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Tree-climbing competition ropes in a wide variety of contenders

POSTED: February 25, 2012 11:00 p.m.

Tree climbing championships

Competitors take on the trees at Martha Hope Cabin in Gainesville for the Georgia Tree Climbing Championships.

TOM REED | The Times/

Matt Pregon works his way around tree branches Saturday while competing in the Work Climb competition at the Georgia Arborist Association Tree Climbing Championship at the Martha Hope Cabin in Gainesville.

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The world of competitive tree climbing is more involved than one may think.

The Georgia Arborist Association held its 15th annual Tree Climbing Competition at the Martha Hope Cabin in Gainesville, where hundreds of climbers prepared to tackle the challenges of aerial rescues, speed climbs and more, all with the goal of moving on to the next level of competition.

Georgia Arborist Association President Phillip Kelley has been climbing for 18 years. Kelley is not only a climber, but a judge for the international level of the sport.

The Gainesville event was an entry level meet for competitions at the Southern competition, including six states, then the international level, he said.

"The main thing we want to promote through all of this is safety and education. There are a lot of regulations involved in the sport," Kelley said.

Climbers compete in five categories: aerial rescue, delayed speed climb, work climb, secured footlock and throwline.

Though all categories of the competition reflect actual working environments, it's the aerial rescue that matters most. A dummy is suspended in the tree, simulating an injured climber in need of rescue. Tree climbers must talk to the dummy and the waiting judges while scaling the tree and attempting to secure the victim in less than five minutes.

Rebecca Bishop and Josie Spagnolo were the only female competitors at this year's challenge. Bishop said she first got involved in tree climbing through a college-hosted event for horticulture students.

"It was a national competition between all the colleges of horticulture and agriculture. I've been climbing professional for less than a year," she said.

The Georgia Tree Climbing Competition was Bishop's first professional event.

"You have to at least attempt all the events. They score you based on your time and points," Bishop said. "The scoring for each event is different. The men compete against each other and Josie and I will be competing. Josie and I will be in the master's challenge along with five of the guys."

The master's challenge consists of the five events in one set, with each completed one after the other without stopping.

"You have to set the rope, do work station; it's basically all the events combined," Bishop said.

The competition was Spagnolo's fifth in her professional career. She has been climbing for four years and works with the Limbwalkers of Louisville, Ky.

"I've gone to three of the Kentucky (events), and just recently been to Tennessee. I have made it to master climbs, but I've gotten disqualified from two master trees," said Spagnolo.

Despite a few set backs, Spagnolo is eager to continue competing.

"It's a lot of fun for me. There's a little bit of pressure," she said. "The guys are always trying to get women involved, so they want me to do well, not just amongst the women, but also amongst the guys, too. They've been very supportive."

What most surprised Spagnolo is lack of female climbers.

"This last bout in Kentucky was the first time I've seen two other girls," she said. "Today's competition is only the second event there's been another girl at."

Spagnolo offered words of encouragement for any woman who wants to join the sport.

"You just have to get with well-educated people. Don't try to train yourself. You just have to get
out there."



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