It’s Saturday the 23rd, 9 a.m., and dozens of people are hanging in the trees at Chase Palm Park.
It’s not some kind of hippie eco-protection protest, nor is it a hipster pseudo-competition á la the infamous Red Bull Flugtag. In fact, all the climbers are real workers — certified arborists or tree workers. Competitive tree climbing, the sport you didn’t know was a sport, has come to Santa Barbara.
Hosted by the California Arborists Association (CAA), the Ninth Annual Climbing Invitational drew 23 competitors from all over California in a race to the top — of the score charts, that is. Events at Saturday’s competition were designed to simulate everything from the rescue of a 100+ pound dummy stuck in the canopy to a “work climb,” in which competitors actually simulated trimming a tree. The top five scorers proceeded to Sunday’s Master Climb, where they fought to win a fiery hand-airbrushed hardhat and a bright orange chainsaw.
Combining knots, techniques, and gear from rock climbing and sailing, tree climbing has hit a renaissance. Getting to the top of the tree is no longer a matter of grappling with the trunk and hoisting yourself over the branches; instead, climbers toss and pull increasingly thick ropes over branches, strap themselves in, and pull up. Aided by the ropes, competitors climbed out on branches small enough to snap at the slightest excess pressure.
In the work climb, they wrangled a long metal pole pruner around to ring a bell at the end of a branch, tiptoed out on skinny sticks to push a fishing weight down into a bucket of sand, and dropped sticks of “cut branches” onto Astro Turf targets — all to simulate the day-to-day challenges of tree trimming and care.
In perhaps the most humorous event of the day, the aerial rescue dummy Rescue Randy was retrieved time after time from the top of a smaller tree. The competitor had to explain the situation and the extent of Randy’s “wounds” to the judges below while climbing, all while reassuring Randy that help was coming and he’d be safe.
For the Masters challenge Sunday morning, the organizers chose the biggest and scariest tree in the park — an otherwise lovely 80-foot-high eucalyptus. Whereas activities like the aerial rescue were timed out at five minutes, competitors got a full half hour on the Masters tree. Because competitors were prevented from seeing their competition at work, each approached the tree with a different style and plan of attack. One by one, the local and not-so-local competitors finished the challenge to awe and applause from below.
Although tree climbing hasn’t yet reached the tipping point of interest that sports like stand-up paddleboarding have felt, it seems to be on its way to greater popularity. A growing group of spectators appeared around trees during the competition, drawn in by the strange sight they witnessed from Cabrillo Boulevard. A handful of locals who identified as amateur tree climbers also watched from the sidelines, there to cheer on local competitors or just watch how the big shots do it. And although there weren’t any female competitors, there were two lady judges — both of whom have worked in the industry.
Several competitors compared tree climbing to surfing or mountaineering in that it creates an environmental consciousness for those who participate; you can’t ignore the microcosm of life existing in a massive tree once you’ve lived with it long enough to learn to climb to the top. Indeed, the crossover between other adventure sports and tree climbing is undeniable; several of the top five are avid mountain climbers or surfers.
By hosting regional competitions like this, the CAA is hoping to draw in new competitors from the industrial side to the sporting side, while at the same time providing more opportunities for recreational climbers to get involved.
Though next year’s Invitational will be somewhere new — it changes location each year — the tree climbing buzz is starting to spread. Although the shock factor of “Wha…? There’s someone in that tree!” surely was part of the spectatorial fun, the environmental focus is helping tree climbing approach the status of eco-trend.