Up in the Air: Tree Climbing for Grown-Ups
If we all lived in treehouses, Mark Chisholm would be a household name.
The 40-year-old is, after all, the current world champion tree climber and will be defending his title this July in Australia at the International Tree Climbing Championship, where participants from around the world meet to try and out-ascend each other in the fastest time.
It sounds like something out of the Planet of the Apes prequel, but what Chisholm does isn't quite as unusual as you might think. There are enough people like Chisholm out there that gear companies such as New Tribe and SherrillTree and Climbing Supply cater to climbers. Meanwhile, Tree Climbers International, which bills itself as the world's first recreational tree climbing organization and school, has been around since 1983. "It's hard to know how far it's spread," says executive director Patty Jenkins, "but we've trained people from around the world." And it's a big enough sport that for the last 10 years, Chisholm has even had a sponsor, Stihl Inc., famous for its chainsaws.
Chisholm runs the Aspen Tree Expert Company, a third-generation family business in Jackson, N.J., with his parents, Steve and Laura, and older brother, Steve, Jr. "He is very highly respected in the tree care community and sets an excellent example for others," says Anita Gambill, a spokeswoman at Stihl Inc.
Indeed he is. Chisholm, who has held workshops around the world on his chosen sport, is an instructor for Rutgers University's Office of Continuing Professional Education, teaching a two-day Large Tree Climbing and Rigging course. Chisholm also helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture scout trees for the non-native, invasive Asian long-horned beetle and once shaped some pear trees accompanied by an armed U.S. government agent who needed to get a better view from a hidden camera for a covert operation.
So you might think that in his spare time, Chisholm, married and a father of three, might take up bowling. But no -- he climbs trees, both for pleasure and to train for tree climbing events. Not only does he consistently win the New Jersey State Tree Climbing Competitions, but he has also competed in the world championships 20 years in a row. This summer will be his 21st.
Before that, he was often going out on a limb. "Growing up, I climbed trees," Chisholm says, "but back then, it wasn't in the safest manner. No climbing gear or any of that jazz."
Now, Chisholm uses heavy-duty apparatus such as harnesses and ascenders. Think mountain climbing equipment, only with trees. "When you start putting on the gear, it changes a bit, and tree climbing becomes a little bit professional and not just about climbing," he says.
While arborists like Chisholm have a risky profession -- earlier this month, a Florida tree trimmer was electrocuted removing a palm frond from a power line -- the equipment reduces the risk of falling considerably.
"It's the safest way to go," Jenkins says. "For the recreational climber, gear makes climbing a tree safer than crossing the street."
It is also an accessible activity. You don't have to be a world champion climber to climb trees. "We've trained people in post-prostate cancer treatment to climb trees, and we have a friend up in New York who was climbing every day into his 80s. He was 84 when he quit," Jenkins says. "You don't have to be in perfect condition to climb trees, and it doesn't require a lot of strength. Your weight has to be somewhat in proportion to your height; if you're overweight, you will have some trouble pulling yourself up. But mostly, you just need to be able to push yourself up with your legs."
Chisholm has scaled trees as tall as approximately 330 feet, which is about one-third the height of the Eiffel Tower or the equivalent of a 30-story building. The average height of one of the trees in the international events -- which includes contests like the European Tree Climbing Championship and the Asia-Pacific Tree Climbing Competition -- is about 100 feet.
"People from around the world come to the world competition," Chisholm explains, "and in many countries, the trees don't go over 60 feet."
In other words, the tree climbing competitions strive to be a level playing field for everyone, although Jenkins describes Chisholm as one-of-a-kind. "He is a wizard. I think that's the only way to put it. He's like a magician. Watching Mark climb a tree is like watching a perfect athlete run for a gold medal."
Chisholm isn't certain how much longer he will remain a contender, though he's already eyeing the world championship in Portland, Ore., in 2012.
"I take it year by year," says Chisholm, who does both cardiovascular and weight training in preparation for his competitions.
"It's an interesting way to get outside and to do something we all enjoyed as a kid," he says. "This just takes it to another level."
SecondAct contributor Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist based in Loveland, Ohio, and the author of several books, including C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.