Arboriculture is the rare profession that can also be viewed as recreation. Not many plumbers look forward to installing a sink at their own home on the weekend. And you probably won’t ever encounter a doctor who enjoys answering medical calls during their off-hours. But many tree care pros can’t wait to get back up in a tree, even after they’ve clocked out. For them, tree climbing is a passion — and tree climbing competitions offer them an opportunity to improve their craft and test themselves against their peers.

There are several industry tree climbing competitions, but probably the most recognizable is the International Society of Arboriculture’s International Tree Climbing Championships. Beginning with chapter championships and regional championships held all around the world, male and female competitors vie to move on to the annual international championship.

Tree Services talked with a few of the top finishers at the 2016 ITCC, held in April in San Antonio, Texas. We wanted to know why they compete in tree climbing events — what they enjoy about and take away from the competitions, and how they handle the nerves of competing.

Competition basics

Climbers in the ISA events compete in five different preliminaries: aerial rescue, belayed speed climb (timed), secured footlock (timed), throwline and work climb. “It’s a cumulative score, and they weight the events,” says Martin. “The work climb is worth the most points, which makes sense because it’s the closest thing to what we do on the job and, in my opinion, it requires the greatest skill.”

Marcy Carpenter, the New England chapter women’s champion in 2016, poses with Kyle Donaldson, the reigning men’s New England champion. Both went on to compete at the International Tree Climbing Championships in San Antonio.

PHOTO: MARCY CARPENTER

The top qualifiers in each of these preliminary events move on to compete in the Masters’ Challenge, which combines all of these elements and produces an overall champion. “It’s very close to what we would do pruning a tree at work,” says Martin. “The timer starts and competitors have to assess the tree, make sure it’s safe to climb; then you access the tree and go about your work (ringing bells in different parts of the tree to simulate pruning limbs) and then you come down and remove your ropes. It’s like a day at work, but sped up and judged!”

In 2016, the ITCC men’s and women’s champions were James Kilpatrick and Chrissy Spence, both of New Zealand.

While the ITCC remains the most prestigious tree climbing competition (“it’s like the Olympics of tree climbing,” says Carpenter), some climbers also participate in other events that allow them to use different climbing methods and equipment that might more closely match how they climb on the job every day.

Martin, for example, has been climbing SRT (single rope technique) for some time, and some of those techniques – and the gear associated with them – are only starting to get accepted at the international level in climbing events. So at ISA competitions, he felt that he had to change his climbing style.

“Other competitions started popping up, like the Charlotte Arborist Association‘s event, TREE-JAM, TreeStuff’s Jambo and others that were accepting of those techniques,” says Martin.

SRT did become accepted in ISA competitions several years back, but certain equipment is still not permitted.

The evolution continues, though it often takes several years for new gear to be approved in those events, says Martin. While that can feel limiting to some climbers like himself, he understands the rationale behind having testing done to make sure new gear is safe before it is approved for use in competitions: “They’re doing it in an appropriate manner and waiting for the appropriate information.” Promoting safe climbing, after all, was one of the original intents behind the creation of climbing competitions.

Regardless of the exact rules of a competition, “There’s a lot of differences between the everyday work environment and a competitive climbing environment,” says Drews. In a competition, for example, “you don’t have a chain saw hanging from your side and you’re not typically dealing with dead or hazardous trees.” That being said, he notes that “most of the tasks are related to tasks that we would be performing at work and the positions we would be using.”

And there’s a strong connection between the competitions and professional arboriculture work. “There’s a lot of shop talk that goes on” at competitions, says Drews. That’s allowed him to learn and share information with other top-ranked climbers, which has helped shape the working systems and climbing systems that he uses not only when competing, but on the job. “It’s definitely made me a more productive and safer climber.”

Handling the nerves

“I was shaking in my boots. I can’t even remember the first competition because I was so nervous,” says Carpenter. “I probably put everything on backwards that day! But the other women took me under their wing and helped me through it.”

Martin now has nine years of competition experience under his belt and says he’s still nervous before events. “It doesn’t really go away!” he says. “I’m a competitive person, and I’m nervous about doing my best — performing to the best of my ability.” Performing in front of your fellow professional arborist adds another element to the nerves, Martin adds. “You want to look good in front of them.” He does note that years of professional and competitive climbing experience have taught him how to control those nerves.

Getting started

Torcicollo says that, in order to score well, it’s important to be sure you fully understand all the rules and intricacies involved before competing. “You can read the rule book a million times, but every time I go to a competition I learn something to get points,” he states. “There are certain things the judges want to see and hear so you can get [maximum amount] of points.”

Perhaps it’s because of all the rules involved, but “for a beginning climber, I think there is a lot of intimidation factor that comes along with competitive climbing,” says Drews. “But it’s helped me immensely, and I would strongly encourage people to do it. Whether you’re a first-day climber or a 30-year climber, you’re still going to take something home.”

Plus, he says, the atmosphere at climbing competitions is very supportive. “While it’s an individual competition, everyone is there willing to share and support each other,” says Drews. “Everyone is cheering each other on and wanting everyone to do well.”

“It’s really not a competition in the sense that people are up against one another; it’s more of a community coming together and we just happen to be competing against one another,” says Carpenter. There’s no rooting against other competitors. “It’s just the opposite of that — we really work together. A lot of the people become not just dear friends, but like family, even if we just see each other once a year.”

Carpenter says that taking part in other state chapter competitions within your region is a good way to practice for the regional championships, where tickets are on the line to advance to the international event.

“My recommendation is to come out to a competition and spend the day watching competitors and chat about it with people — everyone is always open and happy to share any information. And then come and compete yourself!” she advises.

Rookie recollections

  • “I first heard about tree climbing competitions on [champion climber] Mark Chisholm’s TreeBuzz forum while I was in my second or third year of doing tree work, so I went and watched one,” recalls arborist Derrick Martin, who now works for Goods Tree Care in Pennsylvania. “I was really into the climbing aspect of tree work – that’s why I got into this business. So I wanted to go see a competition to see what they were doing.” Martin was hooked and later that year entered his first climbing competition. He says he doesn’t remember the results of that first event, other than he was in the bottom half. “But I had a blast with it. I got to meet a lot of great people and see climbers who were a lot better than me…and that gave me the drive to continue doing it.” Over the years, Martin has advanced to become one of the industry’s top competitive climbers. He took first place in the “Work Climb” category and finished fifth in the overall Master’s Challenge at the 2016 ITCC.
  • Marcy Carpenter operates Arbor One Tree Service in Massachusetts with her husband, Ed. She’s been an arborist for more than 10 years and a competitive climber for almost the entire time (and finished third in the secured footlock competition at the 2016 ITCC). “I started just for fun, and to get an opportunity to climb with other women, which isn’t something I get to do on a regular basis,” says Carpenter. “I quickly got totally submerged in it.”
  • Lucas Drews, an arborist with Woodland Tree Services in Michigan (and fourth-place finisher overall at the 2016 ITCC), started in competitive climbing after graduating from college and working in South Carolina. “I saw a promotional flier [for an event] and I decided to sign up and did pretty well, so I continued to stay involved with it,” says Drews.
  • Ryan Torcicollo, who operates Wasatch Arborists in Utah, started competing five or six years ago. “A guy I worked with was the New Jersey champion and competed every year. It sounded pretty cool, so I went with him,” he recalls. Torcicollo had never even seen a competition before he entered his first event. “I had no clue what was expected,” he says. He finished second in the belayed speed climb at ITCC 2016.