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Up in the trees
Climbing contest brings competitors from across the US
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Feliciano Garcia pulls himself up a rope Saturday while competing in the secured foot lock portion of the 16th annual Georgia Arborist Association Tree Climbing Championship at the Martha Hope Cabin in Gainesville. In addition to the foot lock he and more than 20 competitors were also challenged by the work climb, throw line, speed climb and aerial rescue. - photo by Tom Reed

With caution tape, men perched in trees and hordes of bystanders eagerly watching, the lawn outside the Martha Hope Cabin looked something like a rescue operation Saturday morning.

But rather than an accident scene, a spirited competition was happening amid the trees at the Gainesville park.

For the 16th annual Georgia Arborist Association Tree Climbing Championship, 24 competitive tree climbers from Hawaii to Kentucky began ascending trees around 8 a.m. in five different events, competing in areas from pure speed to technical skill.

Odis Sisle, co-chairman of the event and a Gainesville resident, is a past winner who has competed in the international competition in Sydney, Australia.

“The competition is great and all, but it’s really about catching up with people we don’t often get to see. It’s a social gathering for people in the arborist community,” Sisle said.

The lone competitor and de-facto winner on the women’s side was 27-year-old Josie Spagnolo, who has also traveled nationally and internationally as a professional tree climber.

“I’ve been climbing for 15 years, and competing in this for five,” she said, expressing relief to be done with four of five events.

By the afternoon, the competition would be whittled down to 2 to 3 finalists, who then compete in the “master challenge,” event chairman Neil Norton said. That winner goes on to the Southeast regional competition in Memphis, Tenn.

Sisle was one of the key players in bringing the competition to Gainesville this year and last, Norton said. For the city, it’s an opportunity to get the word out about tree preservation, Sisle said.

“Actually, one of the reasons we choose Gainesville was to spread local awareness about proper horticulture,” he said, noting some of the destructive arbor techniques and needless tree removals that go on.

Norton emphasized that the trees climbed in the event were not harmed. In fact, arborists left the trees in better shape than before.

“We were here all yesterday pruning the trees, getting them ready for competition. So it’s actually a nice thing for the city, they get some free arborist work done,” Norton said. “We don’t use spikes, or any type of equipment that can harm the trees.”

In addition to the working pros, Tree Climbers International Inc., set up harnesses and saddles to hoist people into the canopy for fun, family climbing.