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Michigan climbers aim for new heights in tree climbing 'Ascent Event' on Belle Isle this weekend

a woman wearing an orange helmet, yellow shirt and safety gear attaches cables to a large tree, preparing to climb, as a man in helmet watches

Competitive tree climbing? Attempts to break the world record in the Ascent Event?At beautiful Belle Isle Park in downtown Detroit?

Yes, please!

The first attempt to break the world record in the International Society of Arboriculture’s Ascent Event will happen during the 28th annual Michigan Tree Climbing ChampionshipSept. 16-18 on Belle Isle, the popular island state park along the Detroit River that happens to be among the most-visited state parks in the country.

The top five fastest men and two women from a preliminary Ascent Event will have a chance to compete in the finals at Belle Isle.

Michigan’s 2021 champions are Josh Burr of Oxford, and Katharine Chornyak of Ypsilanti – the first woman to represent Michigan at this year’s ITCC event in Denmark. Burr and Chornyak represented ISA Michigan. The records Belle Isle climbers are trying to break were set last week at that international event.

The men's record is 10.21 seconds and the women's record is 13.63 seconds, according to Jason Diehl, current head judge of the North American Tree Climbing Championships.

The last time ISA Michigan had a champion qualifying for the finals at ITCC was in 2016, when Lucas Drews, of Rockford, placed fourth out of more than 50 competitors in the men’s division.

Climbers are expected to be active on Friday from noon to 5 p.m. for preliminary events and much of the day Saturday. The Master's Challenge event will be 9 a.m. to noon Sunday.

A male competitor is surrounded by leaves in a tree as he competes in a climbing event.

What is the Ascent Event?

Climbing is an important skill for arborists, who sometimes need to reach the tops of trees to care for them. The World Record Ascent Event will require competitors to race up a rope 15 meters (roughly 50 feet) to a bell.

Competitors must efficiently attach their selected and approved ascent system to the ascent line(s), ascend to the bell in less than 60 seconds, and transfer into a descent system. The descent is not part of the event. Points are earned for speed and for meeting predetermined safety objectives.

Climbers at Belle Isle are expected to compete in an area of the island with large, mature oak trees, said Heidi Frei of the stewardship unit within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Division.

Belle Isle has hosted the tree-climbing event one time previously, in 2021.

Frei said participants  be climbing different trees this year. When they’re not climbing, ISA members spend time helping with trees on the island, including planting of new trees and the moving of a red bud tree from one location to another. Last year, ISA members demonstrated how to fell a pre-selected oak tree.

“What better way for us to get some assistance with our tree care than to have arborists and professionals right there?” Frei said. “They’ve been great partners for us on the island and some of their membership regularly volunteer to help us.”

Arbor Fair Saturday offers exhibits, fun activities 

Children attempt technical tree climbing during a 2021 event at Belle Isle Park. They are suspended from sturdy trees by ropes

Spectators are encouraged to bring picnic baskets and enjoy the 982-acre island park, which features three lakes, many grassy areas, a small beach and more than 200 acres of forest land. Visitors also can experience the Arbor Fair, a free public event offering education on trees and industry equipment, a kids’ climb, crafts and other fun activities and exhibits from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Arboriculture and forestry are some of the most challenging and dangerous careers, but these are important fields. The DNR works with many private foresters and arborists to help care for more than 20 million acres of forest in Michigan.

Everyone planning to attend any part of the event is encouraged to dress appropriately for the weather and wear shoes that are comfortable for walking. Don’t forget your sunscreen and insect repellent. The event is free, but vehicle entry to Belle Isle Park requires a Recreation Passport.

ISA Michigan is the Michigan Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. This professional organization represents arborists, urban foresters, professional tree workers and climbers and others who are interested in growing and caring for Michigan’s trees.

Contact: Annie Kruise (ISA Michigan), 517-337-4999 or Heidi Frei (DNR), 517-202-1360