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.