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Johnny Lopez races the clock in a climbing event
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Race to the top: Live oaks serve as playing field for tree climbing event

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

An idyllic February morning. Clear skies, unseasonably warm sun, breezes waving in from the ocean and … what are those men doing in the trees?

“They’re cutting down the oaks,” concerned citizens exclaimed.

They aren’t.

They’re members of the International Society of Arboriculture, and this was the 36th annual Southern Chapter Tree Climbing Competition.

ISA members and volunteers gathered at the Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort last week to compete for prizes and a chance to represent their chapter at the International Tree Climbing Competition held in Washington, D.C. in August. The event is coupled with the chapter’s trade show, which took place in Myrtle Beach.

“There’s about 30 here today, most chapters have 30-40,” David Graham, Wisconsin native, former climber and a 12-year veteran volunteer with the ITCC, said. “At the international competition there’ll be 50 to 60 from all over.”

Brazil, Norway, China, New Zealand, Japan and Sweden are just some of the countries that are represented at the international competition. The Swedish champion, and only female climber at the competition, was Boel Hammarstrand. She wasn’t competing to win, she competed to compete. She wanted the practice. And to have a little fun with the competitors.

“I like to ask questions I already know the answer to,” she said.

The co-ed competition treats men and women equally on all events, but that hasn’t always been a reality. There used to be different competiton rules for men and women.

“But the women said, ‘Hey we want to do everything the same,’” Graham said. So the rules changed.

The climbers finance their own way to this competition. It largely relies on volunteers like Todd Stephenson and his crew at Total Tree Care. This is his first time helping at a competition.

“We’re all here volunteering and judging and helping,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson offers 21 years experience in arboriculture. The ISA certified arborist judged the Work Climb event. He scored competitors based on their skill, agility and speed.

The clock is a climber’s enemy in competition. Timing out is the great disqualifier. Breaking a branch larger than an inch in width or dropping a piece of equipment is another way to be disqualified.

“Sometimes if they have friends there they can yell times to the competitors,” Graham said. “An audience helps.”

The arborists groom the trees before competitions to make sure each climber starts on even ground. This also ensures safety for the competitors and for the trees.

“We don’t use spikes or gaffs,” Graham said. “We don’t harm the trees.”

A chapter competition ideally holds five preliminary events: Secured Footlock Climb, Belayed Speed Climb, Aerial Rescue, Work Climb and Throw Line. The contestants compete in the five preliminary events to qualify as one of the top contestants, based on a point system, to earn the right to move onto the Masters Challenge championship round. The contestants who move forward start on even ground for the Masters Challenge. The contestant with the highest points during the Masters Challenge wins the competition.

“We don’t have enough judges here, so we aren’t doing footlock.” Graham said. “You can have three events and still get a champion. We’re doing four.”

The ISA was founded in 1924 as the National Shade Tree Conference (NTSC). It began in Connecticut with forty individuals, but evolved into the International Shade Tree Conference (ITSC) in 1968 because of influence and membership spreading beyond the borders of the United States. In 1976, the group changed to the ISA to reflect the scope of its work and influence involving arboriculture.

The 75-year-old Southern Chapter currently consists of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Prizes are donated by companies that supply the tree care industry and tend to consist of climbing gear, ropes, carabiners, pulleys, slings and other items that pertain to the industry. Prizes and plaques are awarded to winners of the preliminary events. The winner of the Masters Challenge also receives a paid trip to compete in the International Tree Climbing Competition. Second place receives a paid trip to the North American Tree Climbing Competition.

“This isn’t rocket science, we’re just exhibiting skill,” Graham said. “We’re here to climb.”

The Masters Challenge champion was Cormac Nagan from Durham, N.C. Second place was awarded to Dustin Urbanovsky of Charlotte.

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