Get a Leg up on Competitive Tree Climbing

arboristIf 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.

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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.