Branching out: Warwick hosts Tree Climbing Championship

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If you told Daniel Berthelette to go climb a tree, he would probably take you up on it.

Berthelette was one of the dozens of competitors taking part in the 30th annual International Society of Arboriculture New England Chapter Tree Climbing Championship this past weekend. The Masonic Youth Center in Warwick played host to the event, which ran for about 12 hours on Saturday. Berthelette, a professional arborist for the past eight years, was participating as a climber for the first time.

A Blackstone Valley resident, Berthelette said he had never seen the “majestic” oak trees nestled behind the main road in the Buttonwoods area. He said he and other competitors are attracted to the championship because of their mutual love and respect for the trees.

“We’re all here because of the same reason, generally, because we all love trees,” Berthelette said. “It’s the feeling you get when you climb a tree, and say you’re in the middle of the city, you just get this feeling of peace. And you don’t get that anywhere else, or I don’t in my life.”

Heather Leff, executive director of the local chapter, said members fell in love with the center’s landscape. She said the setting was “absolutely perfect” for the men and women vying for a spot in the international competition this August in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Competitors participate and are judged in several events, after which their scores are fed into a machine to determine the top three men and women. Leff also noted that climbers receive CEUs – or continuing education credits – that go toward maintaining their certifications.

They then partake in the master’s challenge to determine the winners, whose trip to Knoxville is paid for by the chapter. Kyle Donaldson and Nicolette Eicholtz were the victors this year, with Brian Carpenter receiving the Spirit of the Competition Award. Leff said the latter honor “exemplifies that person that’s out there really helping and that has the best sportsmanship overall.”

Sportsmanship and a passion for trees are qualities of the competition that both Leff and George Mellick of Shelter Tree Service have witnessed in spades over the past several years.

Mellick – who emphasized with a laugh that he has never been a competitive climber – has been coming to the event for the past three decades. He has, however, been climbing trees professionally since his days of working in a maple sugar field.

Mellick said climbing has transformed into a sport since he started, with advances in technology over the past 30 years. He said climbing went from simply a manila rope, handsaw and “maybe” a hardhat to sophisticated gear that allows for events like the tree climbing competition.

The event also stresses the importance of safety while climbing, something Mellick said is vital to the craft.

“All these people work in the field all day long, doing a lot of hard, dangerous work,” Mellick said. “There’s been accidents in the industry. Everybody knows somebody who’s lost somebody. We’re conscious of that, and this promotes safety as well. So everything that is done in this competition has an element of safety. You have to do that, or you lose points. So that’s a good thing. So it makes awareness all that more important.”

While his passion for trees brings him out every year, he said the most enjoyable part of the championship is the people with whom he interacts. Leff said as much, too. She said that, despite the competitive fire that each climber brings, they are always rooting for one another to succeed.

“So these guys are competing against one another for that coveted role that we talked about, and they’re literally cheering each other on and giving each other hints and help the entire time,” Leff said.

Leff spoke about what makes a top-flight tree climber. Firstly, she said, it helps to be small to be able to fit inside the spaces between branches. However, it’s a demanding task, so climbers need to physically fit as well.

“I think it takes it all,” Leff said when asked if climbing required more upper or lower body strength. “I think people train on the job, and through mechanical efficiencies they find ways to do it faster, easier and using their body less and letting the mechanical things help them more. But it’s still a very, very physical job even with the mechanical help.”

She added that champions add an ability to think on the fly and strategically in order to succeed.

“What makes a champion tree climber is somebody who can look at an event and think outside the box to creatively complete that event within the timeframe, scoring the most points,” Leff said. “It takes a lot of creative thinking. Some events are very straightforward, but the winners are the ones who outthink the setup and therefore beat the time and hit all the different stations.”

For those potentially interested in stopping by next year’s championship – whose location Leff said should be determined soon – she said the main draw is witnessing the “art and science of arboriculture happening before your eyes.”

“You never are going to see something like this every day. It’s so unique,” Leff said. “There’s a lot of education that happens, too. I literally saw an experienced climber showing someone who had never been in a saddle, two volunteers, one teaching the other how to climb. It was so cool.”

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