Climbing: Competing to Learn

Krista Strating on the job. “Competitions have made a huge impact on how I work and think on the job site and how I plan my climbs,” she says. Photos courtesy of Krista Strating.

Competitive tree climbing? What’s that all about? Like, do you chop the trees? Do you climb up with those spiky things on your feet? These are the questions I frequently am asked when people find out I’m a competitive tree climber and champion.

So, what do I tell them? Well, I tell them it’s like a Tree Olympics, where we get a chance to showcase our skills in front of an audience, judges and our peers, trying to do it better and faster than other tree climbers from all around the world! Wow – does that ever lead to more questions! Most people just can’t believe something like tree-climbing competitions exist. To be honest, sometimes I can’t believe it, either! Sometimes it seems too good to be true that there are people who have started this up all in the name of safety, education and awareness for this industry, and that they run it almost completely as volunteers. It’s truly amazing! I’ll get into more on the benefits to the industry just ahead.

History

How did competitions start? If you go to the International Tree Climbing Competition section on the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) website, you will find this statement: “The first tree climbing competitions were held in California as a way to train for the classic skills that would prepare a climber, equipped with nothing more than a rope, to have the ability to save a life in an aerial rescue. The competitions grew as more and more tree care companies encouraged their workers to participate.”

The Western Chapter of the ISA then began to operate the competitions as an official chapter event. Due to its popularity and influence, Western Chapter members solicited the ISA Board of Directors to hold tree-climbing competitions as part of the ISA’s annual conference. The first official “ISA Jamboree” was held in 1976 in St. Louis, Missouri. Over the years, new events and techniques were introduced and a formal set of rules was developed.

The event expanded internationally in 1994 when the first European climber entered the competition. The European expansion brought even more innovative techniques, and spurred a revitalization in the competition in 1996. This included the addition of a championship round known as the Masters’ Challenge and the name change to the International Tree Climbing Championship, or ITCC.

The ITCC continued growing as women began to compete in the event. The first women’s champion, Christina Engel of Germany, was named in 2001. Today, nearly a third of the competitors at the world championship are women.

Now, in addition to the ITCC World Championship, the ISA holds three annual regional events in Europe, North America and the Asia Pacific region. The winners of these events, as well as winners of competitions held by ISA chapters and associate organizations around the globe, are invited to the world championship.

Competing

Now that you know how the competitions started, why should you compete or get involved? What are the benefits? Well, honestly, the benefits are almost endless!

Being able to go to an event and watch 30 or more climbers, male and female, perform tasks using different skills, styles, equipment and strategies is incredibly educational and inspiring. I personally was blown away when I went to my first international competition in Chicago and met and competed against Chrissy Spence and Josephine Hedger. Like – mind blown! It’s like playing hockey and earning a spot to play against Wayne Gretzky. Now, after competing for more than 12 years, I count these “celebrity” climbers as my friends.

“Before I started competing, I only knew the basics of tree climbing. Not to say that climbing trees with basic skills and gear doesn’t work. I’ve just found that applying skills I’ve learned through competing has made my job much more enjoyable and profitable,” says the author.

This leads nicely into the next-best benefit to tree-climbing competitions – friends. I have made so many great friends through competing. Although there is a fierce competition going on, climbers always seem to have such an inviting and loving vibe going on. It truly is something special to see climbers sharing ideas and gear, cheering each other on even though they are direct competitors. If you were there, you would almost think no one actually wants to win, because everyone cheers on everyone and no one is really ever mad. It’s such a positive and exciting atmosphere you can’t find anywhere else.

Competing may not be for everyone, especially if you aren’t a fan of being judged and watched by a large crowd. But that’s OK. You don’t need to be a competitor to enjoy the competitions and reap all of their fantastic benefits. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer. Getting involved in judging, scorekeeping or helping out with setup can all be awesome ways to get involved and be a part of these incredible events. Just coming out and watching a competition is great, too. But I’m sure that once you do, you’ll want to get involved in one way or another.

What does this mean for tree care?

The ITCC has contributed to the tree-climbing-equipment and tree care industries by bringing the end users and manufacturers together. The result has been an explosion of inventions and products specifically designed for tree care applications.

Industry safety standards in nearly every participating country have benefited from these innovations. The events also instill a respect for the role of the tree climber and a focus for the individuals who make up the climber community as a means to improve safety in the work environment for all tree care workers.

For me personally, competitions have made a huge impact on how I work and think on the job site and how I plan my climbs, and have helped me navigate through all the new gear and techniques that have been changing year after year.

Before I started competing, I only knew the basics of tree climbing. Not to say that climbing trees with basic skills and gear doesn’t work. I’ve just found that applying skills I’ve learned through competing has made my job much more enjoyable and profitable. After having watched and participated in many Master’s Challenges, I almost look at every tree as if it were a Master’s event. I choose the best tie-in points, make sure I know exactly where I’m headed in the tree before I leave the ground, plan all my redirects and even set rigging lines from the ground. Like the wise words spoken from world-champion tree climber Mark Chisholm, “Climb smarter and harder.”

Competitions bring the end users and manufacturers together. The result has been an explosion of inventions and products specifically designed for tree-care applications.

Another very powerful benefit to climbing competitions is the networking. I learned fairly early on that sometimes who you know can be better than what you know. There are so many opportunities for different jobs and adventures. For example, when I competed in Portland, Oregon, back in 2012, I was invited by Brian French’s wife, Rachel, to go climb a grove of 250-foot-tall Douglas-fir trees with a group of women from all over the world!

Also, through competing I have had the pleasure of meeting the LeVangie sisters, Melissa and Bear, and have been invited to and started teaching at their Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop! It’s been an amazing experience teaching in such a unique environment they’ve created. If I had not started competing and meeting all these people, I would not have had so many fantastic opportunities that make my career so enjoyable.

Being an arborist is hard work, especially if you’re a climbing arborist. If you think you’ll be climbing forever, you may be in for a nasty surprise. I was once told that a climbing arborist’s career is comparable to that of a professional hockey player – short and sweet! Now this isn’t always the case, but it is something to think about when you start out. I believe getting involved in competitions can help extend your career and potentially set you up for another chapter to work toward.

By learning new techniques, you can start to climb smarter and become more efficient and work more ergonomically. By networking with vendors and other business owners, you can start planning for your next step. Maybe you’d like to get into more of a consulting role, so you network with vendors geared toward that. Maybe you’d like to go work in a different country, so you go network with some climbers from places you’d like to go to. Maybe you have an idea or invention in mind – talk with people from vendors who can help put your idea into motion. The opportunities are endless, but you have to be there to get them.

Personal benefits of competing

What has competition climbing done for me? Well, besides teaching me SRS techniques, tons of aerial-rescue techniques and tricks, throwline tricks and how to work position safely and properly, the networking has been one of the most exciting and beneficial factors. If it wasn’t for the people I’ve met and the titles I’ve won, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

“I almost look at every tree as if it were a Master’s event. I choose the best tie-in points, make sure I know exactly where I’m headed in the tree before I leave the ground, plan all my redirects and even set rigging lines from the ground,” says the author.

Having won nine Ontario Tree Climbing Championships, four North American Tree Climbing Championships, one ITCC title and being part of the 2019 Jambo (TreeStuff-sponsored annual tree-
climbing competition) champion team, I have earned some awesome sponsorships/partnerships with TreeStuff, Petzl and All Gear ropes. I’ve also been added to the Husqvarna Global H-Team, where we help product-test chain saws and gear. All have been amazing opportunities to travel the world and help share and spread the passion of professional tree climbing!

Conclusion

So, there you have it! Something for everyone. If you haven’t made it out to any tree-climbing competitions, what are you waiting for? Go! Enjoy it, ask questions, get involved, talk to vendors, buy gear – whatever you want. You won’t regret it, and I’d almost bet my world title you will learn something new that you can apply on the job.

Krista Strating is an arborist for the City of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and a tree-climbing instructor for arboriculture apprenticeship and urban-forestry students. She currently holds the title of North American Women’s Tree Climbing Champion.

This article was based on her presentation, “What Competing Taught Me About Everyday Work,” at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Click below to listen to an audio recording of that presentation,

Krista was also featured on a TCIA Podcast! Listen to her episodes at podcast.tcia.org! Or just search TCIA wherever you get your podcasts.

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