Virginia Tree Climbers Compete Against World's Best

Apr 8, 2016

James Earhart scaling a tree
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

You may not know it but climbing trees is a competitive sport among certified arborists and three of Virginia's top professional tree climbers headed to Texas this past weekend to the International Tree Climbing Championship- one defending his title as world champion.

Like most kids, James Earhart began climbing trees when he was about five. But by the time he was 13 he was climbing 50 and 60 foot trees. He rigged his father's old rappelling gear and a dog leash to make the climbs. The neighbors paid attention.

Earhart says, “I just turned 15 and the folks where I went to church, one of the ladies walked up to me on Sunday morning and said, ‘Hey, here's a newspaper clipping about a tree-climbing championship that's going to be held at Mary Washington College.’ And I'm like, ‘wow, this is kinda cool, a tree-climbing competition.’” When he was old enough he began working as a certified arborist and competing in the International Tree Climbing Championship.

Over the years he missed a couple of competitions to attend the birth of his two daughters. He says, “I wasn't going to miss that. It was a little hard but I'll take the birth of my kids of course.”

Flash forward 16 years and Earhart is about to take off for San Antonio, Texas where he'll compete against the world's best tree climbers to defend his champion title won last year.

Earhart asked to meet down by the Rappahannock River in Tappahannock under a 60 foot sycamore tree. He begins rigging the tree with a mini version of a competition tree. There are lines with bells hanging from high branches where he will climb out and ring the bell with a toothless competition saw hitched onto his climbing harness. Earhart says, “Right now I'm tying my friction hitch. It's a self-belaying knot that is used with cord that has a very high heat tolerance. So the orange climbing rope will be sliding through the friction hitch and when you release the knot it will tighten up like a Chinese finger lock.”

He walks around the tree checking for dead branches and other weak spots before setting a timer and beginning his ascent. There are tiny dead branches that fall to the ground and sycamore seed pods that explode in his face. And it's windy, very windy. But he's unfazed. “The worst thing you can do is get yourself worked up, you know, forget about it, mental detachment. You don't worry about it,” says Earhart.

Drew Dunavant and Jocelyn Lohse, both from Richmond, represented the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, which hosts the championship. It was Dunavant's first time and Lohse's seventh. While there are 20 American men competing and 44 worldwide, Lohse is one of only six American women and 21 worldwide. She says there's not that many women in tree work. Lohse says, “We're trying to encourage more women to get into competing and get into tree work and climbing. We just haven't quite gotten there yet.”  

Men and women from 18 countries competed on Saturday in five events. Earhart placed first in aerial rescue but didn't do as well in the other four categories so he didn't make it to the finals. New Zealander James Kilpatrick is the new world champion. Lohse placed fourth overall but another New Zealander, Chrissy Spence took the title. If you'd like to see a competition, the next regional event is April 16, at Wildwood Park in Mount Airy, Maryland.