Chris Rosenblum: Tree climbers rise to challenge

Brennan Kissman, of Erie, scales a tree at Tudek Park.
Brennan Kissman, of Erie, scales a tree at Tudek Park. For the CDT

It was like seeing an old friend with a new hairdo.

Normally when I visited the community garden at Tudek Park, the neighboring giant oak stood alone like a majestic sentinel. On a recent chilly morning, though, I walked up to a bustling scene.

Yellow tape cordoned off the oak’s massive trunk. Spectators sat in lawn chairs outside the perimeter, and within a group of men wearing hard hats peered upward.

All eyes followed the most dramatic addition — a man crisscrossing the branches.

Brennan Kissman, the climber high above, was square in his element as a professional arborist. Tethered to rope, he negotiated the limbs as swiftly as a gibbon. He wore a mask of concentration, but though he was working hard, he wasn’t at work.

The Erie resident was testing his climbing skills in the Pennsylvania-Delaware Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture’s Master’s Challenge. Of all the trees in two states, the stately Tudek Park oak with its spreading crown won out based on a recommendation from the Penn State tree crew. The day before the competition, crew members pruned away dead branches in preparation.

Then it was showtime for six climbers, the top finishers in a preliminary held earlier this year near Pittsburgh. They vied for the right to represent the chapter at the International Tree Climbing Competition in March in San Antonio.

“This is the highlight of my year,” Kissman said.

Tree climbing for me evokes memories of idyllic childhood adventures: regarding the world from an open fort window, scaling branches until courage dissolved, sprawling on low limbs like dozing leopards.

But there’s nothing tranquil about a Master’s Challenge. It’s intense and kinetic — an extreme sport seemingly borrowed from squirrels.

Using techniques necessary for commercial tree pruning jobs, climbers have 30 minutes to assess the tree, set up their lines, ascend, reach four work stations to accomplish tasks, descend and retrieve their gear.

Throughout, while the clock ticks down and the pressure mounts, climbers must call out line throws and other moves. Drop any equipment, make two uncontrolled throws or break a large branch, among other infractions, and it’s instant disqualification.

From entry to descent, climbers are judged on their movement, balance, precision, control, posture, rope management, and safety and decision-making, with the highest and lowest total scores discarded to increase fairness. Style counts. Judges have discretion to reward distinctive presentation and innovative techniques.

“There is room on the score sheets for ‘style’ points,” said Chris Miller, a King of Prussia arborist and the event chairman and lead judge. “There is also room for deductions if we feel someone is not moving with grace.”

Kissman raced to the end as Miller called out the time remaining — five minutes, then one minute. “Stand clear! Coming out!” Kissman shouted before lowering himself, hurriedly gathering his lines and finishing with seconds to spare.

“Nice, Brennan,” a friend said

“I just wanted to finish,” he replied.

He was breathing hard, but I got the sense he would have happily gone back for a second round. It was a chance to play, pure fun. Only his peers know the feeling, the thrill of climbing, moving from place to place and safely testing limits high in the air, seeing a tree from a perspective that few others do.

“It’s awesome,” Kissman said. “That’s what most of the guys like, the movement, to be on one branch and there’s one down there and to just jump and kind of glide down to it. And the trees themselves, they’re all different. You get a different experience each time.”

Maybe people are born with a certain climbing gene, one that draws them to leaping around treetops. Barb Stabile has watched her son, Mick Stabile, a Meadville arborist, venture out on limbs for so long, she’s no longer nervous.

“He’s such a good climber, like a monkey,” she said, gazing at his smooth maneuvers around the Tudek Park oak. “He’s been like that since he was a kid.”

If a genetic predisposition exists, that might help explain the tight bond among climbers. Even more than the acrobatic techniques, the camaraderie at the competition impressed me. Sure, everyone wanted to be the guy going to Texas — which turned out to be Derrick Martin, of Good’s Tree Care Service in Harrisburg — but the feeling was more club outing than cutthroat.

That’s typical at competitions, Kissman said, especially larger ones.

“That’s where you learn everything, because all these guys come together and collaborate,” he said.

“You learn techniques. People are swapping, and it’s the most friendly place. ... It’s all about spreading the knowledge of how to do techniques safely. Some of these guys are ridiculous coming up with new ideas. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing ever.’ ”

A desire to help fellow climbers will keep Chris Miller, a tree climbing competition organizer for 15 years, involved in the sport for a long time to come.

“Eventually there will be a time for me to step down and allow the next guy to take the lead but I will still be there as a volunteer,” he said. “I get a sense of fulfillment knowing I was part of a successful event and was able to enable new and older climbers to be involved.”

Mick Stabile was glad he came all the way to Tudek Park, even though his day ended on a disappointing note.

With six minutes left, a spare pulley fell from his belt to the ground — a first for him. He was out. “Tough break,” another climber said.

Stabile took it in stride. He wasn’t enamored with his performance anyway, and instead of stewing, he admired the next climber’s line throws, line angles and routes among the branches.

“When you get to most places, you learn a lot,” he said, packing his gear away for another climb, another tree waiting for him.