In a university town, September usually means one thing: college football. But there’s another sport at Purdue you probably won’t catch on the Big 10 Network. Every fall, arborists from across the country immerse themselves in the world of competitive tree climbing.
Yes, it’s an actual thing. The winner of Indiana’s championship gets a lot of aboriculture swag – a fancy water bottle and a handsaw is included in the prize package – and a chance to compete at the international tree climbing finals next spring.
“What it does is mimics what you do in a work production standpoint, only in a competition environment,” says Lindsey Purcell, who teaches forestry at Purdue and serves as president of the Indiana Aborists Association. “I mean, I call them tree athletes. Instead of ‘triathletes’ I call them ‘tree athletes,’ because you not only have to understand the physiology and biology of the tree, but you also have to be athletic in order to get to work.”
The IAA is a chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, the umbrella organization that runs the championship series.
This year, Gatlin Hinesley and Casey Johnson, two of Purcell’s former students, are competing in the Indiana championship. Purdue turns out lots of arborists, and many competitors had Purcell as a teacher.
Johnson and Hinesley live together and get up early to practice at a park on the fringes of campus. One recent morning, the two are practicing an event called throwline, in which a rope is thrown 40 feet onto a specific tree branch. It’s by far the least physically demanding of the competitions five events.
Hinesley says the following Saturday, the two will have to, among other tasks, shimmy up a 50-foot rope and retrieve a 170-pound dummy from the top of a tree.
“The more in shape, the better off you are,” he says. “It’ll give you an advantage definitely when it comes time to compete.”
This athleticism is on full display the day of the competition, which takes place in a leafy park just outside of Indianapolis. A couple dozen people are competing, and they all look like lumberjacks, with big ropey forearms and beat-up calloused hands.
Thanks to the competition’s technicality, almost every entrant is a tree professional. The same goes for the audience. Competitive tree climbing isn’t exactly a spectator sport, and most of the people watching are competitors themselves or friends and neighbors of the athletes.
One of the five events – the work climb – most closely simulates what arborists do every day, and so it’s a favorite to compete in and watch. There’s a crowd of spectators – mostly climbers in helmets and work boots – watching Johnson as he climbs around the 100-foot ash tree.
In this timed event, Johnson has to visit five stations within the tree and perform a task at each one, like throwing a log onto a target on the ground. When he’s done at a station, he rings a bell that has paper streamers hanging off it, like a piñata.
Lindsey Purcell’s watching too, yelling out advice like a coach. “Smooth, smooth!” he keeps yelling. “Focus!”
The event is difficult to watch without imagining everything that could go wrong – a branch breaking, someone falling. In fact, during the competition, it initially appears that’s what has happened.
A burly redhead in a helmet is stalking around the base of a tree. “Artie, artie!” he’s calling up into the branches. “He’s still not responsive,” he explains to his companion.
After a few seconds, it’s clear this is another part of the competition. During the aerial rescue event, the organizers give the competitor a scenario in which a person-sized dummy (wearing a Purdue tee-shirt) has been injured and must be rescued.
“It looks like there’s blood, so will you please notify me when the EMTs get here?” the redhead asks his companion.
After the dummy, “Artie,” has been saved from the tree, the rescuer, Matt Starks of Kansas City, says he’s glad his performance fooled people. Forestry is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and the events are scored just as much on how safe people are as how quickly or stylishly they can complete their events.
“If you don’t feel real, then that events not doing it’s job,” Starks says. “it’s supposed to simulated so that’s what that event is for.”
Gatlin Hinesley’s parents drove to Indy to watch him compete. The danger aspect isn’t lost on them.
“We’d never heard of it, we didn’t think there was so much to climbing a tree,” says Gatlin’s mother, Michelle Hinesley.
When asked if watching made him nervous, Hinesley’s father, Larry laughs nervously.
Yes, it does, he says. “And sometimes, even just looking at the pictures. He’s up there! And we’ve never done it so it doesn’t seem like the safest thing in the world.”
In the end, neither Purdue competitor won, even though Johnson came in first in the prelims. First place winner Jon Montgomery has the chance to travel to the finals in San Antonio next spring.