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Arborists Take a Bough

Texas Tree Climbing Championship Master's Challenge
Keith Babberney of Austin finishes his climb in the aerial rescue competition, one of the preliminary events held Saturday to select the top 10 finishers who will compete in today's Master's Challenge for tree specialists. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis.

Published April 25, 2004 By TONI HEINZL


FORT WORTH - It takes a special athlete to climb an 80-foot tree while lugging a chain saw or pruning tools, his safety depending on nothing more than a double rope, a harness and carabiners.

On Saturday, about 30 of the best tree climbers in the state tested their skills at the 29th annual Texas Tree Climbing Championship at Log Cabin Park.

Three-time state champion Nicolas Martinez of Garland smoothly demonstrated the art of aerial rescue.

In aerial rescue -- one of four preliminary events to select the top 10 finishers who will compete in today's Master's Challenge -- competitors had five minutes to bring down a 165-pound dummy strung up about 40 feet high on a towering bur oak.

The event teaches lifesaving skills; the dummy represents a co-worker knocked unconscious or suffering a severe leg injury from a chain saw cut.

Carrying an extra rope in a backpack, Martinez smoothly scaled the rope leading to the dummy, then secured the second rope on a tree limb above, hooked himself to the dummy and gently descended with the "victim."

"I hope I never get into a real-life situation like this," Martinez said. "Every day, before I go to work, I make the sign of the cross and ask God to protect me."

He has worked in trees as high as 95 feet, he said, but trimming limbs near power lines worries him more than falling from great heights.

The risk of electrocution is an occupational hazard he confronts every day.

For the state's tree-care experts -- some prefer the term "arborist," others insist on being called "tree climber" -- the state championships serve as educational seminars and athletic competition.

The climbers test their skills in speed climbing and events that simulate work skills requiring them to move inside and around trees.

It's a fierce but friendly competition. After completing his run, Martinez shouts words of encouragement to a fellow competitor, urging him to relax and ease up as he struggles to keep the dummy balanced in front of him.

The skills the competitors practice and sharpen during the competition may one day save their lives, said arborist Steve Houser, owner of Arborilogical Services of Wylie and a longtime sponsor of the state championships.

"It's an unforgiving business," Houser said. "If you're 80 feet up in a tree and you tie the wrong knot, cut the wrong limb or cut your rope with a chain saw, that's the only chance you have."

Houser, who sports shoulder-long hair and a goatee, said he feels more at home high up in an oak tree than behind a desk in an office. He enjoyed the views of downtown from the top branches of the huge oak trees at Log Cabin Park, he said.

"For our industry, this event is like the Super Bowl," said spectator and tree-care specialist Chris Pierce, who came from Pagosa Springs, Colo.

To prevent injuries in the rain-slick trees, one of the preliminary competitions was eliminated, and the Master's Challenge was postponed until today, said Guy LeBlanc, chairman and head judge of the Texas Tree Climbing Championship.

LeBlanc knows what it takes to win. He is the 1999 state champion and a three-time top-three finisher.

"You've got to be cool under pressure and in very good shape athletically," LeBlanc said.

About the author

Ms. Toni Heinzl

Ms. Heinzl was a Star-Telegram staff writer in 2004.

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