'Snowball' - The White Kitty Ensnared by the Tree of Terror

(mid November 2015)

Executive Summary

"Snowball" is a 10 yr old, white fluffy kitty who was stuck 50 ft up a skinny gum tree in Louisville, MS before myself and Ben E. rescued him. The Tree of Terror did not terrorize Snowball, he was perfectly comfortable -- the ToT terrorized me during the climb as it was extremely skinny and wiggly, even with two stabilizing ropes on it. After 2.5 hours into the rescue, with darkness approaching, I had to resort to a neck grab with the rescue pole to get Snowball out of the tree. Fortunately, he survived the neck grab/rough handling and is doing well. I just hope that he stays away from ToTs in the future.


I was at the MSU/Alabama football game when I noticed a voice mail on the Kat Fone. In between cowbell clangs, I was able to piece together that there was a stuck kitty in Louisville MS that needed help. After the game, I called back, and talked with Susan. She told me about Snowball, who was stuck in a very skinny and tall sweet gum tree. Susan warned me that Snowball was skittish, and that she expected him to jump if I climbed up to him. Susan also related that this was not Snowball's first rodeo; that he had been stuck previously in a pine tree a couple of years back, and that a tree service hero guy rescued him. Well, sorta rescued him.

When the cat rescuer climbed the pine tree, Snowball scooted way out on a limb and then jumped 30 feet to the ground. This confirmed that Snowball was a skittish/traveler, but from the tree description, I figured that I could get him trapped at the top. Even though Susan warned me, little did I realize exactly how high that top was and how skinny the tree was. Sensing that this rescue would be more difficult than most, I enlisted the aid of Ben E., a fellow climbing buddy and a grad student in the MSU Forestry department. I picked up Ben on the way out of town, and we headed to Louisville.

When we arrived, Susan led Ben and myself to the tree. Yep, just as Susan said, the tree was very skinny and Snowball was very high -- in fact, as high as he could go in the tree. I had been practicing my stem climbing (climbing trees without using a tie-in point) using girdle ropes/webbing throughout the previous month out of boredom -- I had not expected that I would actually have to use this technique so soon. I have tree spurs, but I did not trust myself to use them on such a skinny tree (I am terrible at spur climbing under any conditions as I do not get any practice with them). So, I rigged up my stem climbing gear and started.

To stem climb, you have two girdle ropes - a top one that you hang from, and a bottom one with foot loops attached to it for standing in. You stand in the foot loops, grab the tree, and push the top girdle as high as you can, then sit and hang from the top girdle. You then push the bottom girdle up, raise your feet, put them in the foot loops, stand, and repeat the process. It is slow, tedious, and tiring climbing. I noticed that even when I was only a few feet up, the standing-up process caused the tree and Snowball to shake significantly - so much so, that I started being very careful on how I stood up in the foot loops (slowly, and trying to keep as close to the tree as possible). When I reached about 25 feet, the tree began leaning so alarmingly with my movements that Ben suggested that we tie a guy rope to it opposite of my current position for stabilization. When I reached 30 feet, I found that I could not keep myself reliably on the side of the tree opposite the guy rope, so we tied another guy rope opposite the first one. There was another skinny gum tree directly behind me about 6 ft away (and bit shorter than my tree), and I also tied a lanyard to it (to reach this tree, all I did was lean back and my tree leaned into grabbing distance; that is how much my tree was wiggling). Also, at about 25 ft, the trunk diameter became less than 4 inches, so I started tying a self-belay line to the trunk - a rope attached to me that snaked up the trunk and was tied off to the trunk at regular intervals. This was to help catch me in case the trunk broke and fell. I was also pruning all of the small limbs on the tree as I went up to get them out of the way. As I was climbing, Ben and Susan tied three tarps below the tree in various places to catch Snowball in case he fell.

As I got higher, my mouth got drier and my stomach did flip-flops as the ToT wiggled and leaned with every movement. I finally reached a point where I thought I could reach Snowball with my 12 ft max-extended rescue pole, so Ben passed up the rescue pole via a pull line. I stood up and fully extended my arms, but I still needed to go about 1 to 2 feet further up. At this point, each time I progressed the top girdle it was only a few inches at a time, as I had to switch the top girdle from rope to webbing loop in order to get a firm grasp on the trunk, and it was difficult to advance. Each time I told Ben that I was inching further up the trunk, he would say "Well,...Ok...." in such a way that I knew he thought that this was crazy, and that he did not want to have explain to my wife how/why I fell out of the tree. He told me later that the tree started bending at the rope stabilization points, which was somewhat disturbing.

I finally reached a point where I could get the rescue hoop above Snowball, who was wedged in a V-union with front paws and back paws on two spindly limbs. I then spent about 30 minutes trying to get the hoop around Snowball's fluffy body. There were small limbs all around Snowball that kept catching the hoop, and Snowball was excellent at moving his paws and head in such a way as to avoid the hoop. Waving a 12 foot metal pole directly above your head is an exhausting exercise, and I could keep it above my head for only about a minute before my arms would tire and I would have to rest. After about 30 minutes (it had been about 2.5 hours), darkness was approaching and I was wearing out. I told Susan that I would have to try a neck grab, and she assented. About this time, my camera ran out of juice, so the posted video does not show the final grab. In lieu of the missing video, I commissioned an artist to make a still life painting of the neck grab on Snowball, and the painting is on this page (try not to gape at its awesomeness!).

I told Ben and Susan to get ready, as we wanted to release Snowball from the neck grab as quickly as possible once he was on the ground. I raised the pole, and managed to get Snowball around the neck as shown to the left. I was then able to lift him up and off of the V-union, which caused the pole to invert with poor Snowball hanging by his neck. I quickly lowered the pole+Snowball to Ben, who was waiting with the hoop net. Once Snowball was in the net, Ben released the wire, and Susan swooped Snowball up for some high intensity snuggling. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, installed a descent line, and came down, dismantling all of our safety ropes on the way down. By the time we finished packing up, it was full dark. Snowball is an outside kitty, and he had already taken off to get away from the two strangers that had been tormenting him. Susan texted me the next evening that Snowball had shown up for his evening meal. Susan sent me the pictures of Snowball below about a week later. The video shows some stem climbing and me at height with Snowball. I fervently hope that another ToT is a long way off in my future. I also want to thank Ben E. for his assistance and advice during the rescue -- without him, I would have certainly killed myself and Snowball would still be in the tree!