Matt Hager of North Carolina swings through the Humilitree, more than 50 feet in the air, during a tree-climbing competition Friday at actor Jim Belushi’s farm in Eagle Point. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
On actor Jim Belushi’s marijuana farm near Eagle Point, arborists from Canada to Mexico gathered Friday to compete in the North American Tree Climbing Championship.
To these arborists, their job is not just a profession but a sport, a lifestyle and an art form.
Belushi’s farm features a stretch of grass near the house dotted with big trees. Volunteers for the event spent all week pruning and preparing the trees to set up three events designed to test and hone the arborists’ skills, explained Mike Oxendine, an urban forester with a long career in the Rogue Valley, who volunteered as a judge for the competition.
“These events are a way for the climbing community to come together as friends and learn from each other and to have a good time while they do it,” he said.
Music played Friday from portable speakers set up on the grass while arborists spent the morning rolling carts filled with climbing gear from the parking lot to the area where every carabiner and every length of rope would go through a volunteer’s hands to ensure it would not fail while supporting a human body high in the air. Some came with wives and children, one a baby only 6 months old.
Many competitors traveled across the country for the event, sponsored by the International Society of Arboriculture.
Modern arborists are the descendants of loggers and timber workers, many of whom turned from wildland forest work to urban forest work in the 1970s, Oxendine said.
“The ISA was formed to advance safe working practices in trees because people were doing all kinds of stuff. People were dying. A lot of people were dying,” he said. “The tree care industry is still a really high-risk industry.”
The competition is designed to simulate real-life working conditions, with added difficulty to test skills and increase the fun. The most challenging of those set up in Belushi’s trees was referred to as the “Humilitree.”
“I’ve been climbing for a while … and I’ve got a decent arm on me,” Oxendine said. “I tried throwing into this tree yesterday like 10 times and I couldn’t get the weight high enough to get into it, which is why we call it Humilitree.”
From the ground, an arborist throws a weighted bag attached to a thin line into a crotch — a point where two branches meet — 80 feet into the air. Using this line, they’ll attach a rope. The arborist will then climb into the branches and perform four tasks marked by hanging bells before climbing back down and pulling all the ropes out of the tree — in under 20 minutes. The one assistance they are allowed is a 12-foot-long slingshot to help with accuracy in getting the weighted line into the tree.
“The whole idea of this event is to judge how efficiently, how quickly and how safely they can move through the canopy of the tree as if they were working in it,” Oxendine said.
At one station near the top of the tree, the arborist must reach a bucket hanging from a branch holding wooden batons, simulating pruning.
“When you have people walking around below you, they all wear hardhats for safety, but you’re still pruning up above — even a small branch could hurt someone,” Oxendine said. “A lot of arborists throw stuff out of the tree and get it as close as possible to the chip truck or where people are cleaning up.”
Each competitor has three chances to throw the batons into the target from 80 feet up in the Humilitree.
“When you’re working on someone’s property, often Mrs. Jones will have birdbaths and things, so this is a good skill to have,” said Shawn Welch of North Carolina, a six-time champion of this competition.
Several climbers struggled to get their line into the tree Friday. When it was Welch’s turn, he moved through the branches with the grace of a lemur, floating on his line from one position to another, as the judges circled the ground below in hardhats, carrying clipboards to add or subtract points.
Dustin Goodman of Texas, one of the judges, said the contest can be humbling.
“The first time you come, you’re like, ‘Yeah, man, I’m a tree climber.’ But then I saw things I’ve never seen before. I came and got punched in the mouth, and it was like oh, my God, they’re so much better than me. But I got to be the dumbest person in the room. The more you’re the dumbest person in the room, the more you get to learn,” he said.
Goodman said the competitors help fuel the local economy while they’re here — Friday morning it was breakfast at Elmer’s. And he hopes people who meet them will see arborists in a positive light.
“Our goal is no bad stories about the weird guys who climb trees,” he said. “Where I come from, you say ‘tree climber’ and people get an image in their heads — a guy in a wife-beater tank top and jeans, probably addicted to something and climbing trees because he failed to function in society. I want to change that.”
He regrets not finding the career until he was 25, counting the years before as wasted. Goodman refers to his work as a calling, and he shares it with the zeal of a convert.
“I see kids looking at me, and I say, ‘Look, you ain’t gotta grow up; you can climb trees,'” he said.
He taught his children and his wife to climb trees, and his 7-year-old has already climbed a 60-foot-tall tree, he said.
Goodman said the event is inclusive. People from across the political spectrum gather and bond over a shared passion, but the industry is male-dominated, he said. Of the roughly 200 arborists at the event Friday, only three were women.
Lacey Brownell drove from Seattle. She and another arborist planned to spend their day sitting in hammocks 80 feet in the air to assist the judges on the ground, ensuring the events are performed safely, leaving no equipment behind and doing as little damage to the trees as possible.
“You’ll see with some of the female climbers, there’s parts where the physicality is in play — the men are stronger. But there are other times when we do better. It balances out. They’re really accepting of us,” she said.
Perched in her hammock a few branches away from the other technician, they watched a young climber take his turn with the Humilitree. He repeatedly failed to get his line in. Welch and other climbers offered words of encouragement from the sidelines.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration enforces regulations for arboriculture, Welch said.
“That book is written in blood,” he said. “Every single thing in there is there because someone got hurt or died.”
The competition helps to perfect industry practices, especially through the aerial rescue event. Purple tarplike fabric was spun between trees. No one was there to cheer, and no one was allowed in the area except the judges and the arborist facing the event. They go in blind to simulate the stress of a real-life injury, Goodman said.
“If you’re injured and you’re hanging up there, you’re going to lean back, and in six or seven minutes, you can get stress trauma — and that can kill you,” he said.
The judges used a wrench to pull a 180-pound dummy dressed as an arborist from the ground onto a tree branch. Half of one of its arms was missing. A rubbery looking replica of a human arm was on the ground near the tree, lying in grass painted red.
Emergency responders can take up to 45 minutes, Goodman said, and they have their own liabilities to think of, so they often can’t climb up to an injured arborist, turning what could be a rescue into a body recovery.
A whiteboard propped on the tree nearby had a paragraph written on it, explaining the scenario for the mock rescue: “You are working on the ground, and you hear a scream coming from the black oak. You go to investigate, your teammate is injured,” an arborist read aloud.
“Is he conscious?” the arborist asked Goodman.
“He is conscious and in extreme pain,” Goodman replied.
The judges stood around the outside of the tree, giving and deducting points for how the arborist approached the rescue. Does he keep talking to the injured man to keep him calm and let him know help is coming? Does he pour ice on the severed arm on the ground to keep it cold and give it a chance at being reattached?
The arborist was young and inexperienced. Goodman broke normal protocol to give the young man firm but patient instruction.
The young arborist failed, unable to even leave the ground before running out of time. The judges gathered around him to offer advice and encouragement.
To learn more about how to become a tree climber or attend the next competition, see www.itcc-isa.com/events.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.
Bill Burley of Southern California reaches with his saw during competition Friday at the Belushi farm in Eagle Point. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Michael Castle of Texas participates in an aerial rescue competition Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Andrew Miron begins his ascent up the Humilitree during competition Friday at Jim Belushi’s farm in Eagle Point. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Matt Hager and Shawn Welch check their equipment before competing Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Eight-year-old Michael Teller Jr. slides down a rope Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Matt Hager of North Carolina secures his rope during the tree-climbing competition. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Lacey Brownell gets ready to spend hours up in the Humilitree as a technician Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Mike Oxendine talks about the equipment being used for the speed-climbing event. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Andrew Miron ascends the Humilitree Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]