The International Tree-Climbing Championships

Ah, to climb a tree. Treeclimbing might seem like the sort of faux-naïve, arcadian adventure that modern kids disdain in favor of video games...

Ah, to climb a tree. Treeclimbing might seem like the sort of faux-naïve, arcadian adventure that modern kids disdain in favor of video games and Goth music, or whatever it is they’re into. But among professional arborists, tree-climbing—competitive tree-climbing—is not only alive and well, it borders on deadly serious.

This weekend, some of the world’s most intrepid (and speedy) pro tree doctors gather in Lisle, Illinois for the International Tree-Climbing Championship. This is no childhood idyll, but rather a highly technical, physically demanding test of professional skill, on-the-fly problem solving, and aerial courage. Frankly, it freaks me out. So I called up two-time world champion Mark Chisholm, who runs a family-owned tree firm in Jackson, New Jersey, to learn more.

In addition to kicking major wads of arboreal ass, Mark turned out to be one of the nicest guys I’ve ever talked to on the phone. (He’s also a spokesman for a spokesman for Stihl chainsaws, which might be the coolest athletic endorsement deal on the planet.) So, naturally, I hope he sets some world records this weekend. I hope even more fervently that he doesn’t plummet to his doom, which is what I always assumed I was about to do every time I climbed a tree.

GOOD: How does this competition work?

MARK CHISHOLM: Well, in a round-about-way of speaking, it’s a three-day thing, but the first is really just gear inspection and all that jazz. The second day, competition really begins. We’ll have about 50 competitors from about 18 countries, I think—all professional arborists who won their regional competitions, for men and women.

The first day is the preliminary round, which consists of five different events that are all scored differently and weighted slightly differently. Two of them are pure speed-climb: There’s the belayed speed climb, which would be kind of familiar to anyone who knows about rock climbing. You’re top-roped into a tree, and you climb to a station at the top that’s outfitted with a bell and an electronic timer. Fastest wins, so that’s pretty simple. The second is called the secured footlock, and you just climb 15 meters up a rope without touching the tree at all—it looks like a giant inchworm going up the rope, basically. That one, I gotta say, is one of my favorites: Number one, because it’s very physical and demanding; and number two, because I really focus on it. I hold the world record, so I guess I keep it kind of close to my heart.

G: Well, of course. What else, on day one?

MC: There’s a safety event called the aerial rescue—and this event is important, because it’s basically the reason the whole competition started back in the 1970s. There’s a simulated emergency situation up in the tree, and you have to survey and control the situation, go up and secure the “victim” and get the victim down. The originator of the competition started it because he wanted to help his crews think about rescue techniques and procedures—that was the seed of the event.


G: That’s interesting—that a whole competitive discipline, basically, grew out of arborists’ work skills.

MC: Yeah, everything in these events mimics the work environment. The fourth preliminary competition is in throwline, which is basically a simulation of how you install a climbing line and consists of launching a line weighted with a bean bag up into the tree. And the final part of the preliminary is the work climb, where you start at the top of the tree and work down through a bunch of different stations, doing different tasks at each one. The scores for all five events are combined, and the top finishers advance to the second day.

G: Which is when it gets serious.

MC: Yeah—the finals. The day starts with a head-to-head footlock race, in heats of two, side-by-side. And that’s really good for spectators, because it’s a direct competition. The fastest overall time wins a cash prize, usually like $500 or $1,000. But then comes the main event, the Master’s Challenge. That’s basically a combined skills competition that is a culmination of all the previous events. There are four stations in the tree, and you can do them in any order you want. You have 25 minutes to set up your gear, and then you go. And it’s a subjective scoring system—judges decide who fulfills the challenge the best. So we get a lot of drama and controversy out of that.


G: Your own career stats seem fairly impressive. So how are you hoping to do this time?

MC: Well, this is my 21st year competing at some level or another. At the state level, I’ve won the championship 18 times. I’ve been in the world’s top five 16 times and I’ve won two world championships. I set the 15-meter footlock record in 2007, and I held the record in the old distance, which was 40 feet, before they retired that category. So, yeah. At the same time, I’m 39, and I separated a shoulder in a hockey game fairly recently, and then I tore an MCL climbing. I’m just coming back from all that, so while I’m hoping I’m competitive, I don't think I’ll be setting any records this time.

G: What’s the importance of this competition to you—and other arborists, for that matter, in your work life?

MC: You honestly can’t stress it enough. As a professional, this competition gives you a window to see the cutting-edge technology and techniques for safety, and that’s really the main point. You learn the stuff fast, too, and with a lot of motivation, because if you show up at the competition with the wrong gear or wrong technique, they’ll just disqualify you. It also fosters a great feeling of camaraderie amongst the business—people sharing ideas, looking at equipment, talking about their work experiences. It’s great. And for spectators, it helps them see what an arborist does, what he or she looks like, how they talk, all that.

G: Why do you keep competing after all these years?

MC: In the beginning, when I was just a young kid, the state competition was a chance to see how I stacked up against the guys who were my mentors. Then, when I started to win, competing basically became my chance for free vacations. Now, it’s what makes me part of this close-knit community of other arborists, people who I maybe only see once a year but who are close friends. And, you know, last year I lost the world championship on a tiebreaker, so that keeps me motivated. And the guy I lost to [Jared Abrojena, United States], I consider him almost like a brother. His family is like my family. My parents like his parents. So part of me was as excited for him as I was disappointed for myself. It’s just a unique feeling.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Mark Chisolm, who won the 2010 championship.

Photo via the International Society of Arboriculture

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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