Event lets arborists branch out

Climbers: A competition gives caretakers of trees the chance to show their skills out on a limb

April 25, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

As Michael Cotter darted like a squirrel across the high branches of a 90-foot white oak, the crowd in Druid Hill Park gasped with his every move.

"Look at that little rascal go," said Thomas D. Mayer, his neck craned and his hand held above his eyes to block the glare. "He makes it look so natural."

What Cotter was doing in those trees, seven stories above the ground, was competing in an annual event called the tree climbing championships, a test of skill that's something like childhood mischief turned organized sport.

These aren't plaid-shirted, ax-wielding lumberjacks, whose competition moves with the whip and whir of buzz saws. These competitors -- about three dozen -- show how well they can set up ropes, heave their way into a tree and move around narrow, fragile branches.

Most of them have their eyes on Cotter. The 32-year-old Randallstown man is the reigning champion of tree climbing. Last year, after winning this event, he took a trip to Birmingham, England, and scampered his way to the International Society of Arboriculture's (ISA) top prize.

As he moved through Druid Hill Park yesterday to defend his regional title, a crowd followed. When his turn came for the speed climb -- a straight-up, 40-foot, hand-over-hand sprint -- the crowd gathered to see him zip up the rope. He took 20 seconds. The climber who followed -- Derrick Beaver -- took two minutes, grimacing as he went.

"Mike is so smooth," Beaver said afterward, shaking his head. "I was so tired I could hardly move. My arms were on fire. I was ready to bail out."

Cotter's performance during these early tests qualified him for a spot in the final showdown of the day, where the top five contestants scurry around a giant oak performing gravity-defying acrobatics.

Money and bragging rights hang in the balance for the winner of the international competition -- last year, Cotter's victory led to job offers from companies wanting him to train their climbers. But most of the day's entrants don't expect to make the final round.

They enter with the same mind-set you might find at the starting line of a marathon, where hordes compete with no thought of winning.

"Most of us see this as a chance to get up into the trees without worrying about work," said Randy Fackler, who, like every competitor, is a professional arborist. "We just like off the ground better than on."

Arborists prune and take down trees, treat them for disease and protect them from encroaching development. They're the "filter-cleaners for the globe," Fackler says.

It's dangerous work, as most arborists are likely to tell you. Arborists face possible electrocution, long falls, ugly encounters with chain saws, or worst of all, the wood chipper.

"We can send people to the moon and back safer than we can send these guys to the top of an oak tree," said Cindy Zimar, president of the ISA's mid-Atlantic chapter, which sponsored yesterday's competition. "We put a strong emphasis on safety."

That is made clear during one of the early events of the day, in which climbers re-enact an on-the-job rescue of an "injured" 160-pound dummy. Each competitor has five minutes to get up the tree and bring the worker down safely.

Nearly everyone seems to enter the day with something deeper than a healthy respect for life and limb. They all display a strong devotion to nature's quiet giant.

"We just have a tremendous respect for trees. Enough respect that we spend every day taking care of them," Cotter said.

Cotter and the other arborists paused before starting the final competition to plant a sugar maple in an empty stretch of grass overlooking Druid Hill Lake.

Then everyone headed to the grandest oak in view for the master's competition. In the outermost reaches of the tree's canopy, three cowbells were marked with pink ribbons. Two were eight stories high.

One at a time, the climbers would be told to throw a rope into the tree, hustle onto the branches, and tap the bells, faster than the others. Judges would deduct points for mistakes.

As they got under way, spectators gasped as Matt Saenz, a National Park Service worker, eased onto a 3-inch-wide branch and slowly crept out to the end, as it sagged under his weight. They applauded when nimble Mark Moeske made a daring three-story leap down his rope for a lower foothold.

They cried out as Cotter came face to face with a squirrel, and sent it darting down the trunk. With each acrobatic move, the crowd stayed glued to the high-wire spectacle.

When his feet hit the ground -- the last place Cotter wanted to be -- he had captured first place again.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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