Look Out Below!: Arborists from around the world descend on Forest Park for the International Tree Climbing Championships

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International Tree Climbing Championships

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.

A day before the competition, a team of climbers scaled the oak to trim hundreds of small boughs of deadwood from its branches. Lying on his belly at the end of one limb, staring straight down at the ground 75 feet below, Abram Zies, an arborist from Dallas, clipped a branch with a handsaw, watched it float to the ground and yelled to no one in particular, "This tree is awesome!

"It's a good one," he added. "I won't forget it anytime soon."

A jogger stopped to behold the scene. "Oh, my goodness, he's high," she murmured, slack-jawed.

"Some people are very comfortable at their desk in their office," notes Jim Bassett, a contest judge. "That's the way these people are in a tree. That's their work environment: They're putting their lives on a piece of string."

There are just two trees outside the global headquarters for the International Society of Arboriculture: a tiny pair of alders perched next to the parking lot of the flat-roofed, single-story building. Inside, the artifacts on ISA executive director Jim Skiera's wall more appropriately reflect the nature of the organization: a rusted band saw, a coil of old-fashioned climbing ropes and a Wisconsin license plate that says "MR TREE."

Seated behind his desk, Skiera, short, with a head of silver hair and the powerful shoulders of an ex-climber, recounts a recent trip he took to China to meet with that nation's arborists.

"The population density is so high that they're pushing to improve living conditions by literally planting billions of trees," Skiera says. "From our perspective that's great that they're planting them, but you have to care for them or it becomes a liability."

Skiera goes on to explain that the organization is encountering similar problems in cities around the world. Leaders who want to appear environmentally friendly are quick to approve funds to plant new trees but loath to allocate enough money to care for those same trees ten years later. "We're trying to get cities to understand you don't just throw it in the ground and walk away from it."

To combat the problem, the ISA partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a computer program called i-Tree that places a dollar value on the benefits a town's trees provide each year. Among other things, i-Tree calculates how much shade a tree affords.

"If pavement is shaded, it lasts two to three times as long," says Skiera. "That's a huge savings for the city. At that rate a $4 million budget for tree maintenance makes sense. In the past, $4 million for trees would be wacko."

Greg Hays, St. Louis' forestry commissioner, says the city doesn't have the i-Tree program, but he has no trouble totting up the benefits of an urban tree canopy: "Our trees provide oxygen, soak up carbon, reduce storm-water runoff, reduce utility costs, beautify the streets and add to property values."

According to Hays, who's a certified arborist himself, the city's forestry budget is approximately $7 million. In addition to paying for the removal of weeds and debris from parks, that money goes toward maintaining the 120,000 or so trees that line St. Louis' streets and fill its parks. Hays says the city plants more than 3,000 trees annually and removes nearly the same number.

In a testament to the strength of the city's urban forest, the National Arbor Day Foundation has named St. Louis a "Tree City USA" for 27 consecutive years in acknowledgment of its arboreal commitment.

Hays says city workers do very little climbing; most maintenance is performed from trucks equipped with hydraulic bucket lifts. Still, he says with obvious pride, "Anybody that inspects a tree in the city is a certified arborist."

By Jim Skiera's count, there are more than 21,000 ISA-certified arborists worldwide. That number represents only a fraction of the estimated 300,000 people who work in the tree-care industry.

The organization is expanding rapidly, particularly abroad. The ISA receives more than 4,000 applications each year from tree workers hoping to become certified arborists. In addition to passing an entrance exam, the ISA requires a minimum of three years of in-the-tree experience before a person can apply for certification.

The climbers at the International Tree Climbing Championships do not use spiked boots. Spikes damage the tree, the very thought of which makes arborists cringe. They are so emphatic about preserving the health of the trees that climbers are docked points for breaking (or in some cases even bending) limbs. Most of the time climbers don't even touch the tree until they are 60 feet into the air, having scaled a rope dangled from the upper limbs.

In order to get the rope into the tree, climbers use what's called a "throwline": a thin, lightweight string weighted on one end with a pouchful of BBs. With the weight dangling at his side from about yard of string, the climber throws his hand straight up, sending the line up and over the limb and back down to the ground.

In competition, throwline skill is tested by having contestants toss the string through forks in limbs about the size of a lunch pail at distances between 40 and 60 feet above the ground. Competitors have six minutes to set two throwlines, with lines through higher targets earning more points.

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."

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.)

The fourth and final climber of the day in the masters' challenge, Strasser has finished surveying the giant oak and is ready to set his rope high in its limbs. The previous three climbers have all tied in on the eastern side of the tree, affording them the leverage required reach the final bell, placed at the end of a low, curling branch that buckles easily under their weight. Strasser chooses to tie in on the western side of the tree, opposite from where he needs to finish.

He quickly footlocks up the rope, soaring into the canopy. Swinging and scampering from branch to branch, he easily reaches the first three targets. He is remarkably smooth and agile in the tree, catlike and coolly confident.

"There's no fear [of falling], but I have respect for heights," Strasser says. "I feel safer being in the tree than driving in a car on the road."

With one station left to go, Strasser makes a surprising decision that draws applause from the audience of several hundred: He climbs over the top of the highest fork in the tree's trunk and reties his line on the opposite side. Rather than walk out onto the final limb and risk a penalty by bending it too far, he opts to drop down on it from above. After tapping the bell with his saw, he gracefully slides to the ground.

The judges love the way he methodically moves through the tree, patiently and resourcefully working his way to each station. For the third consecutive year, he is crowned champion.

Strasser insists there's no secret to his success. In fact, when asked what he thinks about as he climbs, his response is pure Zen.

"I am not thinking. I am trying to be one with the tree," he says. "You have to look at the tree not as a sporting object but as a living being."

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