A lot has changed for Barton Allen-Hall since he spent his childhood swinging from Canberra’s tree branches, but he has never grown out of climbing. Now an arborist of more than a decade, he still scales trees almost every day.
This weekend, the three-time Australian Tree Climbing Champion will once again take his love of trees to new heights. He’ll compete against 40 or so fellow climbers this weekend at the 2016 national championships in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
While the sport has been around since the ’70s, Australia didn’t hold its first tree-climbing tournament until 1997. Head judge Tom Greenwood among the competitors then.
“For years, it was just arborists, because tree climbing is part of the trade,” Greenwood says. “But now you have more and more gymnasts and athletes and others joining in.”
After five preliminary rounds on Saturday, including a speed climb and an aerial-rescue event, remaining competitors will battle it out for the title of Australian Tree Climbing Champion in Sunday’s Master’s Challenge.
If you’ve ever thought about getting to know some of Melbourne’s trees more intimately, here are six tips from four former champions to get you started.
For starters, this is no lazy-afternoon romp in the canopy. The world of tree climbing is complex, technical – and dangerous.
“Safety is key,” says Allen-Hall, who has been climbing competitively for almost four years.
Some trees at the championship will be up to 25-metres tall, and cannot be scaled with bare hands alone – however enthusiastic. That's where ropes, harnesses, pulleys, throwlines, even spurs, come into play. Greenwood says technology has now made climbing “better than ever”.
“It’s less about strength these days,” Greenwood says. “I’ve seen kids take to climbing remarkably fast, some girls are particularly fearless.”
Find a mentor
With the championship around the corner, Greenwood suggests watching other climbers in action. “Find someone willing to take you up and teach you,” he says. “You’ll be surprised how much time they give you.”
Earn your “tree legs”
“Tree climbing is damn hard work,” warns former international champion, Kiah Martin. “When I first trained, I didn’t think it was possible to do a lot of what people do, but then I found a comfortable position for me and it was like a light-bulb moment – I suddenly felt at home in the canopy.”
Read your tree
Born in the UK, arborist Joe Harris says there’s a lot to love about the “beautiful elms of Melbourne” but every tree is different. It’s best to know what you’re in for. Some trees, such as the “trustworthy” oak, will serve you well. Others can be snappy, slippery or worse – like the lemon-scented gum – prone to releasing resin.
“It can be sticky work,” Harris admits. “But really, every healthy tree can be climbed.”
Warnings signs to watch out for include a “strange swelling on the trunk”, cracks and termite or ant activity. Beehives are generally a no-go in any area of life.
Consider the physics
“It’s not rocket science, but it is basic geometry,” Greenwood says. “You have to think about the physics of it, especially with your rope angles.”
That means keeping a rope above your head rather than out to the side, where your weight will be put on the tree instead of your harness. "Leaving you to fall into one big, dangerous swing,” Greenwood says.
Keep your cool
Of course, come Saturday, Allen-Hall will have one tip foremost in his mind.
“The best advice I’ve ever had is to enjoy yourself,” he says. “A lot of it is mindset; it helps not to take it too seriously. It’s still tree climbing!”
The Australian Tree Climbing Championship is free to watch in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens from Saturday February 20–21. The Saturday event will run from 8.30am until around 3.30pm. The Sunday event will run from 10am until around 2pm. There will be a free Kids Climb all day on Saturday and Sunday.