Foliage Is Not an Option: The City's Tree-Climbing Champion Attempts to Make Good

Tree-climbing is an activity that lends itself more to guidelines than rules: Try not to ascend a tree while intoxicated. Better not to scale a tree while nude. Don't fall.

It turns out, however, there's a right way and a wrong way to climb a tree. And, yes, there are rules. Lots of rules. The three dozen men and women competing this weekend in the North American Tree Climbing Championship are bound by a rule book weighing in at 41 pages.

Printing that one up required felling a tree or two.

Chad Brey, a rugged 38-year-old Mission District dweller, is San Francisco's great arboreal hope for the Pasadena competition. He has tasted success before, obtaining tree-climbing supremacy in the Western United States championships in 2006 and 2007 along with the Minnesota state titles in 2000 and 2003. Rewards for his mastery have included a commemorative champion's belt buckle.

Brey does not wear the belt buckle, he says, as it is unfashionably large.

This weekend's competitors will be matched in five events testing the mettle of arborists (the profession of Brey and all the other participants). These include ascending ropes in a variety of fashions; hurling climbing ropes into trees; and hauling a wounded fellow arborist (actually a mannequin) to safety.

The main event, however, is the grueling “Work Climb.” Starting at a height of perhaps 60 feet, Brey and fellow climbers will methodically progress through five “work stations.” At the first one, he must whip his handsaw out of his scabbard and ring a bell with it. He'll descend to the next station and hurl large sticks toward a target area below and, as at all stations, ring a bell with his handsaw. Next, he'll grab a mounted pole saw measuring perhaps 8 feet long and brandish it with both hands — judges, Brey says, will grade him on his “stance position.” Then he'll drop down one more station and walk along a branch while distributing his weight in such a way the branch does not bend — or a buzzer will sound and demerits ensue.

Finally, he'll swing, Tarzan-like, from the tree and attempt to land with both feet within a one-meter circle. Like an Olympic gymnast, he'll be judged on whether he can “stick the landing.” Unlike an Olympic gymnast, he'll be disqualified if he drops a handsaw onto the judges below.

Those prevailing in this weekend's North American Championship will matriculate to August's International Championship, to be held in that most international location of Milwaukee.

Sadly, SF Weekly is told, oversize belt buckles aren't in fashion there, either.

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