Champion climber paves the way

This year’s International Tree Climbing Competition, held in St. Louis, marked the end of an era. Kathy Holzer, 2004 women’s champ, made her last appearance as a competitor.

Holzer, owner of Out on a Limb Tree Company in Seattle, placed fifth this year and plans to serve as a judge and event organizer in the future.

“I was very happy to see the level of competition in the women’s division rise this year,” Holzer says. “It’s time for us old geezers to step aside and let the youngsters pick up the torch.”

The making of a champion

At 43, Holzer is hardly ready for assisted living, but she has been climbing for 13 years and has operated her own tree services firm for eight years. Early on, she seemed an unlikely future tree climber.

Although Holzer enjoyed high school athletics, she describes her teenage self as an “English jock” with a knack for writing. In college, she majored in philosophy. After a few years of trying various office jobs, Holzer longed to work outdoors.

“I found a job shoveling compost for a woman landscaper and loved it,” Holzer says. “I was just so happy to be using my body again and to be outside.”

That led to more advanced landscape work, where Holzer was introduced to arboriculture. A few pruning classes and she had found her niche.

Breaking into the male-dominated field wasn’t simple back in 1995. She was unable to locate a climbing female arborist for advice, support and possible employment. After contacting every International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist in Seattle, Holzer secured part-time work with two firms, one of which became her full-time employer.

“I had set myself the five-year goal of becoming a certified arborist, which I did in two,” says Holzer, who worked for Stonehedge Tree Experts (www.stonehedgetree.com ) for five years.

Going out on a limb

With certification and experience as a full-time climbing arborist under her belt, she was ready to strike out on her own. She had yet to shake hands with another woman climber at that point, and was uncertain how the gender factor would affect her new business.

“The difficulty I faced as a woman business owner was more related to the business aspect than gender-related,” Holzer adds.

She says she’s often related to the old adage that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get half as far, but also believes that others have been more sorely tested by discrimination and harassment. She cites the case of a female tree care worker who dealt with daily on-the-job harassment for years. The woman pushed so hard to prove herself that she suffered permanent damage to her wrists, elbows and shoulders.

Out on a Limb Tree Company (www.outonalimbseattle.com) was started in 2000, culling business from clients she’d serviced on a freelance basis. Customers from the Aikido community—a martial art Holzer credits with increasing her balance, strength and stamina—were instrumental in talking up the business, which relies on word-of-mouth advertising.

 Holzer’s first-year gross income was just a few thousand dollars, but today, Out on a Limb employs two men and provides large tree pruning, cabling, bracing and removal. Other services include hedge trimming and renovation, fruit tree pruning and fine pruning of smaller trees and shrubs. A hands-on owner and operator, Holzer is convinced that women are well-suited for the male-dominated arboriculture field. Physical factors, such as a lower center of gravity, are advantages, as are women’s tendencies to respect intuition. The novelty factor helps in marketing.

“My existence as a woman climber is, intentionally or otherwise, a statement: Women are here, women can be talented climbers, women have joined the ranks of climbing arborists and are not going away,” she says.

Today, women climbers such as Chrissy Spence, Wenda Li, Christina Engel and trailblazer Sharon Lily, along with organizations such as Women of the Trees (isaac.org.au/wott/), are backing up Holzer’s belief with their achievements in arboriculture.

Competition

Holzer was drafted into tree climbing competition by her local ISA chapter in 2002. Although she had seven years of full-time climbing experience, her business left no time for competing. The chapter’s only other possible female representative had less than six months of experience, so Holzer agreed to give it a try.

“At the time, I had never footlocked, had very minimal throwball skills, but had eagerly watched every local climbing competition since I started climbing,” she says. “It was very intimidating at the time to choose to represent women climbers when I lacked the skills required in at least two of the five preliminary events.”

After learning that her footlock time was about 60 seconds for 40 feet, she footlocked 200 feet daily until the 2003 international competition in Montreal, only three months later. Along with throwball drills and training from Dan Kraus, chapter and national champion, that practice helped her cut her footlock time in half. Just one year later, she was women’s international champ in the 2004 competition held in Pittsburgh.

By this year’s competition, her footlock time was down to 24.16 seconds, which put her in sixth position for that event among the 13 competing women. She was third in work climb, fourth in speed climb, fifth in throw line and 10th in aerial rescue, placing fifth overall in the preliminary events. Josephine Hedger from the United Kingdom took the title and set a new world record for footlock with a time of 15.88 seconds.

Although the men’s competition differs in some aspects, the basic events are the same. Germany’s Bernd Strasser was this year’s winner, his eighth victory since 1999. The event began in 1976 to help preserve classic skills that enable climbers to perform aerial rescues with nothing more than a rope.

“The biggest gift I’ve gotten from competition, other than finally meeting other women climbers, is that it pushed me to be a better and safer climber,” she adds. “I think this was the original intention of the jamboree [as the championship was called in the early years], sharing of information, improving gear and techniques all in the name of safety and efficiency.”

Looking to the future

In addition to moving into a less active role at future International Tree Climbing Championships, Holzer may change her business plans, as well. She is interested in the training side of the industry and became an assistant instructor for North American Training Solutions/Arboriculture Canada Training and Education in 2007. Although most of her students have been men, due to the demographics of the field, she offers less formal training when requested by women climbers and hopes that female-focused instruction can become part of her business.

She’s eager to help increase the visibility of women climbers and hopes to achieve a more respected place in the tree services world for them. Holzer has a bit of advice for those women interested in working and competing as climbing arborists.

“If you can dream it, you can do it. Female climber role models are much more available now than ever before in history, and many of the high-profile women climbers are eager to be mentors.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SHERRILLTREE, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Kathy Holzer, second from right on middle row, celebrates the 2008 International Tree Climbing Competition with fellow female climbers.
   
 
Kathy Holzer competes in the 2008 International Tree Climbing Competition at the International Society for Arboriculture’s conference.  
   
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KATHY HOLZER.
Kathy Holzer removes the remainder of a codominant western red cedar after a December 2006 windstorm. Kathy Holzer was the International Tree Climbing Competition’s first female winner in 2004.
   
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KATHY HOLZER.
“Test Monkey” Kathy Holzer participates in a recreational climb of a 230-foot Douglas fir near Olympia,Wash.
   
Kathy Holzer removes a badly occluded 100-foot-plus Western hemlock.