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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
PeopleWaldo Etherington

Waldo Etherington

‘I consider myself born in Bridport, although actually I arrived in Yeovil. My early years were a bit unsettled. My mum was pretty much homeless at times, and my father wasn’t in the picture. It was just my mum, my half-sister Eleanor, and me, and we stayed with friends, lived out the back of a car briefly, and I stayed with my gran for a bit. When I was about three, Mum moved into the house in South St where she now lives and where I was brought up.
I was really hyperactive as a kid; I struggled with being indoors, and still do. I didn’t get on too well at school and moved around a lot. Symondsbury, Loders, St Mary’s, Colfox, Beaminster, and Thomas Hardye, I tried them all out. It may sound like a fairly rootless start in life, but my mother and sister kept me grounded and I was always shown unconditional love. Looking back, I always felt like I was destined to climb trees. It was all I wanted to do.
My great uncle was a glaciologist, who worked from Ohio state university in the US. He travelled through Patagonia and Antarctica with a team of huskies, measuring glaciers and taking ice cores, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was known as one of the grandfathers of the Greenhouse Effect, because he found out that what we were releasing into the atmosphere was causing the ice to melt. He was a whistle-blower, because when he published his findings all his funding was pulled. He was called John Horlick Mercer, and the reaction to his discoveries is known in the scientific community as the Mercer effect, which describes the scientific reticence which often happens when inconvenient truths are discovered. A mountain range in Antarctica is called the Horlick Mountains, including a Mercer Ridge, named after him. He died about a year before I was born, but he was always an idol in my upbringing. Stories of his escapades were passed down to me by my grandmother Cuckoo, and I saw photos of him with the huskies. My imagination was fired by stories of him surviving remote and inhospitable places, carrying out scientific research.
Perhaps because I was brought up in rural Dorset I was always drawn to trees and forests. I still have a picture I painted when I was about five of monkeys and snakes in a forest climbing about in the trees, and all my favourite books were about climbing trees. Every chance I got I would shin up a tree, usually with my mum’s encouragement. Every birthday and Christmas, my uncle Robert would bring me a bin bag filled with ropes rescued from Gundry’s. Our neighbour Will had a large garden with various trees growing in it, which were big enough for me to string up zip lines, cargo nets and rope walks between them, and every spare minute I would be climbing aloft barefoot. I learned a lot about ropes back then and fell out of a few trees too. As a fan of Indiana Jones, I made a whip out of electrical wire with insulation as a handle. Wrapping the whip end around a branch I tried to climb up the trunk, but of course it came off and I fell on my back onto a tree root, about 5 or 6 metres down. I was still winded an hour later, but recovered. Since then, I’ve fallen out of trees multiple times, although it’s been a while since the last time.
I thought I would do a degree in Environmental Sciences at Sussex University. My mum was, for the only time I remember, absolutely adamant that I get a degree, but because I couldn’t face the idea of being indoors studying, I didn’t want to go. At the last minute, in the last days of sixth form, I found out about a forthcoming project in Honduras, with an opportunity to assist research scientists on a conservation trip. I had to raise £2000, an insane amount of money for me and my mum to find. So, I packed bags, worked as a lifeguard, did gardening jobs, and Mum chipped in whatever she could. My uncle sold a hot air balloon ride to raise funds; eventually I made the target and went off to Honduras. It was only for two weeks, but I realised immediately, there in a cloud forest in Central America, that this was what I wanted to do, and these were the people I want to be around. And while I was there, I met two tree climbers from Canopy Access Ltd, the world’s leading provider of tree canopy access for film companies. They were the company enabling David Attenborough and others to film high in the canopy of rainforests, and to my great joy they gave me some professional tree climbing experience. I had no doubts now about what I was going to do.
For the next four years, I volunteered for every expedition I could, maxing out on about four credit cards to finance myself. I did a basic canopy access course when I was 17, and met a guy called James Aldred, who’s now a very good friend. He took me under his wing, and found me more opportunities for volunteering, and got me on an advanced canopy access training course. It was like an apprenticeship, which included working with some of the best tree climbers in the world. I worked on a project in Borneo, where we were studying canopy ant mosaics. This was the tallest tropical rainforest on earth, where the trees are basically huge flowering plants with an amazing architecture. It was just how I’d imagined the rainforest as a kid, with orang-utans swinging around, elephants, and 2-metre-long lizards.
In 2014 I met well-known rock climber Leo Houlding, rigging a tree for a film project in Guyana. I though he was going to be a total lunatic, and he was, but in the best possible way. He recognised I was good at tree climbing, and generously gave me a whole set of climbing cams and told me to learn how to climb rocks. So, I went to Yosemite in the US and immersed myself in big wall rock climbing. The next year, with Leo and his team, I went to Greenland, where we completed the first ascent of the north east face of Mirror Wall, which involved 19 days and nights on the rock face. That was learning to climb at the deep end, through which Leo and I have become best friends, sharing a great love of adventure.
I became the chief instructor for Canopy Access, the work being mostly about providing access for filming in trees, but also providing height safety with ropes for other purposes. I became qualified in rope rescue, and industrial rope access. Also, by now I was rigging waterfalls and cliff faces, and was much more experienced in rock climbing, so felt confident and experienced enough to form my own business, which I called Remote Ropes. Our work’s mainly for filming, and I’m lucky that the production companies for people like National Geographic and the BBC know my work and come to me.
Most of my friends are into tree climbing, come from Dorset, and are men and women of the woods. So, I have a great pool of skilled, practical people that I can work with and get on with well. There are dangers involved of course, and there have been some spicy moments. But it’s very much about being aware of the risks and managing them, and although people naturally assume my job is dangerous, the truth is I’m not really a fan of taking unnecessary risks, or adrenaline hits.
Currently I’ve got a team heading to South America to provide rope access into a remote cave system for a TV film featuring a famous person I’m not allowed to mention. My fiancée Meg, a climber, is in Bhutan filming wildlife for a project out there. My next job is with an ex-rugby player called Ed Jackson, who broke his back and is now an incomplete quadriplegic. His determination to recover has enabled him to scale several peaks, and he’s started a project called Millimetres to Mountains, which aims to help motivate people to recover from injuries by attempting seemingly impossible challenges in the mountains. We’re going to France to climb a mountain and find out how we can help with his particular needs.
Climbing trees in the most remote places on Earth with my best friends is just the best fun I can ever imagine. I’ve hit every lucky branch in the lucky tree. But although I’ve seen a lot of amazing trees in many amazing parts of the world, Dorset trees in the springtime are still the most beautiful.’

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