By Ray Downs
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The climber stands beneath a massive oak, craning his neck to peer into its leafy belly. He throws a nylon rope high into its branches, tests his weight on it, and then, in a matter of seconds, pulls himself 60 feet straight up into the foliage. Swinging from branch to branch on the rope, he deftly strides out onto limbs that bend precariously under his weight. He draws a small saw from a sheath on his belt and gently taps a bell that's taped to one of the branches. Mission accomplished, he rappels back to earth as swiftly as he departed it. He has maneuvered up, down, around and out of the hundred-foot-tall tree in less than twenty-five minutes.
The climber, Bernd Strasser, is the world champion of the 2008 International Tree Climbing Championships, held this past weekend in a grove just east of the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Strasser, who hails from Stuttgart, beat out 35 other men from around the globe — virtually all of whom, like the German himself, work full-time as tree trimmers — to win his eighth such title in ten years.
The tree-climbing championships are hosted and organized by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Champaign, Illinois. The competition has existed since 1976, but it has never received the kind of attention lavished upon similar outdoor events such as rock climbing and lumberjack sports. Nevertheless, the climbers competing in the five different events featured at the ISA's International Championships display a remarkable technical and physical prowess at climbing trees with the aid of ropes.
"It's hard because this is a work-oriented event," says Rip Tompkins, the chairman of the ISA's competition committee and a climbing world champ in 1996. "This is modeled after stuff these guys do every day for a living. That might be part of why we haven't drawn the huge sponsor money and TV coverage."
Much like competitive tree climbing, the field of arboriculture is relatively unheralded. But arborists, or "tree surgeons" as they're sometimes called, are part of a rapidly growing field. As cities plant thousands of trees in attempts to go green, the demand for knowledgeable professionals to maintain urban forests has skyrocketed.
"The climbing competition is the flashiest part of the business, but it's the smallest part. Arboriculture is mostly folks doing estimates, looking for bugs or doing proposals to city councils for funding," says Eric Ducinsky, the ISA's director of member services. "There's lumberjacks and then there's the hippie tree-huggers. These folks are somewhere in the middle."
After a few rings, a call to Noel Boyer's cell phone is forwarded to voicemail. "Hi, you've reached Noel," a voice says with a sharp central Missouri twang. "I'm probably up a tree.... Leave a message and I'll get back to you."
Boyer, a Springfield native, represented the Midwest at the international competition but failed to finish in the top ten overall. When he's not climbing competitively, he owns and operates A&A Tree Service, a company that, in its proprietor's words, "does pretty much everything to do with trees except, well — pretty much everything."
The company has five full-time employees. Three of them are world-class climbers, who finished first, second and third in the ISA's Midwest regional championships earlier this year. As a result, says Boyer, a tall, gangly man who sports a wiry soul patch on his bottom lip, the work environment can get a little competitive.
"Sometimes you get two guys set up side by side in two trees," Boyer says. "Then it's always a contest to see who gets to the top first — that's inevitable."
In many ways Boyer is typical of the competitors at the International Tree Climbing Championships. Nearly all of them work full-time in the tree-care industry, and most have college degrees in plant-related fields such as forestry, horticulture and plant pathology. Virtually all are avid outdoorsmen, citing as hobbies hiking, skiing, hunting and, in the case of the Australian competitors, "bush walking."
One characteristic all the climbers share is a near-fanatical obsession with trees. Each arborist can instantly list both the common and Latin name of their favorite species. There's disagreement, however, over which type of tree is best for climbing. Some laud sycamores for their "smooth bark and straight trunks." Others prefer oaks and the "wide crotches" they afford. For the St. Louis competition, climbers scaled a mix of oaks and those notorious indigenous favorite, sweetgums. Tompkins, a tall, long-limbed man with an unmistakable New England brogue, says he made three trips to Forest Park to pick them out. After making his initial selections in December 2007, he made return visits so he could see the trees with and without their leaves to get a sense of their form.
"Some trees, when you walk around the park they just jump out and you know it's the right one," he says.
The tree Tompkins chose for the "masters' challenge" — the final event in the competition and the one that crowns the world champion — is a towering pin oak located about a hundred yards south of the Missouri History Museum. It is, by all accounts, a splendid specimen.