Climbing to the Top Randallstown tree pruner Michael Cotter ascended to world champion climber by being cool at the end of his rope.

August 15, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

It takes only a few moments for the new world's champion tree climber to pull himself up 50 feet of rope and settle into his saddle harness as easily as if he were sitting in a TV-room lounge chair.

"It's beautiful up here," he calls down from the towering white oak behind his Randallstown home. "I love climbing trees."

Michael Cotter loves the dare-devil rush of hanging five, six, eight stories above the ground. For him, tree climbing mixes fear with an intoxicating high all its own.

"It's kind of like sky-diving, he says later. "You get three-quarters of the way to the top and you look down and it's that exhilarating feeling that your life is at risk right now, and the only thing holding you up is this little piece of rope and what you're sitting on."

Cotter, 32, climbs trees for a living, pruning and doing "take-downs" for A&A Tree Experts in Pikesville. On occasion he'll take a call to rescue a cat, usually a house cat. And once a year, he tests his skills against the best climbers in his region.

This year, he took the regional championship and won a trip to Birmingham, England, for the International Society of Arboriculture's (ISA) annual competition. Two weeks ago, he won the Master's Challenge, beating out 31 other climbers from around the world.

It might seem odd, a favorite piece of childhood escape turned into an international competition for adults, but Cotter and his colleagues aren't shinnying up trees barefoot like in the old days. Their ropes can lift a pick-up truck without breaking. They use special hooks called "ascenders" to pull themselves up, specific knots and harnesses. Some of the tools and techniques come from rock climbing.

In a world where ESPN-2 broadcasts the championship for every conceivable sport, tree climbing has claimed its own niche, complete with a championship cup -- the McConnell Cup -- and a $1,000 cash prize.

The International Society of Arboriculture started 74 years ago in Connecticut and now has 36 chapters in 26 countries. The ISA claims more than 11,000 members. The competitions began in 1976 as a way of preserving skills needed for aerial rescue. These skills were needed to bring down injured people, often someone who had been electrocuted while working around power lines.

One of this year's events involved re-enacting a rescue in which a dummy is lowered to the ground. The climbers have five minutes to get up in the tree and complete the rescue. Another event tests a climber's ability to accurately toss his "shot line" onto a tree limb 40 to 60 feet above the ground.

"Everything has changed drastically," says Cotter, who first competed 10 years ago. "It was kind of raw back then."

Money and bragging rights are on the line at the ISA competition, but there's another group that competes just for fun. Recreational climbers have a home in Tree Climbers International of Atlanta.

"I started it because I was getting so many requests from my clients that they used to climb trees and they wanted me to take them up," says Peter "Treeman" Jenkins, a retired rock climber who is now a tree surgeon in Atlanta.

He started the group in 1983 to help people rediscover tree climbing. Jenkins and others enjoy hanging out in what they call "the high canopy" of the upper branches. So far TCI has 600 to 700 members worldwide in 27 countries. The chapters, called "groves," are in France, Germany, England, Denmark, Atlanta and Fayetteville, Ga.

Jenkins says the biggest draws are the overnight camping trips in trees and "tree-surfing," in which the climbers go up during windstorms. "It is nothing short of magical," says Jenkins. "The noises. It's like surround sound. The breeze comes up, and your hammock starts swaying. [Trees] just have an aura about them."

Cotter understands that sense of mystery about trees.

"I think they're the greatest things in the world," he says. 'N "They've had to learn to adapt to everything that's gone on in this world since the dawn of time."

Cotter doesn't think of himself as a "tree-hugger" or someone who gets loopy over being in the strong embrace of arboreal splendor. His affection is of a much more practical nature. Trees are his bread and butter. And they help keep him alive -- "I enjoy the air I breathe," he says. "That's what trees provide to everyone in the world."

What bothers him is how trees are treated, sometimes cut down for no good reason. "I've been mad at certain points, 'Why am I taking this tree down? Because they're scared of it?' Don't just take a tree down because it's too much shade and you want more sun. That's an idiotic reason. I can prune it and give you filtered sunlight."

The world's champion tree climber came to his profession by accident. He was just about to start his senior year at Randallstown High when his brother told him about the pruning job. It paid more than the landscaping work Cotter did at the time. That was 15 years ago.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.