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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

Competitors go out on a limb to win tree-climbing contest

BY SARAH MERVOSH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jay Butcher of Cincinnati swings from limb to limb during the 31st annual Ohio Chapter International Society of Arboriculture tree-climbing championship in Walbridge Park. He placed third. Jay Butcher of Cincinnati swings from limb to limb during the 31st annual Ohio Chapter International Society of Arboriculture tree-climbing championship in Walbridge Park. He placed third.
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As rain clouds over South Toledo finally broke Saturday afternoon, Jay Butcher was 65 feet in the air, standing on a tree branch. Neither the rain nor the branch bending increasingly under his weight could distract him as he inched his way toward its end.

Ringing a bell at the end of the flexible tree branch was just one of the tasks Mr. Butcher and other climbers attempted during the International Society of Arboriculture tree-climbing championship in Walbridge Park.

The 33-year-old from Cincinnati, who was the oldest competitor, finished third out of 18 climbers. First-time competitor Justin

McVey, 27, of Columbus won and clinched a spot at the international contest.

After scoring the highest in the preliminaries, the top three - Mr. Butcher, Mr. McVey, and second-place winner Brian Griffith, 25 of Cincinnati - advanced to the master climb. They had 25 minutes to navigate the course, which included ringing a bell at four stations in the tree.

Head judge Rick Denbean of Louisville, left, stands by as competitors Brian Griffith of Cincinnati, second from left, Justin McVey of Columbus, and Mr. Butcher size up the next challenge. Head judge Rick Denbean of Louisville, left, stands by as competitors Brian Griffith of Cincinnati, second from left, Justin McVey of Columbus, and Mr. Butcher size up the next challenge.
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"It's nothing you see or hear about every day," John Hartenburg, chairman of the Ohio Tree Climb, said. "These guys have to come up in here with nothing, get a rope in a tree, climb it, and then move around in not just one, but two trees."

The competitors were judged on both safety and form, as well as staying within a time limit.

"The number-one concern for a climber is safety. The second the climber leaves the ground, he is subject to death, literally," Rich Hattier, who traveled from Louisville to judge the competition, said.

Jay Butcher prepares to climb a tree at Walbridge Park. Jay Butcher prepares to climb a tree at Walbridge Park.
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"You'll find the less experienced climbers, it's pretty nerve-wracking. Some guys will stay calm throughout. … Some guys will get aggravated and start making bad decisions."

The events were meant to mimic everyday working conditions in the tree-care industry and emphasized efficiency because workers are paid by the job, rather than the hour, Mr. Hartenburg said.

In one preliminary event, competitors climbed a 60-foot route in under one minute. Another required the climber to reach a dummy in a tree, inspect it for injury, and evacuate it in under five minutes.

Alex Nordquest, 24, participated in his first competition yesterday and said the preliminary rounds were harder than they looked.

"It looked easy from the ground, but once you get up there you get a different perspective," he said. "The hardest part was trying to complete the events within the time limits."

Though Mr. Nordquest was not one of the three who moved on to the master's climb, he said he accomplished what he came to do.

"I'm trying to build my skills and this is where you go," he said. "There's a time crunch here to do everything. Once you come down, you think about what you did wrong and you can correct that."

Mr. Hattier, who competed for 13 years before becoming a judge, said the best part about tree-climbing competitions is the camaraderie that occurs when engaging in such a dangerous activity.

"You see the more experienced guys helping the younger guys. It's a competition, but mostly it's about being with other guys that do what you do," he said. "Really, it's just a ton of fun and we love any excuse to do it."

And the camaraderie was evident as spectators called out to the competitors, giving them advice and cheering them on.

"Isn't this crazy?" Mr. Hartenburg said, looking up at Mr. Butcher midclimb. "It's like every kid's dream, right?"

Contact Sarah Mervosh at:

smervosh@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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