Arborists are people who work in the tree business, either as experts to give an accurate diagnosis on your tree's health; provide advice on what species should be grown according to the place you live in; climb and prune your favorite mahogany or even remove a Christmas tree which has become too big for your yard. There exist of course many professional organizations around arboriculture, either at international level such as ISA (International Society of Arboriculture), national as SFA (Société Française d'Arboriculture) and local such as the CAOI (Indian Ocean Arboriculture Committee) for which I was elected secretary. All of them have been organizing meetings for ages but the CAOI has only been created one year ago so the local meeting was a newborn baby for us!

Image Checking the tree before climbing
At last up the tree!

Such meetings are set up in order to allow professionals to meet and share knowledge on the job, gain contacts with companies who produce and sell tools of the trade, learn about the latest news on safety, legislation and new laws, have fun and compete! Two members of our local committee went to France during the spring of 2012 to participate in a regional meeting, make contacts with the national organizers and we started working on the event as soon as they came back. A delegation was formed to come help us sett this first event comprising the National Technical Head (Mathieu Gauthier), France champion climber Laurent Pierron plus Sebastien Beni (head of Hévéa, a company specializing in arborist gear) and Stéphane Rat, an old-timer and organizer. Thosefolks not only provided the necessary data and knowledge but also came with over 200 kilos of gear which was offered to the committee and used for the challenge.

Very attentive juries
On the way up the coconut tree

Of course what brings non-specialists to such events is not the latest fashion in chainsaw safety pants, most effective spurs or the coolest karabiner but climbing competitions which is what we will scrutinize here. Although surprising for non-climbers, the first official ISA competition was held in 1976 in St. Louis, Missouri and grew year after year until reaching the international size it now has. The very first events date back from the 1970s when a Californian arborist wanted to improve the skills of climbers equipped with a simple rope to save a life in an aerial rescue. Nowadays things are very organized and regulated with the very same array of events and notation scales from regional to international tournaments. They are based on the everyday duties of arborist climbers, so there are five required events; shot pouch throwing (the throw weights we use to set up a climbing line on the required branch), rapid climbing (using only natural holds), fast foot-lock (getting up a 15m/45feet rope), aerial rescue (simulating an injured worker to be brought safely back down) and moving in the tree (a prepared route has to be followed and bells to be struck in order to testify the points are reached). An extra event was added in which the result is not added to the final score; it is a local specificity and we choose bare-hand coconut climbing of course...A large Ficus tree was also liberally fitted out with climbing ropes for the sole amusement of kids under the strict supervision of Kevin, the committee's recreational climbing specialist. Those events are held on a Saturday and only a handful of climbers are selected for the Sunday ‘Mystery Tree' challenge which will ultimately determine who the winner is! All activities are held in natural settings, usually parks, large gardens, forests, provided public can access, facilities are available and emergency folks can come easily in case of need. The ‘Jardin de l'Etat' was the obvious choice for us as it is large enough, set in the center of the main city of Reunion (Saint-Denis) and hosts many large and unique trees as it is an historical garden where many exotic species have been grown. The organization required is quite impressive as many official authorizations are needed, security has to be tight and enforced as ropes and all necessary climbing paraphernalia will stay in the trees all weekend, juries for the various events have to be trained, correct trees selected, all the gear used by competitors has to be carefully inspected and approved or rejected if not corresponding to strict standards.

Image On the way down the coconut tree
Choose your shoes...

So after many meetings, discussions, worries and many questions it was D-day! As you can see on the poster the event was held on May 10, 11 and 12, from dawn to sunset. Twelve climbers started warming up on Saturday morning and where soon dispatched through the various events taking place in different trees. All went well with sweat, laughs, shouts of victory and frowns of defeat, depending on the events and time of the day. The coconut tree climbing gave a hard time to climbers from France who are not accustomed to such practice...I personally acted as member of the jury for the moving event and had to scrutinize the competitors and note them on various skills; fastness, fluidity, security, logic in the route from one target to the other, good management of the rope, respect for the tree (no branch nor twig should be broken!) technical improvement and general style. As a professional it was highly interesting to see different people performing the same task and see the way each would do it. At the end of the day all juries met together and went through adding and subtracting, discussing, comparing, arguing and eventually sorted out who would compete the next day...

Image Aerial rescue Not an easy task!

Then it was Sunday and we had five finalists for the Mystery Tree which would take place in a large Kigelia pinnata (known as ‘sausage tree'). This event comprises most duties of an arborist; checking the tree to make sure it is safe, setting up his rope by throwing weight bag, reaching defined spots and hitting metal bells with his handsaw or a pole (representing a telescopic saw) throwing weights from the tree like if it where wood chunks then coming down and packing all the gear. Chronometers start as soon as the climber steps in and stops once his stuff is correctly cleared. And the winner is...Mathieu Noël, friend and colleague who will go together with second and third guys on the podium in continental France for the national challenge and in case they make it will follow on to European competition held in Switzerland in September and then international arborists competition!



Weight bag throwing
And the winner is...

Now that the show is over I will require some volunteers to uninstall all the ropes, friction savers, straps, belaying system, bells, poles and all that is still hanging in the trees before we get some well-earned rest and start working on 2014's challenge!

Last but not least, I have to heartfully thank Laurent Pierron for the photos, all the ones used here were shot by him and courteously offered for the article!