Unique groups teach U students new tricks

Unicycling and tree-climbing groups serve a niche on campus.

Member Charles Nolt and group founder Brent Barghahn mount their unicycle with out using their hands during Monday's officer meeting.

Member Charles Nolt and group founder Brent Barghahn mount their unicycle with out using their hands during Monday’s officer meeting.

Tyler Gieseke

A year ago, computer engineering junior Matt Hornung hadn’t considered getting around campus on a vehicle with fewer than two wheels.

Now, after joining ONE. Unicycle Club, he’s doing just that.

Rather than going the traditional route of joining a club sport or rushing a greek organization, some University of Minnesota students choose to connect with groups that teach them new hobbies like riding a unicycle or even professionally climbing trees. After all, a student only needs four friends with similar interests to start a student group.

Two unique student groups — ONE. Unicycle Club and the Tree Ascension Group — offer members a refreshing break from daily tasks to practice nontraditional skills.

More efficient than a bike

Sophomore mechanical engineering major Brent Barghahn bought his first unicycle at age 13. He arrived at the University last fall already an able rider.

By spring, he’d started ONE. Unicycle Club and was leading a group of 10 to 15 student riders around the mall.

“I brought one unicycle in my dorm room,” Barghahn said. “Over time I converted my roommate into a rider.”

The group meets for casual riding sessions from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. each Friday in Northrop Mall. 

“We also get a lot of first-timers that come along to try it out,” Barghahn said.

One of them was Hornung.

“One day I just tried it,” he said. “I just fell in love with it.”

To start, Hornung used one of several unicycles available for newcomers to borrow. He said it took him 10 to 15 hours to get the hang of it.

“When you first get on, you’re probably holding onto one or two people,” he said. “I’ve fallen a couple times.”

Besides being a fun challenge, riding a unicycle can be economical.

“It’s a very efficient way to get around campus, actually,” Barghahn said. “I rode to class every day last year.”

“It’s more convenient to carry around a unicycle than it is to carry around a bike,” Hornung said.

With interest in the group growing, Barghahn hopes to expand and potentially go on trips. But first, he said he’d like to see more people come out to ride.

“No one should be afraid to try.”

‘It’s like being a kid again’

Members of the Tree Ascension Group — known as “climbing arborists” — meet about once a week to climb trees, said Gary Johnson, professor of urban and community forestry and adviser to the group.

Group members learn to use ropes, carabineers and harnesses to climb trees safely.

“It’s modified rock-climbing,” Johnson said.

Jimmy Crist, a mechanical engineering senior, joined for that reason. Several group members are rock climbers, he said.

“This was a grounds-up club,” Johnson said, because students formed the group four years ago.

The group usually chooses trees from St. Paul campus or Northrop Mall. Safety is emphasized when choosing trees to climb, Johnson said.

If the weather isn’t ideal for climbing on a particular day, group members will spend time learning new knots and safety techniques. There are three or four basic knots, Johnson said.

“If you know those knots well, they’re never going to fail you,” he said.

The Tree Ascension Group attracts students preparing for careers in tree care, Johnson explained. The skills of a climbing arborist are necessary when it’s impossible to get a cherry-picker vehicle next to certain trees, for example.

“It’s a fun activity,” Crist said. “It’s always beautiful up in the tree. It’s like being a kid again, except it’s much, much safer,” Johnson said.