French manufacturer Petzl is renowned the world over for its mountaineering and rock-climbing equipment. In 2008, it launched its first harness designed for working in trees and today it offers the complete package for the professional arborist. essentialARB spoke to Scott Shaw, Petzl Professional brand manager for the UK, to find out more.

THERE’S no question Petzl is a company with a fascinating story behind it. Developing out of one man’s passion for caving, the safety equipment manufacturer has grown to become one of the world’s biggest names in climbing gear for enthusiasts and professionals across multiple fields.

It all began with passionate explorer and craftsman Fernand Petzl, who spent much of his life deep in the caves of France, designing numerous solutions to assist with ascending, descending, belaying and moving about in the dark.

The Petzl company was established by Fernand and his son Paul in 1975, and today it continues to be owned and operated by the same family. While it produces an extensive range of products designed for a variety of disciplines, it probably continues to be best known for its headlamps, which have been bringing light to the world’s darkest of places for over four decades.

Intended for use by cave explorers, the ‘all-on-your-head’ lamp (the first headlamp which allowed users to truly go hands-free) turned out to be a useful tool for just about any activity, from outdoor sports to handiwork around the house, and laid the foundations for Petzl to become a globally recognised name. This first series paved the way for the long line of headlamps to follow, evolving over the years through increased durability and new technology such as LEDs and reactive lighting.

The headlamp and other innovations drew the attention of enthusiasts in other fields and soon Petzl was persuaded to invest its time, energy and expertise in the development of forward-thinking equipment for caving, mountaineering, rock climbing and, eventually, professional industries.

Forestry Journal: In addition to its famed headlamps, Petzl’s VERTEX and STRATO range of helmets, as well as the SEQUOIA harness, have made it an important name in the arb world.In addition to its famed headlamps, Petzl’s VERTEX and STRATO range of helmets, as well as the SEQUOIA harness, have made it an important name in the arb world.

However, while countless tree surgeons will have been familiar with the Petzl name and its products through making use of its helmets and carabiners, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the company began working with arborists to produce equipment specifically geared towards this market.

It was in December 2008 that the SEQUOIA seat harness was launched, the first harness designed by Petzl to meet the demands of people working in trees.

Forestry Journal:  The SEQUOIA harness. The SEQUOIA harness.

This was the same year that Petzl Professional brand manager for the UK Scott Shaw began working with the company. Looking back, he views the launch not only as a milestone for Petzl, but a revolutionary moment for the UK’s arb sector.

“It was the first product Petzl designed after specifically thinking about how people work and move around in trees,” Scott said. “Prior to that, Petzl had been manufacturing products for the professional market for nearly 20 years, serving industries like oil and gas, wind energy, mountain rescue and so on. The difference between arborism and other vertical fields is that most rope access technicians tend to work in more static situations.

“If you think of someone working on a big skyscraper, they might have 50 m of rope above them, providing a huge scope of where to go, side to side, to get work done. Moving around in a tree and doing a pruning job requires a lot more flexibility and adaptability. So Petzl had to thoroughly research the way people actually move around in trees and the positions they get themselves into, which are very different from any other kind of work we deal with.

“One thing we took into the market at that point was our understanding of the technologies behind lightweight climbing harnesses; the different foams involved, different support mechanisms in the webbing and things like that. On weight alone, the SEQUOIA was very different compared to the more traditional equipment it was commonly competing against in 2008. A lot of things coming out of the American market had big, heavy buckles on them, heavy webbing and so on.”

In addition to being lightweight, the SEQUOIA was designed so that a chainsaw could be clipped to the seat harness, or even an ascender equipped with two handles, more practical to use when climbing up double ropes. Its adjustable attachment bridge allowed quick and precise adjustment of the position of progression tools and could easily be replaced if worn out.

Forestry Journal: The adjustable attachment bridge for SEQUOIA and SEQUOIA SRT harnesses allows quick and precise adjustment of the position of progression tools.The adjustable attachment bridge for SEQUOIA and SEQUOIA SRT harnesses allows quick and precise adjustment of the position of progression tools.

“The comfort of the SEQUOIA along with its huge weight savings made it a revolutionary step forward,” said Scott. “And we’ve continued to build on that in the years since.”

Now in its third generation, the SEQUOIA has been joined by a raft of complementary products which together make up a complete system for arb professionals. 2019 was an especially significant year, seeing the launch of the SEQUOIA SRT (tuned for SRT ascent) with a range of accessories as well as the ZIGZAG PLUS mechanical prusik and CHICANE auxiliary braking device.

Earlier this year, the final piece of the puzzle was added with the debut of Petzl’s FLOW and CONTROL ropes, which have been specifically designed and manufactured to work seamlessly with Petzl products like the ZIGZAG.

“Another historic product that’s become more or less essential for SRT climbing in recent years has been the PANTIN ascender,” said Scott. “Instead of foot locking and twisting your joints around, causing potentially untold damage through that outdated technique, the PANTIN allows you to put a clamp on your boot and use your muscles in a straight line – the way you would if you were to climb up a set of stairs – to climb the rope. It’s been a great educational tool, bringing that to people and saying ‘well, you can still use the same technique, but you’re using your muscles aligned in the way they’re supposed to work, rather than foot locking’.”

Forestry Journal: The ZIGZAG mechanical prusik allows the user to move around efficiently in a tree using a classic prusik pulley system technique. The friction chain provides precision and fluidity when moving around.The ZIGZAG mechanical prusik allows the user to move around efficiently in a tree using a classic prusik pulley system technique. The friction chain provides precision and fluidity when moving around.

In the decade-plus that Petzl has been in the market it has sought to bring focus to the importance of comfort for tree climbers, something Scott said he had been able to see gain traction in the field.

“One of the long-standing missions of Petzl has been to improve ergonomics and efficiencies, whether that’s about climbing a tree or trying to get to the top of Mount Everest,” he said. “It’s about looking at the touchpoints of the products, how they’re handled and how they feel, so they are as simple and as seamless to use as we can possibly make them, but also so they make the job as efficient and stress-free as possible.

“The simplicity of using the ZIGZAG is a good example. You don’t have to set the knot every time you sit down on it. The spring mechanism means it’s dependable. It’s reliable. You sit down on it and you know it’s going to catch you. That’s one of the big things we’ve tried to put into our products.

“On the latest SEQUOIA, we’ve designed it so when you put a secondary lanyard on a secondary attachment point they engage around the lower part of the legs as well as the waist to make sure you’re supported in as comfortable a position as you can be, rather than historically going off the waistband, putting pressure on the body in a way it wasn’t necessarily built for.

“We have to consider range of movement required generally for arb work, but also, if you’re regularly carrying a saw, how do you rig it? How do you move it around? Are there ways of carrying and holding it that don’t twist the harness up and put pressure on your body? We think about all these kinds of things in the design of the equipment to make it as efficient and as comfortable as we possibly can.”

Forestry Journal: Education on the best techniques for ascending and descending trees is a key part of Petzl communications.Education on the best techniques for ascending and descending trees is a key part of Petzl communications.

As someone who has been with Petzl since its launch into the arb market, Scott has spent much of his time on the road, visiting retailers, shows and colleges, hosting demonstrations and meeting with arb professionals to introduce new equipment, answer questions and offer guidance.

In this respect, his job is not dissimilar to that of researchers in Petzl’s R&D teams, who spend much of their time laboriously gathering feedback on how arborists do their job and how their working practices could be improved.

“The arb sector in the UK has seen some really massive changes in the last 10 years,” Scott said. “The change to two working lines has been a huge shift, but we’ve also seen a growing awareness among arborists of the importance of comfort and ergonomics.

“Even 10 years ago, the general feeling was that your life as a climber had to be very short. That’s because the primary techniques being used – like foot locking – were incredibly hard on the body. More people are thinking about that now, realising they can spend £25 on a new pulley and a little carabiner, put that in the bottom of their hitch system and save their arms and shoulders tenfold. And that alone might extend their climbing career by five years. Never mind putting a half-foot ascender into the system which, if you were doing a foot-locking system, might add another five years on top of that.

“So you can spend under £100 at an event like the Arb Show or in a local arb shop and be able to ergonomically extend your climbing career by a decade. By having those conversations with people and showing them this isn’t black magic, that with a minor change in your equipment set-up you can double your efficiency, it’s made a tremendous impact.

“A decade ago, as part of our displays we were putting in a prusik-minding pulley behind the prusik to simply enhance efficiency. It didn’t matter about all the other stuff we were showing like the SEQUOIA or other new technologies. Most of our conversations were just about those simple enhancements of basic historical systems. We don’t have those conversations as much any more. There’s much greater education out there in the sector about looking after your body and being able to extend your climbing career or your efficiencies as part of normal arb life. It’s been great to see those changes coming through.”

Forestry Journal: Detailed research into how climbers move around in trees has informed designs across Petzl’s arb range.Detailed research into how climbers move around in trees has informed designs across Petzl’s arb range.

Education, then, is as much a part of Scott’s job as brand promotion, but this is something Petzl too has long been passionate about.

“It’s something Petzl’s been working on for a long, long time,” Scott said. “Its pro catalogues, featuring line drawings showing how to use a selection of equipment, have come to be treated by many industries as educational bibles. I was aware of the catalogues and line drawings long before I ever came to work for Petzl. I know a few people who have a complete set. They’re almost a collectable, used across the rescue world, across arb and all different sectors.

“People go back time and time again to the catalogues to replicate their set-ups. It’s something we’re really trying to evolve now for modern digital platforms, producing videos and putting the line drawings on the web so they are there to be used and referenced.

“The education side of it has always been very important to Petzl. It’s not only about how to use the equipment well to get the most out of it, but also disseminating solutions and systems of working. That’s always been a Petzl thing.”

Forestry Journal: Scott Shaw, Petzl Professional brand manager for the UK.Scott Shaw, Petzl Professional brand manager for the UK.

So what is it that sets Petzl apart from its competitors?

“We do think about things in a different way,” said Scott. “A big part of that is we are still a family-owned company. You don’t have to look for long at the Petzl website to realise we’re not a big corporation or anything like that. The family name is everywhere and the family is still running every part of the company.

“We do work really hard on safety, ergonomics and efficiencies. There’s an immense sense of pride from the family in the way we deliver things. We have had challenges too, but we’ve never hidden them. We’ve always been very direct about any issues and what we’ve done to overcome them, the lessons we’ve learned and done everything within our power to make customers aware.

“We don’t shy away from our responsibilities and because we are open and honest about those things, I think a lot of people do put trust in us and our products, investing their own money in them, deciding to buy them because they know they will work.

“That’s a big part of why people come to us, have stayed with us over time and given us the confidence to get to the point where we have a complete arb range, including ropes. So now you could go buy an entire set of arborist kit from the Petzl catalogue and be able to go out and do your job without missing a thing.”

Much of Scott’s job for 2020 has been solidifying and driving communications about the products that have launched in the past year, educating customers and providing them the opportunity to ask questions. While COVID-19 hasn’t made it an easy task, putting an end to most opportunities to get face to face with arborists, his team is looking at online activity that will allow them to respond to questions they would have expected to receive.

“Arb is a very fun and interesting industry to work in,” Scott said. “For many arborists, it’s a primary passion as well as a trade. It’s different from a lot of the industries we deal with, where people just want the tools to do a job. Arborists are genuinely interested in techniques and advancements, trees and nature. That means I’m always dealing with enthusiasts.

“Now, at times, that can have its challenges, because they do like to take something away with them and play with it in ways that aren’t in the product description. But then again, that’s exactly what the Petzl family did. They were the guys in their garages tinkering with things, creating stuff. Sometimes that’s how advancements happen.”

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