If you ever wanted to swing from trees for a living, you may want to consider becoming an arborist. Arborists are the professionals responsible for tree care and maintenance through careful record-keeping, welfare checks, and removal of hazards like decaying limbs, pests like bark beetles, or other obstacles to a tree’s best health. They’re basically veterinarians for trees. It might not sound terribly exciting, but these wild scientists are actually extreme athletes, and their annual tree climbing competitions prove it.
That’s right, tree-climbing competitions.
Give your inner kid a moment to settle back down, because this is the real deal. The International Society of Arboriculture, or ISA, is a nonprofit headquartered in Illinois that boasts the only internationally-recognized arborist certification program. In addition to their public outreach through TreesAreGood, these tree geeks host a number of tree climbing competitions around the world through their international chapters and local associate organizations—as many as 63 different events featuring more than 1600 competitors.
And while local winners might nab a shiny new chainsaw as a prize, winners at regionals have a shot at representing the North American, Asian-Pacific, or European regions at the International Tree Climbing Championship: the Olympics of this amazingly niche sport.
Having grown from humble roots in 1976 in St. Louis, Missouri, the ITCC has exploded into a global event intended to showcase best working practices in tree care for both professional notoriety and public recognition. Competitors face off in a series of events that test their knowledge and skill in the art and science of trees, gaining points through a series of preliminary events on the first day of the competition.
Types of Tree Climbing
There are speed climbs, in which the goal is simply to get to the top of the 60-ft course before your competition; secured footlock ascents, in which climbers must complete an ascent of nearly 50 feet using a particular rope-climbing method called footlocking; and throwline events, where competitors are scored on their ability to send a line of rope through a pair of targets. Sound easy? Keep in mind these folks are throwing lines by hand, aiming at targets anywhere between thirty and sixty-five feet high that may be partially obscured by leaves and branches and sunlight in their faces.
Then there’s the Aerial Rescue event. A life-size, life-weight dummy stands in for an injured climber, requiring competitors to make various risk and safety assessments while en route to retrieve them. And while this isn’t a situation that necessarily crops up often for arborists—movies have badly misled us as to the frequency with which skydivers get stranded in trees—the scenarios in play can be matters of life-or-death. Say you’re out on the job with a coworker, who happens to be stung by a bee while aloft. Their allergies kick in, and they pass out. You’ve got five minutes to plan and execute that rescue. (No pressure.)
The Work Climb event is a little bit of everything—think American Ninja Warrior in a tree—intended to reflect an average arborist’s actual working conditions. Five work stations throughout the tree each offer a task the competitor must complete in order to earn the points for that station. Some stations require the arborist to use a particular piece of equipment, such as a handsaw or a pole pruner, to ring a bell; another requires the careful toss of a tree limb into a designated target zone; another requires competitors to walk out across a large limb and ring a bell at its far end. The final station is the landing station, where competitors make the final rappel into a bullseye target. If they can land with both feet and only their feet—that is, if they don’t topple over—in the bullseye’s center, they get full points for that station.
The Top of the Top
After all the preliminary events are scored, the top-scoring arborists move on the Master’s Challenge. This timed event is similar to the Work Climb, with the added difficulty of requiring the competitors to install their own lines and safety equipment to reach those stations from the ground up. Bonus points can be awarded for style, but lack of safe process can earn penalties, so it’s a careful balance of flair and poise up there in the canopy while you’re competing for the title of International Tree Climbing Champion.
Even if you’re not competing at a local event, go give it a look. They’re family-friendly affairs that offer plenty of chances to cheer on your favorite arborists, and some events offer public outreach activities like crafts and learning stations, free cherry-picker rides, kids’ climbs, and maybe even a chance to throw axes at a target.