Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Climbing competitions: so many reasons to have a go!

Author:  Paul McBride
Last Updated:  03/08/2023

Paul McBride

’Wait, what?! First place? You’re kidding me! I won’t believe it till I see the results officially posted.’

Paul McBride receiving his ARB Show Open Tree Climbing Competition winner’s prize from Mark Hemming, Association Technical Officer.

Paul McBride receiving his ARB Show Open Tree Climbing Competition winner’s prize from Mark Hemming, Association Technical Officer.

This was my reaction to hearing that I had done much better than I expected after entering the ARB Show Open Tree Climbing Competition in the expert class for the first time since I started as a climber in the industry in 1997.

So why does an ageing climbing arborist choose to enter the arena? Well, it’s definitely not because I think I’m the best climber around or, as Jonathan Quick would say, ‘the fastest climber in the northern hemisphere’. Quite simply, I wanted to learn how to be a better climber.

Like many, I suspect, I have been trying to figure out which two climbing systems seem to work best in any given tree for the type of work I’m doing. After watching the likes of Terry Banyard and Ben Rose demonstrating stationary rope techniques (SRTs) and after spending two days with John Trenchard at ArborVenture, a new 3D map of tree route planning emerged in my brain: ‘Oh, I can easily get there if I do this. So much less effort/time than my old way.’

In my view it isn’t possible to teach all of the pros and cons of each knot or piece of equipment, redirect and technique in one go. You are given basics in standard training, and then it might depend on how keen you are to learn more and who you have around you to show the more advanced stuff. There are a few people I follow on Instagram and Facebook groups who provide good hints and tips. You do need to be careful, though, as there is a lot of not-UK-compliant content out there. The next step is to meet up with likeminded people in your area for recreational climbing.

I have had the good fortune to meet the volunteer crews at different tree climbing events and witnessed their expertise and passion as they plan and put these events together to help share this learning. They are some of the best people you could ever meet, with incredible knowledge and skills. Without them these events can’t happen. I’m grateful to spend time with them.

I also have to thank the ARB Show climbing competition’s main sponsor, Harkie, for its support and all the other sponsors who have provided goodie bags and prizes as well as donations of equipment for this year and all the preceding ones. The Association’s team does a great job too, marketing, promoting, hosting and displaying the results.

Perhaps it would be of some interest to compare the times of the winning premier climbers from pre-Technical Guide times and now. Whilst the tree set-ups and competitors may have varied and we only have two years of two fall protection systems in play to go on, I suspect there is little or no discernible difference in the time taken.

Time is money, they say, so if you can be more efficient in your climbing technique, equipment usage and purchasing decisions, you become a greater asset to your employer, or your employees provide commercial advantage to you. Simply put, if you can prune or dismantle more trees per day than another climber, you will be worth more, of course with the proviso you do so safely and compliantly, no one gets hurt, nothing gets broken and the work quality is good – or is at least as specified. It often helps if you have a sense of humour and smile too!

Which brings me back to a point I’d like to make about climbing career longevity. Alex Laver has done some great work on muscle and joint loading in arborists’ bodies and what I take from that is not all techniques thought to be more efficient are kind on the body.

As a climber who stubbornly refused to switch over to mechanical friction devices for way too long, I theorise that whilst friction-saving reduces the effort required to pull down on a moving rope system, the holding effort before tending slack and sitting back increases, and as rope diameters have decreased a little from 13 mm to 11 mm, this adds up to more strain on grip-strength muscles and tendons. It appears to me that younger climbers are developing muscular skeletal disorders earlier. Although this could be influenced by ‘production arboriculture’ – get more done for less – some part must be played by technique, equipment, system set-up and compound efficiency, or how much up/movement I get for my physical effort. Whilst I haven’t personally tried to hand tie friction cord of a given diameter/brand to find the perfect length eye-to-eye for a given rope diameter/brand for a given friction knot of so many wraps or plaits so that it grips just the right amount, releases consistently and has minimal sit back, I do know people who have. They tend to be really good climbers and I value their opinions.

If you’re reading this thinking ‘I literally have no idea what you’re talking about’, then great: come meet the volunteers and other competitors. If you’re reading this thinking ‘Yes, I know all about that stuff’, then great: volunteer and meet likeminded people and help the competitors.

I like what Ben Batt quoted to me this year: ‘Competition climbing is 30% skills, 20% knowledge and 50% luck.’ I feel lucky this year. I could definitely grow my skills and knowledge for next time! How about you? Do you feel lucky, punk?

This article was taken from Issue 202 Autumn 2023 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.