The mythic tale of the Whitman tree climber: A true history

Conor Bartol, found this story in a hidden passage under the library 

Illustration by Nick Rogers.

Here’s a story that Whitman College won’t tell you.

In the earliest days of the school, Whitman adopted the “One Student, One Tree” policy, granting each first year a sapling they could plant. Year after year, students dutifully cared for their trees. When they were finally tall enough, they decided it was time to climb them in celebration, and that was where the problems began.

Students climbed higher and higher into the branches of their trees with no issues, until one broke a branch and a student plummeted five feet to the ground (keep in mind the trees were still very young at this time). After examining his rolled ankle and badly grazed elbow, the school decided they had no choice but to ban tree climbing — forever. Despite the protestations of the students and their promises to be careful, the school could not be moved.

For decades, the trees grew tall, but no student was brave enough to even touch their bark, lest they be expelled. But one morning in 1978, students woke to find a flag flying from the tallest branch of the tallest tree. The next day, another tree had a flag. Then another, and another. The message was clear: somebody was climbing the trees, and they wanted the whole school to know about it.

To catch this tree-climber Whitman created nightly patrols, lined the base of trees with barbed wire, and even trained squirrels to attack anyone who came too close to the trees, but to no avail.

Eyewitness accounts of the tree climber are unreliable, but some students claim they saw someone “scramble up an oak in mere seconds,” “leap across treetops like an acrobat,” and evade patrols by “using a branch as a catapult.” There is some debate over whether the Climber was one person or multiple different students, but the effect they had on the campus is clear, inspiring other students to climb trees themselves.

In retaliation, Whitman threatened to cut down all the trees, removing the problem, root and branch, unless the tree climber turned themself in. However, in an act of solidarity, dozens of students, all claiming to be the tree climber, demanded to be expelled if it would save the trees.

Touched by their love of the trees, Whitman relented. The trees would remain.

And what happened to the tree climber? Nobody knows. Whitman does not officially recognize their existence, and with every passing year, there are fewer people who were around to witness their exploits. However, their legacy remains. So next time you climb a tree, be thankful for the students who made it possible.