Nature's Hidden Sport

Scaling 160-foot trees challenges the body, even for professionals.

While some particularly athletic kids love climbing trees, few turn it into a lifelong profession. Miami native Jason Gerrish is an exception. “After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, I started working with trees, removing them during the clean-up, and it was the first time I realized I could make good money doing something I enjoyed,” says Gerrish. Having climbed trees as a professional arborist for over 25 years, Gerrish started competing to challenge himself and as a way to stay on top of the latest climbing techniques.

After recently taking first place at the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Florida Chapter Tree Climbing Competition, Gerrish represented his state at the world championship in Washington D.C. on July 29. The competition consisted of five events: tossing a ball with a line attached over a designated tree branch, belayed speed climbing (ascending a line as fast as possible on a belay system), ascent climbing (installing a line and ascending to ring a bell within 60 seconds), work climbing (completing tasks such as pruning and tossing limbs at five stations in a tree), and aerial rescue (saving a trapped dummy).

“The best part about competing is probably the learning,” he says. “There’s a lot of new technology and advancements in the field and it’s amazing to watch fellow pro arborist competitors from around the world.” For instance, Gerrish is a master at footlocking, a technique that uses a combination of arm and leg strength to ascend into a tree via two parallel ropes. How fast you move depends on the power and agility of your hand and foot grip, and when executed adroitly it can be a faster way to the top. Now, footlocking is largely being replaced by single rope technique (SRT), says Gerrish, which can be less physically strenuous. Climbers take alternating steps (sort of like going up a ladder) to move up a single line. “The community as a whole is challenging each other with these new methods.”

While working keeps Gerrish in good physical shape, he also likes to supplement his routine with rock climbing, yoga, and stretching. “Climbing is physically exhausting, it’s a total body workout,” says Gerrish. As you get older, you realize how important it is to take the time to stretch before and after, he adds. But climbing trees is just as much a mental feat as it is a physical one. “I still get scared,” he says, “although I believe that a fear of heights is healthy. It helps keep you safe.”

In many ways, tree climbing is similar to everyday life. “It’s a dynamic game, a puzzle where you have to make everything fit,” explains Gerrish. While it’s often a solo athletic endeavor, “you learn to be good at communicating in situations where others are on the ground.” At the end of the day, “we’re all one and some people argue trees are smarter than us,” notes Gerrish. “They have more genes; they’ve been here way longer than us. You have to appreciate and respect them just like any other being.”