Up and About: An Interview with Expert Tree Climber Alex Julius

pic1-1024x684Recreational tree climbing has been around forever, but the sport has only recently started making headlines. We talked to Alexandra (Alex) Julius to understand more about what makes this such a unique sport. Julius is the Educational Development Manager of ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) and a Board Certified Master Arborist. She’s also a professional tree climber and a former tree trimmer for West Coast Arborists, Inc. in San Diego, CA

The Clymb: How did tree climbing become a sport? Many people out there are unaware that the sport even exists!
Alex Julius: The first two competitions were held in 1951 and ’52, when ISA was still known as the National Shade Tree Conference. After over a 20-year hiatus, ISA held its first competition in St. Louis in 1976. The competition didn’t look the same back then, but the mission was similar to what it is now: provide opportunities for arborists to come together and exchange ideas, encouraging safe practices, professionalism and public education.

The Clymb: How do tree climbing competitions work? Is it about speed, technique, form? Can you give us an idea of what a typical competition is all about?
AJ: The competition consists of five preliminary events and one final event, referred to as the Masters’ Challenge.

Throwline: This event tests the contestant’s ability to use a throwline and a throwbag to install a climbing line into a tree. The judges pre-designate eight branch unions as tie-in points and the competitors must set two lines before time runs out.

Footlock: This event measures the contestant’s ability to vertically ascend up a tree. Arborists inchworm their way 50 feet up on a free-standing rope.

Belayed Speed: This event tests the contestant’s ability to climb a predetermined route from the ground to about 60 feet up a tree, using a belayed climbing system for safety. The event is timed, and the contestant who reaches and rings the bell at the top of the course in the least amount of time wins.

Work Climb: Arborists work their way around a tree, hitting bells and completing challenges, such as tossing a limb out of the tree to a target, and walking out on a branch without weighing it down.

Aerial Rescue: This event simulates a job-site emergency, testing the contestant’s ability to rescue an injured person in a safe and efficient manner. This is a timed event, beginning when the contestant first finds the victim (represented by a dummy), and ending when s/he safely brings the victim to the ground or when time runs out.

The overall top competitors continue to the Masters’ Challenge. This event requires competitors to start with a tree that they must assess for safety, set a line, complete designated stations, descend, and remove their gear before time runs out. The top male and female competitors are crowned the champion.

pic2-1024x684The Clymb: Can you share a bit about your background? When did you start tree climbing and competing?
AJ: I was originally a rock climber and worked at the rock climbing wall at Smith College. I was an architecture student, but they couldn’t fit me in the classes, so I got bumped to landscape architecture. I took a horticulture class and ended up interning with the campus botanic garden. I worked with the campus arborist as a grounds person, but unbeknownst to me, my arborist boss and my rock climbing boss worked together with the campus lawyer to see if they could get me in a tree. They reached an agreement that I could climb the trees and so I became the first student allowed to climb the campus trees. I met up with the tree climbing instructor at the neighboring UMass Amherst and he taught me the basics. I later audited his course and heard about the competitions. I participated in my first competition after a year of climbingand lost miserably, but had such a great time. I fell in love with the people and the sport. I haven’t stopped competing since.

The Clymb: What’s the ultimate competition for tree climbers? Any info on well-known winners or achievements that are particularly impressive?
AJ: The International Tree Climbing Championship (ITCC) is the pinnacle for tree climbing competitors. It’s the one competition where climbers from all over the world come together to compete for the title of World Champion. This is only the second year that men and women are competing with all the same rules and time limits. Previously, women had more time and less height for some events, but in 2014, that all changed. We have several returning champions every year, as well as many new faces, which makes for an incredible experience at the ITCC.

pic3-1024x684The Clymb: What’s the difference between recreational climbing and tree climbing for work? Are there differences in equipment used, for example? Or maybe techniques are different?
AJ: Recreational climbing can be for anyone, from kids to adults, young and old, with many different intents, such as exercise, birding, or adventure. For arborists, the goal is caring for the tree. In both instances, the mission is to have the least impact on the tree possible, so using spikes is not an option unless the tree is being removed. For arborists, they most abide by standards written by regulatory bodies, standards by which recreational climbers are not held to. Much of the equipment is the same, but the ergonomics might be a little different, such as extra padding or a chain saw connection. Techniques certainly vary between recreational climbers and arborists, but it can also vary due to the size and types of trees climbed. People climbing the tallest trees in the world will use different methods than those climbing small city trees.

The Clymb: How can somebody get started with recreational tree climbing? Are there specific workshops or certifications people can take?
AJ: There are workshops and trainings that people can partake in. It’s important to look for particular credentials and to look at what type of information is being included in an introductory course. Most importantly, safety should be an important aspect in any intro-climbingworkshop curriculum.

The Clymb: Is recreational/competitive tree climbing popular among women? Or is this still a male-dominated sport?
It’s definitely becoming more popular, especially in certain pockets of the world. Women and men alike are spreading the word of women in arboriculture and are putting on workshops specifically geared toward women. There are still definitely more men competing, but the numbers are growing for women.