Sam Schunk, a trimmer from Davey’s Elmsford, New York, office, and Libby Bower, a trimmer from Davey’s Lake Bluff, Illinois, office talk about their experiences climbing for competitions and their careers.
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists' favorite trees, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer. This week, I'm joined by Sam Schunk, who's a trimmer climber for the Davey Tree Expert Company in Elmsford, New York. Sam, tell me all about this. Competitive climbing, what does that mean?
Sam Schunk: Competitive climbing is tree climbing competitions and championships. They happen at regional, local, and international levels. This year, I've been able to compete at all of the levels, which is quite exciting.
Doug: What are they judging you for? What are the different events and such?
Sam: There's five main events at each competition. They're an aerial rescue, where we practice rescuing a injured climber. There's a work climb, which would mimic things that a climber might do on a job site in a tree. There's a speed climb, where you climb up a tree, where your blade's similar to as if you were rock climbing, where the goal is to get up the tree as fast as possible. There's a speed ascent, where there's a rope hanging about 60 feet long, where you climb up the rope as fast as you can. Then the final one is a throw line competition, which is how we install our climbing lines, where you try to set your line in five minutes. There's targets labeled at different scores, and you try and get the highest score.
Doug: Sounds absolutely exhausting.
Sam: It is intense.
Doug: Why you? How did you get into it?
Sam: I've been climbing now for nine years, and in high school is where I started doing this at a tech program. There was a climbing competition that we would compete in every year against other tech schools. Since then, I went to work for Davey, and some of the guys I worked with also went through the same program and continued to encourage me to go to the New York State Tree Climbing Competition, which I took second place in this year.
Doug: Wow. Any nerves when you get to these different competitions, especially as you go up the ladder, so to speak, pun intended?
Sam: Yes. Definitely some nerves at each competition. I've been able to identify some of the better climbers from years past of competing, and look to try and do as well as they have. It's a great thing to go to these competitions. There's a lot of opportunities to learn from others. which is an exciting part of being there.
Doug: When you do compete like this, is it over a series of days, or is it all done in one day?
Sam: The local competitions are typically done in one day. The regional ones and international ones are done over a span of three to four days, based on the amount of competitors.
Doug: What was your best competition?
Sam: New York was definitely the one I did the best in this year. I definitely had a lot of fun at all of them.
Doug: Are you a competitive person?
Sam: I'm relatively competitive. One of the cool things about the competition is, even though everyone's competing against each other, we're all there to support and teach and help each other do better. Everybody gives the little bits of tips and tricks along the way that they've discovered in the event to help them do better. No one's there just for themselves.
Doug: That's pretty nice, because I thought of it as maybe a little bit cutthroat and separate, being alone, and I'm going to beat him, and I'm going to get to the top of that tree first. That's nice to hear. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with some of the other competitors.
Sam: I've made friends with some of the competitors from some of the other chapters and competing over the years. It's really nice to see them every time we go to the competition. It's a friendly face that you know, somebody that you're rooting for, that's rooting for you. Then when you go to some of the bigger ones like North Americans and internationals, you have friends that you've met and people that you know that you don't get to see from all the time. It helps you want to do better in the competitions, because you want to go to see these people again, because they're also going to be there.
Doug: Tell me about some of the places you traveled to compete.
Sam: This year, I competed in Long Island for the New York Championship. I competed in Stratford for the Connecticut Competition. Framingham for the New England Championship. Minnesota for the North American Tree Climbing Championship. Copenhagen, Denmark for the International Tree Climbing Championship.
Doug: Oh, that sounds absolutely awful, have to go to Denmark, boy.
Sam: Yes, it's definitely a tough one.
Doug: Is your job the training? Or do you also have to do separate training to compete?
Sam: The job does offer a lot of training. It definitely helps you get better with the climbing, but there is also a level that tree climbing competitions are a game, too. Learning the score sheets and learning to play within time isn't necessarily the same thing that we're working with at work. Some of the events, I could complete that event no problem on a job site, but there's much more time than a five-minute time limit to get it done.
Doug: When you're actually at work, do you get anybody razzing you if you don't. When we got to throw the rope up so that you can get the rope back up there, what is that called again?
Sam: That's a throw line.
Doug: Let's say that you're at work and you throw it up there and you miss, do you hear about it?
Sam: Oh, all the time.
Sam: Oh, my God. It used to be Mr. Tree Climbing Champion, now it's Mr. Internationals, they say in my office to me sometimes now.
Doug: That's awesome.
Sam: I didn't win internationals, but I did get to go to it. That was a great experience.
Doug: When you get to that level and you watch what those guys are doing, does that help you for the next competition?
Sam: Yes, it helps. It motivates me, it keeps me interested in what I'm doing, and striving to do better and continue to do better and stay safe while doing it.
Doug: How did you get hooked up with Davey?
Sam: The tech school that I went to, my teacher there used to work for one of the companies that Davey purchased years back, the Carroll Trees, and he connected me with the office and I went there right out of high school. On my 18th birthday, I started with the company. I went back and forth during the summers while I was at UMass studying arboriculture and continued to work with Davey since then.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about your job, and what you get out of it.
Sam: I'm a climber, crew leader, most days I'm out there removing and pruning large trees, sometimes ornamentals, but I also like to focus a lot on training and helping with the growth of my team in my office.
Doug: As somebody who is terrified of heights, tell me what that view is like from way up there when you're working on a tree.
Sam: It can be incredible. I work in Westchester County, New York, and we have views of the New York City skyline in some places, and of the Hudson River. It's really cool when you get up into the top of a tree and sometimes there's a view that you weren't expecting to be there that you really get that's nice.
Doug: Now, you brought up something that's really important and it's safety. Yes, competition is fun, but when you're going way up in a tree, safety is everything, right?
Sam: Yes, safety is number one.
Doug: When you're doing that, what is some of the safety gear that you'd be wearing for a competition? The same as you'd have at work, or is it different?
Sam: It's all the same stuff we'd have at work. Before a competition starts, we have a gear check where the technicians who are judging the events go ahead and they inspect all the gear that each competitor is going to be using. Making sure that everything is working properly as a competitor should have inspected beforehand, anyway. Making sure everything meets the standards required for the competition and the industry standards, and making sure that nobody has tampered with a device to make it operate a way that it's not intended to.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about what you get out of being a competitor in these climbing competitions. What is so great about it for you?
Sam: The initial draw
for me was that you can win gear, and winning gear as prizes was fun. What's kept me coming back is the knowledge that I've learned from other competitors over the time that I've been there, the energy and the positivity. Also getting to hang out with like-minded individuals who have a similar interest in what's going on, and everybody wants to do better and help each other out, which is just awesome to be a part of.
Doug: As part of this podcast, I talk to a lot of people that work with trees and it seems the older they get, the less climbing they do. I know that there's a 60-year-old climber, maybe 61 now, somewhere in the Davey organization. How long can you go as a climber? You're a young buck now.
Sam: I would like to say I could go for that long or longer. I'm hoping, my whole career I'll be able to climb. I do happen to be in a bucket truck quite often, but I'd also love to be out there and climb.
Doug: All right, Sam, I'm going to leave it right there. Thanks so much for the information and congratulations on how well you've done with the competitions.
Sam: Thank you.
Doug: I'm also talking with Libby Bower, a climbing arborist trainee in Lake Bluff, Illinois, for the Davey Tree Expert Company. Hi Libby, how are you?
Libby Bower: I'm doing pretty good, thanks.
Doug: We're talking all about competitive climbing, but before we get into that, I wanted to talk a little bit about how this job happened for you. How did you get into this as a way to make a living?
Libby: I actually didn't even really know this job existed, but I was in the middle of career changing and I saw Davey's ad online, and it said, do you want to climb trees for a living? I enjoyed that a lot as a kid. I applied and didn't really think a lot of it, honestly. Since starting, there's been a whole world of arboriculture and lots of other things that I have really enjoyed learning about and I find very interesting. It's kept me going. The more I learn about it and the more I get to advance, I've really enjoyed it.
Doug: I had a feeling that as a kid you must have been a tree climber, because how else do you get into this? Any good stories about climbing trees when you were a kid? You get caught up there high and somebody yell at you, say, get down.
Libby: It was usually not that I was up too high, but that I guess there is like one tree. Looking back, it probably was not that big of a tree, but I think as a kid, I thought it was this really big tree. Usually I would play outside for all hours of the day and my mom would eventually call me into dinner and tell me to stop playing in the dirt or in the tree.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about the physicality of what you do, because, it seems like a very physical job.
Libby: It definitely can be. It is something that like I do try and stay pretty active, even outside of work. If I know I've had like a vacation, I'll feel it when I come back that I am a little bit more tired. I think it is pretty important to remember, too, that to work within your own limits, and know where those are and that working at a steady pace is better and very different than trying to exert yourself all at once and finish something, or carry the biggest log from one end to the yard to the next. It's better to just work at a steady consistent pace, even if it's not the heaviest load or the fastest movement.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about training, about learning this, and how far along are you into your training?
Libby: I've only been here, it'll be about two years, I think, mid-October for me. I'm still decently new, but I've gotten to the point where I can work mostly independently on trees if I'm doing prunings or like smaller removals. There's still a foreman or someone more experienced nearby that I can always ask questions of, and they've always been really supportive of that. For the most part, they've let me start to gain independence because I have the experience to be able to try things out. That's been really encouraging.
Early on, there was a lot of on-the-job training, and sometimes it was watching someone else and then maybe asking questions about what they did, or how they did something when they got down, or having them go up and climb with me. I would just observe and they would show me how to do things and let me start to try, but they would really be there the whole time to make sure that things went smoothly and safely.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about climbing competition.
Libby: I hope to try and tell you something. Yes, so I really only got started in to this maybe a short few months ago, and I really didn't know much myself going into it. Someone asked if I would like to try, and it seemed like a fun opportunity, so I agreed. It's actually been a really cool experience for me. There's five preliminary qualifying events basically, and each event focuses on a different skill that you would use climbing or working in a tree. Then based off of those, you would go into masters if you place point-wise top three out of those qualifying events.
Doug: Is it nerve wracking in the competition, or do you feel confident? Throwing that line, I would just think, you've done it a hundred times. Then when it comes to competition, I can see myself choking and throwing that line-- Like when you see somebody throw out a baseball at opening day.
Libby: First pitch.
Doug: Is there any of those nerves or not?
Libby: I do feel a little bit nervous because I am still very new into arboriculture and what I've been doing. There's definitely a learning curve because my experience is much lower than a lot of other competitors. Honestly, I really just wanted to have a good time trying to do it. That's been my focus on how to complete the events. Yes, I really enjoyed it. I may not have been the fastest or the most skillful, but I did really enjoy. I think I've learned a lot from competing.
Doug: Is it exhausting?
Libby: Sometimes some of the speed ones can be, I would say, because it is a good cardio workout to carry yourself up a tree 60 feet in the air as fast as you can.
Doug: Before I let you go, tell me the best part of being in those competitions for you.
Libby: I think there's just a really great camaraderie between competitors, like especially at the last competition I was at, it was a little bit more tricky for me since I have not competed as much. The skill level of just the average climber there was much higher. There are a lot of things that I didn't necessarily know. I asked a lot of questions of people around me about just even simple things of like where to go to make sure I was signed in and signed up for everything correctly. Everyone was super supportive and super helpful. That sense of community to me is a really big part of what's one of the great things about arboriculture and the climbing competitions.
Doug: That's great stuff. As somebody who has a fear of heights, I applaud everything you're doing there getting up in those trees.
Libby: Thank you.
Doug: Thanks much for your time and thanks for giving me all this information. It's great.
Libby: Yes, of course. Thank you.
Doug: Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Next week, it's the Davey Ultimate Tree Planting Guide. Learn how to plant a tree the right way and keep it thriving for decades to come. Do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast so that you'll never miss an episode. As always, we like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.
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