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Tree climbers face off in Hawthorne Park

Jamie Schlittenhart picks out a particularly tall and robust silver maple from the urban forest known as Hawthorne Park and quickly gets to work.

Channeling his inner Spider-Man, the professional arboriculturist sends up a guide rope, then he quickly and systematically anchors one end of the rope to the tree’s base and attaches himself to the other.

Within moments, he’s using his legs to ascend the rope, almost like he’s riding a unicycle in the air, before he stops 50 feet above the ground.

“It’s called single rope technique, and is the fastest way up a tree,” Schlittenhart says. “It’s the kind of thing we do at work all the time.”

On Saturday, May 12, Schlittenhart will be timed in Medford’s first sanctioned tree-climbing competition to help find the Pacific Northwest’s king of the ropes.

Medford’s Hawthorne Park will host the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture’s Southern Oregon Regional Tree Climbing Competition, a skills competition pitting professional tree-climbers imitating some of the aspects of their day-to-day jobs.

The competition is the centerpiece of the Southern Oregon Urban Forest Carnival, a new, free event that will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at the park. In addition to watching the competition, carnival visitors will be able to test their mettle on crosscut saws, travel down a zipline or up an arbor elevator. Several activities for children also will be available.

“It’ll be more fun, more relaxed,” says Schlittenhart, 28, of Ashland. “It’s my first time ever, so I guess I’m doing it to see how I stack up with the other guys.”

And it’s got quite the spectator component, as well, because up to 30 competitors will be climbing Hawthorne Park trees most of the day May 12 at the park’s southern area between East Main and Jackson streets.

The event is free for spectators, and competitors will ascend and descend six trees in six individual events, says Adam Airoldi, supervisor of the Medford city tree program.

The competition will take place in three silver maples, a catalpa, an oak and a large sequoia.

The top four finishers will qualify for the chapter’s Tree Climbing Championship next fall in Vancouver, B.C.

The events include belayed ascents with ground support, throw lines and aerial rescues, Airoldi says. Others imitate cutting of limbs and dropping them to hit small targets scores of feet below.

Most climbers learn these techniques on the job under the supervision of seasoned climbers or at a handful of schools such as Oregon State University’s Urban Forestry program, Airoldi says.

Schlittenhart grew up in North Dakota, where “there weren’t many trees to climb,” and came to the Rogue Valley four years ago as a landscaper. He got invited to join a veteran arboriculture crew, and that was it.

“To be honest, I didn’t know it was a job swinging around in trees,” he says. “I was hooked. But there’s a learning curve, for sure. You’re trusting your life to those ropes.”

The competition also is a chance to show the world why there are no old, bad tree-climbers.

“The events really mimic and promote safe tree work,” says Tate Dunn, a 30-year-old Sams Valley man in his third competition.

“It kind of gets us back to what inspired us to be tree climbers,” says Tate, who owns Table Rock Tree Care. “Except now we do it with ropes.”

On Tuesday, Schlittenhart picked out a scalable silver maple in Hawthorne Park and got to work. First he attached a bean-bag-like contraption to a thin, uncoiled rope and swung it between his legs. Then he threw it up and over a large branch, and it dropped back to the grass.

That’s called a rope toss, and it’s one of the events in next Saturday’s competition.

He then affixed a climbing device to the rope, put on his climbing harness and ran the rope through guides clamped to his shoes.

This so-called “open ascent” is Dunn’s favorite event. During the competition, the climbers will scale a 120-foot sequoia near the old Hawthorne Park pool.

Climbers will use any of a handful of techniques to attach their work harnesses and shimmy up the tree as quickly and safely as possible, getting timed for how long it takes them to attach their gear, ascend the tree and rappel down.

Some, like Dunn, who is in his third competition, will use a technique and gear similar to Schlittenhart’s. Others will employ the “footlocking” technique by wrapping the rope around their feet and power up like they did in front of their admiring fellow fifth-graders who were more worried about looking bad in intramural sports.

“A lot of these guys would be excellent in gym class,” Dunn says.

Schlittenhart says arboriculturists tend to work in small crews and don’t cross paths very often, so the competition will be a good chance to network with other climbers, and see their techniques and gear.

“I’m such a gear-head,” Schlittenhart laughs. “I can stare at gear on the computer all day.”

But still, this is a competition.

“It’s my first time,” he says. “I guess I’ll just try to be last.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJamie Schlittenhart descends from a silver maple tree Tuesday at Hawthorne Park in Medford.