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Once the throwline is set, the weight is removed and one end is tied to the climbing rope. The string is then used to pull the thick nylon climbing rope over the limb and back to the ground, so that it is draped in two parallel lengths over the branch.
Then comes the ascent.
The fastest and most common way of climbing is a technique called the "secured footlock," in which the climber grabs the rope with two hands above his head, then lifts his legs and uses the outside of one foot to catch the dangling bottom portion of rope, trapping it against the instep of his other foot, or "biting" the rope. With the rope locked between his boots, in one motion the climber pushes himself up with his legs, slides his hands up, lifts his lower body and releases the rope at his feet. He then "bites" a higher section of now-slack rope and repeats the process.
Using the footlock technique, a world-class climber can cover 50 feet of rope in less than 18 seconds. The world record for that distance, currently held by Mark Chisholm of New Jersey, is 13.8 seconds.
"It's the drag racing of tree climbing," says Bassett, the head judge of this year's footlock competition. "Real fast climbers, they release the rope by pointing their toes straight down. They do it so fast sometimes it makes a 'thwack' from the rope snapping taut."
The other method of ascending is called a "belayed climb." To belay, the climber sets his rope at a point near the tree's trunk. Then, with his back nearly parallel to the ground, he pulls himself up the rope with his arms and uses his feet to walk up the trunk. This method is often difficult to implement, because low-hanging limbs tend to get in the way.
For safety, climbers wear a harness around the legs and waist that's tied to the rope with a four-foot length of cord in what's called a "Prusik hitch." The knot, named for its inventor, an early-twentieth-century Austrian mountaineer named Karl Prusik, coils around the climbing rope like a noose and slides easily along its length so long it's not supporting any weight. If the climber falls, the loop snaps tight.
The first International Tree Climbing Competition was held in St. Louis in 1976. The Prusik was not used in the event until 1989. Before the loop was used, if a climber fell there was nothing stopping him from hitting the ground. The competition was canceled in 1987 and 1988 because the ISA couldn't find a company that would insure the competitors.
"In the old days, 'secure' meant three-point contact: two hands and a foot touching the tree," says Bassett. "It didn't matter how high you were, that was secure."
In her office at the ISA's headquarters in Champaign, Sharon Lilly brushes back the sides of her fading blond hair to reveal a pair of earrings shaped like tiny acorns and recalls what it was like to be the only woman working for a tree-care service in the 1970s.
"I'd be up in a tree and I'd shout something down in my high-pitched voice and the customers would say to my boss, 'Is that your boy up there, Joe?'" Lilly recounts. "There was just this absolute assumption that it couldn't be a girl up there. After a while we'd go along with it, and we'd say 'Yup, that's Billy.' There was this imaginary persona of Billy Lilly who climbed trees."
Lilly, now the ISA's director of member goods and services, was elected the organization's first female president in 1996. She says that since she joined the ISA in 1979, the number of women in the society has increased substantially but that they still make up just 2 percent of the total membership.
"It's hard being a woman in this field," Lilly sums up. "It's hard, physical work and you have to overcome the biases of all the guys you're working with."
The chauvinism to which Lilly refers occasionally manifests itself on the message boards of treebuzz.com, the online hub for arborists and tree climbers. One woman recently posted a message asking if anyone could suggest a bra that was suitable for climbing and working outdoors in the summer.
"Wow," cracked one responder. "You must have brass ovaries asking that question in this venue."
While the men's climbing competition has been around since 1976, the women's division was only recently added, in 2001. They're still struggling to draw a full field. Of the 35 ISA chapters from around the world eligible to send contestants, only 14 were represented by women in St. Louis. The champion, Josephine Hedger, came from the United Kingdom.
Columbia native Ann Koenig traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, earlier this year to compete in the ISA's Midwest Regional Tree Climbing Championships. She was the only woman who showed up from the region's seven states, entitling her to an automatic berth in the international event.
"It's tough being a woman and climbing full-time for your job," says Koenig, who works as an urban forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "There's the inclement weather, and it's physical labor, all day every day. It takes a special person to be interested in doing that."
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