Headout: Tree Toppers

Learn how tree-climbing competitions work.

Tree climbing is an activity most often associated with children and barefoot hippies—two groups that wouldn't stand a chance at this weekend's Portland Regional Tree Climbing Competition.

The Olympics for tree-climbing enthusiasts ever since the International Society of Arboriculture hosted the first official competition outside St. Louis in 1976, this climbing competition is dominated by professional arborists and has gotten serious with sophisticated rules, mandatory equipment and ever-evolving techniques.

"It's a chance for us to put away the chainsaws and the drudgery of everyday work," says David Gaugel, a 44-year-old arborist running the Portland event. "We can simply do the parts of what we do that are fun. Most of the guys in the industry love being outside—and they really love trees."

This weekend, Gaugel and about 30 other locals will scale 70-to-90-foot linden trees in Columbia Park in a five-part contest judged on criteria including speed, accuracy and fluidity. The weekend's top performers will earn a shot at the international championship in Toronto, where they will meet the German tree master who has won nine of the last 14 titles.

Any innocent bystanders in Columbia Park are likely to be very confused by the goings-on. We asked Gaugel to explain what competitors are doing with those ropes and dummies.

Climbers throw a thin nylon line tied to a shot bag through a series of hoops to install a climbing line high in the tree. The complex scoring system balances throwing time and target size.

A speed race up a predetermined, 60-foot route to hit a bell using the belay climbing method. "We never ever do it in real life," says Gaugel, "but it's just too fun."

A 50-foot vertical ascent into the tree canopy using a Prusik loop or another approved hitch and the footlock rope-climbing method. It's basically like climbing a rope in gym class.


In this four-station event, contestants must ring a bell with a handsaw and a pole pruner, walk out on a limb without lowering it too far and toss branches onto targets below.

GO: The Pacific Northwest International Society of Arboriculture 2013 Portland Regional Tree Climbing Competition is at Columbia Park, North Lombard Street and Woolsey Avenue, on Saturday and Sunday, June 22-23. 7:30 am-5 pm. $60 to compete. pnwisa.org.

WWeek 2015

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