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Wenda Li, a tiny Asian woman with a close-cropped black hair, was the women's world champion in 2002. Li, who hails from Toronto, retired from competitive climbing after last year's championship and has since been planning a mentoring program for women climbers around the world.
"A lot of women are isolated where they work; there's not much support for them," says Li, who served as a judge in this year's competition. "We've been discussing traveling from chapter to chapter to meet and talk to some of these women, promote the sport and help dispel some of the intimidation factor."
Sharon Lilly doesn't see things changing anytime soon.
"If you're rigging big limbs and bringing them out of trees, it is extremely dangerous and it takes a high level of skill to remove them," she says. "There's one reason right there a lot of women don't do it: It takes cojones."
For climbers, getting into the tree is only the beginning. Three events at this year's competition tested one's ability to maneuver through the foliage. While speed is a factor in these contests, the climbers are judged primarily on how safely, efficiently and creatively they are able to operate in the tree.
Having footlocked up the rope and into the tree, a climber runs one end of his rope through a pulley system and the other through a hitch connected to his harnesses. The purpose of this setup, called a "dynamic climbing system," is twofold. It provides more safety than the Prusik, which snaps a climber to a jarring stop in the event of a fall. In the dynamic system, friction builds on the hitch, gradually stopping the fall and swinging the climber back toward the tree. The pulley also creates a mechanical advantage, halving the amount of work a climber must do to lift his own weight with the rope.
"You try and match the friction of the rope at the hitch to your body weight and climbing style," says Chisholm, a two-time world champion who finished third in 2008. "After a while swinging and moving is like driving a race car. You know the friction, how fast it's going to go and it's like you're stepping on the gas or the brakes."
The location a climber picks to set up his pulley system, called the "tie-in point," is arguably the most important decision he must make. Where the rope is tied in dictates how far a climber will be able to move and what branches he'll be able to reach.
"The tie-in really defines efficiency," says Jim Baker, a technician at the competition and a climbing instructor with ArborMaster, a consulting firm. "If you have 150 feet of rope, that means you have about 75 feet to move around."
In the masters' challenge, climbers must select a tie-in point that allows them to reach four stations set up throughout the tree. In order to prevent a competitor from copying another climber's path, they aren't allowed to watch each other climb.
"You have to 'read' the best route," says Bassett. "The past champions have been organized in their approach. They get their line set and get into the tree efficiently and then have fluid, planned movements from station to station."
Tompkins, the man in charge of selecting where the stations (the bright orange bells the climbers ring with a handsaw) are placed for the masters' challenge, says the event heavily favors people who work as professional tree pruners. Tree workers, he says, are best at mapping out in their minds the best way to tie in and navigate the tree.
"You can just be strong and athletic and do well in the prelims, but you have to be a tree trimmer to do well at the masters'," says Tompkins. "You have to plan. It kind of separates the men from the boys."
Bernd Strasser tilts his head back to look up into the masters' challenge tree. A tangled mess of blond dreadlocks dangle down his back from beneath his climbing helmet. He circles the tree like a predator stalking prey, his sinewy arms folded on his chest.
"It looks different from all sides," the German will impart later in perfect English. "You walk around the tree and it changes its face. It also looks different from the top. Humans have a hard time with our senses picking up what a tree looks like from the ground. It's always growing as you go up it."
Strasser, who'll turn 40 next month, is one of the few rock stars of the climbing world. He has finished in the top two in the International Tree Climbing Championships eleven years running, winning eight of those times. He was one of the only climbers to be hounded by autograph seekers over the weekend and one of the few who receives corporate sponsorship. Perhaps only Steve Sillett, a Humboldt State University professor who climbs and studies redwoods, commands as much attention as Strasser. (Sillett, the keynote speaker at the ISA conference that followed the climbing championships, was profiled in the New Yorker by Richard Preston and is featured prominently in Preston's bestseller about redwood climbing, The Wild Trees.)
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