Rip Tompkins climbs in a cottonwood tree at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee before the start of the International Tree Climbing Championship.

Rip Tompkins climbs in a cottonwood tree at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee before the start of the International Tree Climbing Championship.

International Tree Climbing Championship comes to Milwaukee

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Rip Tompkins could give Tarzan a run — er, climb, swing? — for his money.

Tompkins has been climbing trees for almost three decades as a professional arborist. But this isn’t your average backyard tree climbing. The physically demanding job sends him up trees more than 100 feet in the air, climbing and balancing using ropes and harnesses.

Tompkins runs an arbor training and consulting company in Rhode Island, but also works as an instructor and on the rules committee with the International Society of Arboriculture's International Tree Climbing Championship, an annual event that got its start in 1976 and will take place Aug. 2-3 this year at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee.  

“We look for locations that fit the profile which is of course nice trees for the competition, healthy trees, good canopy and open space for other activities that we have,” said Sonia Garth, public relations manager for the ISA. “And we were actually here in 2001 in Milwaukee, and Mount Mary was the location of the competition in 2001, so we were very excited to be able to come back.”

Fifty-eight participants — men and women — will compete in five events that test their ability to safely and quickly maneuver in a tree while performing work-related tree-care tasks. Those with the best combined scores move on to the Masters’ Challenge, a single event where they’re scored on technique and skill. The top female and male finishers in that round are crowned world champions.

And although the competitors are climbing for cash prizes and bragging rights, the mood at the competition is genial.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” Garth said. “It’s actually kind of neat how everyone gets along.”

Tompkins said he now has friends all over the world from being involved in the organization and competition.

Plus, he noted, the competitions have helped improve safety and develop new techniques for arborists to use in the field.

Tompkins took home the World Champion title in 1996 but is quick to shun the spotlight.

"I was fortunate enough to win the international championship in 1996. Knowing that a good thing had happened to me, I wanted to get involved and give back," he said.

I felt fortunate for his knowledge and prowess, too, as he showed me the ropes — literally — Friday morning before the competition began.
   
"It helps being in pretty good shape because it's very physical work,” Tompkins said. “Most of the competitors, if you stand around and look at them, most of them are lean.”

I looked down at my arms. Lean would be one adjective. Weak, feeble, scrawny might be more accurate.

Tompkins helped me into a harness, which he hooked up to two lines dangling from a tree limb 60 feet above me. Onto my foot he strapped a pantin, a small device that helps a climber grip the rope. Then it was time to climb.

Surprisingly (and thankfully), my feet and legs did most of the work, pushing me up the rope with my feeble arms doing their best to not get in the way. The technique is fairly straightforward, but the ascent was physically challenging. One climb was enough to get my heartrate going and the sweat flowing. A slow descent and I was happily back on the ground, already tired and wondering how the professionals do it more than once, much less all day.

I think I’ll stick to my backyard tree climbing and leave the Tarzan-like maneuvers to the professionals.

If you go: Spectators are welcome at the competitions, which begin Saturday at 8:15 a.m. at the northeast corner of Mount Mary University, off 92nd St. The Masters’ Challenge will be held Sunday at 8 a.m.

Saturday the ISA will also host an Arbor Fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The fair includes tree-planting demonstrations, a chance to ask an arborist questions, an appearance by Bernie Brewer, bluegrass music from the Apple Jam Dulcimer Band, and a chance for kids to suit up and climb a rope like the pros.

All events are free and open to the public.

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