Where does a great tree climber get her start?
Krista Strating was attending a wedding. But even in an atmosphere of taffeta-tinged romance, she couldn't hide her competitive streak and a long, lean body that was built for scaling pines and oaks.
She had trained for a career in horticulture, but quickly found herself underwhelmed by the routines of the landscaping life. Maybe she was looking a little distracted because an arborist who was alongside her in the wedding party took one glance and pronounced the fateful words: "You should be climbing."
The next week she was up a tree and in her element. The 30-year-old from Hamilton has been scaling the heights ever since: This weekend she is competing at the International Tree Climbing Championships in Milwaukee, Wis., as the reigning North American women's champion – the fifth time she has gone up (and up) against the world's best female climbers.
"Only a handful of people catch on and pick it up right away," Ms. Strating says with professional expertise – she teaches a climbing class at Humber College in Toronto when she's not handling tree-care for the city of Mississauga.
"I was one of those people. I didn't have a lot of fear. I was working with some of the best guys out there so I had to constantly keep up with them, and I was very much, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"
Newcomers to the world of competitive tree-climbing imagine that it's all about speed, a vertical sprint with a few branches in the way. But with its ropes and harnesses and technical approach to procedure, the sport is much closer to rock-climbing or caving, where cerebral steadiness and a sense of self-preservation are paramount for anyone interested in long-term success. "We try to teach climb smarter, not harder," says Ms. Strating. "There's a macho attitude: I'm going to push through this and do it faster. But if you're climbing like that, you're going to ruin your body. The guy beside you who climbs smart is going to outlast you."
This weekend's championships, which are organized by the International Society of Arboriculture, aim to test a broad range of climbing and tree-handling skills – an accelerated version of the talents you might see displayed by the fearless high-level pruners who keep backyard maples from becoming an ice-storm liability.
"Time is an issue," says Ms. Strating. "But the judges also mark you on how smooth you are, how safe you are, how you move in the tree. So if you're focused on how fast you are, it could hurt you. But that's where the adrenalin kicks in, when the crowd starts cheering and you seem to get faster.
"Typically on the job, we have a homeowner watching and they're not expecting you to do it really quickly. With the crowd, it's a totally different mindset."
There are five events in the competition: aerial rescue, work climb, secured footlock, belayed speed climb and throwline. In aerial rescue, the contestant has to reach and move a dummy from a 7.5-metre height while the clock ticks, and is marked on everything from her risk assessment and rescue plan to casualty handling and landing.
Work climb, Ms. Strating's favourite element, is a timed event in which she moves down and around a tree while performing a set number of tasks such as walking out and back along a limb or tossing a branch at a target on the ground – and then ringing a bell with her chainsaw when each task is completed.
"It's fun and fast, lots of swings and lowerings," she says.
After that come two different forms of speed climb, the 15-metre secured-footlock event, and the 18-metre belayed speed climb, before the competition finishes with the throwline – which demonstrates how climbing lines are installed and requires contestants to sling a thin rope weighted with a sandbag into marked branch unions high up the tree. As a veteran baseball and basketball player, Ms. Strating prides herself on her sense of touch with the line's release point and her strength at reaching the highest targets.
She hopes to see more women enter the world of tree-climbing, though she acknowledges that in her class of 80 students, she's never had more than six women. "It's like any trade. It's coming along and things are being made more accessible through schooling. But I think women may be intimidated by the equipment and the physical demands and the heights."
She took to her family's backyard trees as a child and never felt bothered by being far above the ground.
"I actually don't think about it too much," she says. "Once you're in the canopy, especially when there are leaves on the branches, you're just focused on what you're doing and sometimes you don't even see the ground.
"But it all starts with planning: If you're not sure down on the ground, wait till you get way up there. Because you're sure going to be questioning it then."