trees on either side got larger, and the notch that
the creek had cut into the mountain got deeper. After an hour of sloshing, Katzman
spotted a small piece of orange loggers’ tape, attached to a bush. We scrambled
up the steep bank and found that the tape marked the beginning of a short trail,
still fairly fresh. It led through thick stands of rhododendron into a grove
We were surrounded by tremendously tall, thick-trunked redwoods–trees
that you really have to see to believe. Though the bases were spread across
the hillside, the crowns were intertwined in a nearly unbroken canopy, starting
about 150 feet above our heads. From the ground, it was impossible to tell if
any one tree was taller than any other.
On one tree, Southard found a metal tag stamped with three digits. We had assumed
that Hyperion would have a tag on it, to mark it as a research specimen. This
trunk did seem fatter than the rest, but it was hard to tell whether it was
taller. I had brought along a laser rangefinder, which uses a laser beam to
calculate the height of a target object. But without a clear shot at the top
of the tree, the device was useless.
Rohde, who had heard there was a clearcut within a few hundred feet of Hyperion,
headed up the slope to try to find a vantage point. He returned and confirmed
that there was indeed a clearcut but that it offered no unobstructed sight line
to the tree.
Could we have found Hyperion? It seemed too easy. Would the researchers have
marked their path with something as obvious as loggers’ tape, visible from a
creek–even a creek as little-traveled as the one we were on? Probably
not, we concluded, as we hiked back to the trailhead.Chris Atkins, an amateur
naturalist who lives in Santa Rosa, first visited the redwoods in the 1980s.
“I was in awe of their size, their beauty, and their longevity,” said
Atkins. He found himself drawn back to redwood country again and again, and
eventually he got in touch with a McKinleyville postal worker named Ron Hildebrant,
who kept a database of tall-tree measurements. (Jim Wheeler, the ranger, told
me that he once came across Hildebrant counting rings on a downed redwood, using
a magnifying glass. “He was up to 1,300 when I came along, and it wasn’t
an estimate. He was counting every single ring.”)
When Hildebrant’s work schedule left little time for exploring forests, Atkins
teamed up with Michael Taylor, who shared his craving for fresh air and biological
extremes. Eventually, Atkins and Taylor blew $3,000 apiece on high-end laser
rangefinders. (Atkins described our rangefinder, which cost only $500, as “pretty
Prior to the advent of these devices, measuring a redwood could take all day–if
you could even manage to get surveying gear into position. The rangefinders
allowed Atkins and Taylor to focus their energies instead on the logistics of
getting deeper into the parks, to explore the patches of old growth hidden in
In the late 1990s, the pair decided to search the entire range of the coast
redwood, to document every living tree taller than 350 feet. When they began,
only about 25 such trees were identified. As of early 2007, Hildebrant’s database
contained 136 individual redwood trees exceeding that height–most of which
had been discovered by Atkins and/or Taylor. In 2000, Atkins made it into the
Guinness Book when he found the 369-foot Stratosphere Giant in Humboldt Redwoods
“After the discovery,” Atkins said, “Someone asked me if we might
ever find a taller one. I said the odds were pretty low. We thought we had pretty
well mopped it up.”
Redwood National Park has no car-camping sites, and backcountry camping is allowed
only on gravel bars in Redwood Creek–not a good idea during rainy season.
So we bedded down at the Palm Motel, a seen-better-days place that’s one of
two lodging options in Orick. Owner Martha Peals, a Tennessean whose card introduces
her as “pie-maker, entertainer, bed tucker,” said she hadn’t had “too
many up here looking for that tree, but I’ve had people from all over the world
come here to see Bigfoot.”
Still, she offered to help. “I’ll tell the waitress in the morning,”
Peals said. “Her husband works for the park. Her name is Betsy.” As
we headed to our rooms, she called out, “Don’t you worry. I’ll find out
where that tree is for ya.”
The next morning dawned sunny and calm. As I sat at the counter in the Palm
Diner, Betsy came over with a coffeepot and met my hopeful eyes. “I wouldn’t
have a clue,” she said. “And my husband doesn’t know, either. They
won’t tell him where it is.”
I was halfway through my lumberjack omelet when Rohde called to say that his
knee, which he had tweaked yesterday, couldn’t take another day of bushwhacking.
He was staying home.
Indeed, our party had taken a few good hits. Katzman, recovering from rotator-cuff
surgery, had jerked his shoulder while hoisting himself over a behemoth log.
I had dislodged a waterlogged burl that was my foothold while climbing over
a downed tree, and fallen through a brittle web of branches, bruising my hip.
Only Southard was unscathed.
“I hope you boys find that tree,” Martha Peals sang out to us as we
packed up the truck. “But it’d be even better if you ran into Bigfoot out
there. Then you could bring me lots of customers and make me lots of money.”
We stopped by the park’s information center to grab a better map. Wheeler, who
was raising the American flag, saw us and shouted out. “Did you find the
I told him about the tree with the metal tag. Wheeler just smiled and said that
there are several trees tagged with numbers, identifying them as subjects of
various studies by experts at Humboldt State University.
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
While Atkins crossed the creek to bushwhack up the slope, Taylor went to the
tree and began calculating the elevation of the base. Atkins eventually found
a window through the foliage and lay down to get the laser as steady as possible.
From that position, he shot the tree’s top. Then he began working his way back
to Taylor, adding and subtracting the elevations of intermediate targets along
the way. After all that, they wound up with a preliminary height–377.8
feet–that would make the tree the tallest living thing on earth.
Katzman, Southard, and I spent an hour struggling through a maze of brambles
and downed trees to reach our target grove. Then we labored farther to rise
above the redwoods, hoping that the clearcut would provide a good vantage point.
But it turns out that a 30-year-old clearcut in a rainforest isn’t a smart place
to go for visibility, or mobility. Amid the dense saplings and underbrush, we
quickly lost our bearings and momentum. We decided to head back down into the
Our own cheap rangefinder was proving fickle, due partly to limitations of the
technology, and perhaps mostly to user inexperience. Trees that were obviously
well over 250 feet were showing up as 82 feet. The GPS, too, was useless. Under
the dense canopy, I could pick up only one satellite. I stowed the devices in
my pack, where they would stay for the rest of the trip.
Keeping the clearcut line a couple of hundred feet above us, we traversed the
mountainside, three humans dwarfed by the mind-boggling scale of the trees.
We thought we had been in big-tree country before, but as we walked farther
into the grove, we realized that we had now entered a new realm. All around
us, 20-foot-wide trunks rose in great grooved columns that stretched upward
for 200 feet before the lowest limbs appeared. Katzman tried to photograph one
particularly massive trunk, but he didn’t have a lens wide enough.
Despite the hard going, the environment was surprisingly hospitable. Once, falling
through a false floor of sticks and leaves, I landed softly on my back, cushioned
by a bed of spongy moss and pine needles. There were no biting or buzzing insects.
And, had we found ourselves in need of a dry and cozy bivouac, there were plenty
of accommodating caves that had been burned into the bottoms of living trees.
Under the shade of the immense trees, the ground vegetation thinned out and
the walking got easier. Occasional shafts of sunlight penetrated the canopy,
angling into the gallery like spotlights, illuminating lush beds of moss and
20-foot-high stumps whose charred tops formed jagged maws. The solitude and
the sense of timelessness were so complete that none of us would have been surprised
to get a tap on the shoulder from a brontosaur. It was, without reservation,
the most startlingly beautiful forest I have ever encountered.
AMONG THE FIRST PEOPLE Atkins and Taylor told of their discovery was their friend
Stephen C. Sillett, a professor of botany at Humboldt State. Sillett was the
first scientist to climb into the redwood canopy, and he is considered by many
to be the world’s foremost authority on the redwood forest.
When Taylor told Sillett that he and Atkins had found a tree that they estimated
to be higher than 378 feet, Sillett was floored. Having been out in the forest
many times with Atkins and Taylor, the botanist had total confidence in their
measurements. But, says Sillett, “nobody expected a tree that tall to be
growing that far up a mountainside, in conditions that were less than optimal.”
It was, Sillett said, “the most significant discovery in tree height in
The only absolutely accurate method of measuring a tree’s height is to climb
into its crown and drop a tape measure from the top. Sillett delayed his ascent
for two weeks, until the end of the nesting season of the marbled murrelet,
an endangered seabird that inhabits the area. Then he assembled a team to climb
Hyperion and verify its status as the world’s tallest tree.
With Atkins, Taylor, and Sillett’s wife, Marie Antoine, beside him, Sillett
tied fishing line to an arrow. Using a crossbow, he shot the arrow over a branch
in the lower crown of the tree. Then he tied a nylon cord to one end of the
fishing line and, pulling on the other end, hoisted the cord over the branch.
Finally, he attached a climbing rope to the cord and pulled the rope over the
branch. After tying off one end to a nearby tree, Sillett attached mechanical
ascenders to the hanging end of the rope, and began to pull himself up toward
the first branch.
“The lowest branch in a big redwood,” says Sillett, “is higher
than the tallest branch of almost any other tree in any other forest on earth.
And once you get up there, you realize you’ve got almost another 200 feet to
reach the top.”
The crown of such a giant is a gnarled mass of limbs, with bridges of living
and dead wood running horizontally from branch to branch, forming a natural
structure of struts and girders. Upon reaching the first branch, Sillett set
up an elaborate rig of ropes and carabiners, which he used to pull himself up
from limb to limb, into the heart of the crown. There, Sillett found blackened
chambers in the trunk, hollowed out by an ancient, high-reaching forest fire.
“It’s another world, almost another planet up there,” Sillett told
me. “There’s a lot of biological diversity that’s unexpected. On limbs
and in crotches, you get these huge accumulations of rich, wet soil, hundreds
of feet off the ground. We found salamanders, earthworms, aquatic crustaceans,
huge huckleberry bushes, even other trees growing on soil mats. It’s literally
a hanging rainforest garden.”
Before Taylor and Atkins began finding exceptionally tall specimens high on
mountainsides, Sillett and most other experts believed that the tallest redwoods
would grow only in alluvial flats, the silty flood plains near creeks.
“There were taller trees up higher all along, of course,” Atkins says.
“But the ones in the low, flat areas were what people happened to see,
because getting onto the remote mountainsides was so challenging.”
The fact that Hyperion is located in such an unlikely place suggests to researchers
that its height was not such an anomaly. Of particular interest to Sillett is
the question of the physiological limits of a tree’s height. In other words,
how high can a redwood grow?
Trees suck water upward through microscopic pipes called xylem. As water molecules
evaporate from the pores of leaves at the top of the tree, other molecules are
pulled up from the roots to replace them, in a journey that takes a few weeks
from root to treetop. Redwoods, more than any other tree, can move water to
great heights, against tremendous forces of gravity and frictional resistance.
But at a certain height, the tension of the water column begins to overstress
Sillett’s team has used centrifuges to artificially create tension in xylem,
and has demonstrated that the limit to a redwood’s height is about 410 feet
in southern Humboldt County. In the wetter, cooler northern part of the county,
where Redwood National Park is located, Sillett’s preliminary research indicates
that the limit may be considerably higher.
“What we’ve discovered about the redwoods’ physiology indicates that they
can grow a lot higher than the ones we’ve found,” says Sillett. “Which
brings up a sobering thought. Now that 96 percent of the old-growth redwood
landscape is lost, we understand that, even in our lifetimes, we almost certainly
had trees over 400 feet. And we cut them down.”
ACCORDING TO SILLETT’S measurements, Hyperion’s height is 379.1 feet. Chris
Atkins believes that the chance of finding an even taller tree is less than
one percent. “There are so few places we haven’t been through,” he
told me. “Then again, there are a couple of basins we haven’t seen yet,
and there are rumors of tall trees up there. We’re hoping to get in there in
the next few months.”
We were talking over the phone, a couple of weeks after my trip to Humboldt
County. Toward the end of a long conversation, Atkins asked me where we had
hiked. I named the creek basin we had explored on our last day.
“Wow,” he said. “You managed to find your way into one of the
most spectacular groves on earth.” He asked a few more questions, regarding
how far up the creek we went, which side we climbed, how high we went. After
I described the location, Atkins was silent for what seemed like a long time.
“You were in the right place,” he said finally. “You probably
walked right past it.”
I shivered when I heard that. Later, as I looked at some of Katzman’s pictures,
I recalled that final day when, pausing to rest on a bed of pine needles, I
was overcome by a feeling of insignificance that grew until it became strangely
For all I knew, I was sitting in Hyperion’s shadow. But at that moment, the
pursuit of a single tree–even the tallest one on earth–seemed inconsequential.
The real object of my quest was all around me, a mass of immortal columns strong
and generous enough to support the sky.
I’d come here looking for a tree, and discovered a forest.
Tom Clynes has climbed, saved, and now measured trees for BACKPACKER.