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Competitive tree climbers are fearless, fast and gentle: ‘Nobody’s wearing spikes’

Professional tree climbers show off skills in Lexington park

The Kentucky Tree Climbing Championship sponsored by the Kentucky Arborists' Association were hosted at Woodland Park on October 14, 2017.
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The Kentucky Tree Climbing Championship sponsored by the Kentucky Arborists' Association were hosted at Woodland Park on October 14, 2017.

Don’t look for axes or logs in the state tree-climbing championships; instead, these pros rely on ropes, hard hats and tiptoes.

“A lot of people think we’re lumberjacks,” said Jesse Hesley, the organizer of the Kentucky Arborists Association’s annual state event. “That isn’t what we do.”

Instead, it’s about problem solving. And physics.

The 30 competitors — 29 men and one woman this year — pit themselves against the clock and other professional arborists to see who can handle tricky tasks the best.

The key is control and composure, said Cory Petry, already a five-time Kentucky state champ and co-owner of Limbwalker Tree Service in Louisville. Judges aren’t looking for gasp-inducing moves, he said.

“You can’t be afraid of heights but you’ve got to have a healthy respect for heights,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to move in a three-dimensional living, breathing organism and do it in a delicate, kind of gentle way. We’re arborists and we’re focused on tree preservation and we use the least invasive techniques possible. Nobody’s wearing spikes on their boots … This is all about preservation and doing no harm to the tree.”

The climbers competed in several timed events that mimic the skills they use every day in tree work, including how to rescue an injured co-worker stuck in a tree within five minutes. A technical “work climb” showed off their abilities to maneuver throughout the tree without damaging it or putting themselves or those on the ground in danger. A speed climb straight up a rope for 50 feet showed off technique.

Even though the climbers were competing against each other, they also were shouting encouragement and help.

“There’s really no adversaries. It’s really about competing against yourself to improve. Everybody wants to win; nobody comes for second place, but it’s a little more about fostering a feeling of camaraderie,” Petry said.

Later, Kentucky-based finalists Petry and Jeff Inman, both of Limbwalker in Louisville, and Ryan Kessler of Dave Leonard Tree Specialists in Lexington competed in a master’s challenge to determine the state champion.

Inman, the winner from the Kentucky competition, will go on to the international competition next August in Columbus, Ohio.

Although the climbing can look dangerous, competitor Boel Hammarstrand of Sweden said that if it’s done right, the risks are mitigated.

Hammarstrand knows about speed and control: this year she was third overall in the international competition.

“Speed isn’t everything. It’s a lot more to do with safety and poise and movement through the crown (of the tree),” she said. She works as a professional arborist in Sweden and in England and travels the U.S. for climbing competition to keep her problem-solving skills sharp. “I just love climbing trees. The freedom of being in another living organism … when you’re up in the top of a tree, the views are amazing … and I love the people that work in the industry as well. Every day is different; you’re not ever going to get two days exactly the same.”

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