Up A Tree Without A Ladder

Arborists gather in Honolulu for the world tree-climbing championship, and climbers dazzle with their Spider-Man-like skills

Rasa Fournier
Wednesday - August 08, 2007
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Brett Hamlin dazzled in his first world championship competition
Brett Hamlin dazzled in his first world championship competition

judges, but they didn’t relent and he threw himself to the ground in exasperation.

Finally, there was the Secured Footlock climb. I arrived right as the world record holder, Mark Chisholm - whose fastest 50 foot climb is an astounding 14.3 seconds - stepped up to the rope. “Take your time, we’ve got all day,” teased a garrulous judge. “Huuuuuuurrry up,” responded a coached audience. Chisholm cracked a smile and the race was on. Hitching his feet into the rope, he rocketed upward toward the bell. Another climber had cumbersomely coursed up, slipping a foot down for each few feet gained. But Chisholm sailed up effortlessly.

Proclaimed the judges, “13.8 seconds - you just set a new world record.” A wave of chicken skin washed over the audience.

But the champion event was yet to come. The next day found the entire conference crew crowding the courtyard at the Royal Hawaiian to watch the Master’s Challenge. The top scorers from the previous day would now face off for the title of 2007 World Champion.

A banyan served as the competition site for the three top women, all former world champions. Kiah Martin of Australia went first while the other two were sequestered, so that each had equal advantage. She had 25 minutes to install a rope, and as with the previous day’s work climb, accomplish a number of tasks spread throughout the tree, and then descend and remove all ropes and gear from the tree. The aerial roots provided an additional challenge. She finished without a hitch.

Next came Kathy Holzer from the Pacific Northwest. She cut an intimidating profile with her powerful physique. Shouts of “Let’s go, Tarzan” and “Fly, baby, fly” greeted her, but in the end, the stalactitic roots got the better of her, hopelessly gnarling her ropes even as the countdown struck zero.

New Zealand’s Chrissy Spence had a tough time with her initial line throw, using all six throws allowed. She brought the audience to a standing ovation when she finished with six minutes remaining.

Onlookers then congregated around a stately monkeypod tree for the anticipated men’s event. The first of four contestants, Todd Kramer of Illinois was keeping up with his allotted 30 minutes and the audience was entranced and rooting (so to speak) for him, when the judges prematurely called him down. He had dropped a small pulley and was disqualified.

New Jersey’s Mark Chisholm came next. “This one’s a thinker,” said Kris Stultz, an event judge from Florida, who provided me with an expert running commentary. Chisholm glided up the ropes as he’d done in the footlock challenge the day before. At one point in his climb, he came to an impossible chasm separating him from a branch a good 15 feet away. But he leaped like a flying squirrel and landed right on his mark. His bigger fight was against time. No one was breathing as he finally descended and then fought to retrieve his ropes from the tree while the timer relentlessly dropped ... 5, 4, 3 ... and stopped. The audience let out a unanimous sigh of relief and hearts started beating again - he had successfully completed the task with only three seconds remaining.

“This is where you get your camera ready,” advised Stultz as Bernd Strasser of Germany appeared on the scene. “He’s like a rock star for arborists.” Strasser was the defending champion and a sort of legend, having won the competition six times before. He was distinguished by his acrobatic agility (and his mane of golden dreadlocks). With his own brand of finesse, he literally spun webs through the tree, leaping, swinging, jumping and running from branch to branch. He later told MidWeek that each tree carries a unique thrill because “every tree is different, with a different energy.” He had expressed the unique bond among arborists - they all love trees.

Last came newcomer to the finals, Brett Hamlin of Australia. He was in and out of the tree with a luxurious eight minutes remaining to lower his ropes and ham it up for onlookers as he casually packed up all his gear and stopped to get in a few arm stretches, before pulling his last line from the tree, prompting a fellow Aussie to yell, “Get the man a beer!”

“It was surprising to see someone come into the Master’s for the first time and do such an incredible job,” concluded Leon Marcus of Hamlin’s performance. Marcus, a local arborist at Lyon Arboretum, served as the chair for the competition, meaning he scouted sights, pruned trees, arranged venues, did “a lot of paper work on insurance” and so much more. “This entire event (including days of conferences on the myriad aspects of tree care and maintenance as well as the latest technological and scientific developments) is a big boost for the arboriculture industry in Hawaii, bringing advanced techniques and safer ways of working, and it fired up everyone’s passion for trees. It also makes the public aware of what the tree industry is all about and how much we care about what we do. And we got to see some beautiful tree climbing!”

Kevin Eckert pointed out the significance of the event, “The best in the world congregate somewhere on the planet and we were fortunate enough his year that they congregated here. This is the first time it is happening in Hawaii and it will probably never happen again in our lifetime.”

Eckert pointed out another Hawaii tie, “Former homeboy Dan Kraus from the Big Island (where his father owns a tree company) was the world champion in 2005. He is one of the best in the world and we can claim him.” Kraus, who now lives on the Mainland, also participated this year.

(For championship results, visit www.isa-arbor.com)

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