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Tree climbers rise to challenge

In this article from the Centre Daily Times, Chris Miller, district manager of Davey's King of Prussia office, talks about why he continues to be involved in this event and his role as event chairman and lead judge.

Posted: Oct. 25, 2015

By Chris Rosenblum 

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.”

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