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High in the saddle

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Scores of arborists from all over the Northwest Saturday rallied their considerable tree-climbing skills in Lithia Park to rescue “Barbara,” a 165-pound dummy stuck high in a tree, learn new aerial skills and, as climbing champion Robert Bundy of Portland put it, “live a life that’s the closest thing to Batman I can think of.”

In the ascent event, Bundy seemed to run 64 feet up a rope to the top of the tree next to Perozzi Fountain. It took just over 20 seconds on a “rope walker,” landing him at the top of the event for the day and winning applause and jaw-drops from the crowd on the ground.

This was the second annual Southern Oregon Regional Climbing Competition of the Pacific Northwest International Society of Arboriculture — and Bundy won top honors at the first one, held last year in Medford. His feat is significant because it’s a condensed form of several types of rescues and, he jokes, you have to love this job where you feel like Batman, swinging from limb to limb with lots of gadgets on your belt and helping people.

Cole Zollinger, an arborist for Canopy, the Care of Trees in Talent, scored well on the Work Climb, which had him swinging to all parts of a tree by the Butler Bandshell, tapping bells, tossing batons on a ground target, limb-walking and simulating many small but demanding tasks with strict safety rules and a tight time limit.

He got his degree in communications with a minor in philosophy at Southern Oregon University but chanced into tree work, finding it attracted him because “you’re outside all day, the people are awesome and you keep fit and tanned.”

However, there are a lot of ways you can die, he says, so the safety rules are “super strict” and arborists attend lots of meetings to go over them.

His Canopy co-worker, Dalton Olson of Jacksonville, rescued “Barbara” in good time, finding the challenge a big adrenalin rush as he performed in front of peers while trying to balance the need for speed with safety, which involved checking out the tree for wires and dead, chancy branches while making sure emergency personnel were on the way.

Olson loves the work, too, and grew into it from working in trail conservation, with a fire crew and in “anything with a chain saw.”

Bundy notes that such events are especially attractive to tree workers in remote areas as a time for fun camaraderie and fixing that situation where “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The competition is an opportunity for competitors to earn continuing education credit toward certification by the International Society of Arboriculture — and it offers $1,750 in cash awards to the top three finishers. The final five must include two women. It attracted 31 competitors from as far away as Canada, Michigan and University of California, Davis, with a third of the competitors from Southern Oregon.

Helping supervise, Ashland park technician Spencer Godard says the event “is exhilarating and reminds me of the best part of childhood.”

What makes a good arborist, says Ashland Parks Superintendent Mike Oxendine, is love of nature, love of working outside, ability to do tough tasks, such as storm cleanup and powerline repair, a logical, methodical mindset, ability to deal with complex gear and, of course, no fear of heights.

“This is the best stage for people to better themselves,” says Oxendine, “where experienced people help the less experienced advance in the field and everyone gets to enjoy the spirit of camaraderie amid competition.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings{ } Matt Ball of Grants Pass moves tree to tree during a climbing competition in Lithia Park Saturday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings{ } Issac Schumacher of Albany descends a tree to rescue a fake distressed climber in a tree Saturday morning in Lithia Park.