take 5: Tree Hugger 

Virginia's tree-climbing champion talks about his ascent and view from the top.

Robert Gallant, owner of Gallant Tree Service of Williamsburg, earned his fifth victory in the daylong event. He now advances to the society's international competition this summer in Montreal, Canada.

Style recently caught up with Gallant for an incisive look at the challenge.

Style: You competed in four events: aerial rescue, speed climbing, accuracy throw and work climb. What do the events entail?

Gallant: The aerial rescue tests the climber's ability to react calmly and competently in an emergency situation, to get a person — it was a dummy in the tree — out of a tree as safely and quickly as possible.

The speed climb is pure adrenaline. In tree climbing it's the same as the spiking log climb in logging competitions. You climb 40 feet in the air, straight up. You know how you watch kids work their way up a rope, pulling down with their arms and locking up with their feet? That's the way you go. At the top, you ring a bell. My time was 20 seconds.

In order to put your climbing line — the rope you attach yourself to — up in the tree, you have bean bags with metal rings on them. With these you can throw between 70 and 90 feet. In the accuracy throw, you have five minutes to place them at various heights in the trees. Time is critical.

The work climb is the most fun. They pull you up to the top of the tree. From there, you visit five stations. You have a handsaw with no teeth on it that you ring the bells with. There's a hand-bell station, a pole-pruner's station, a limb-toss station, a limb-walk station and a landing station, where you come out of the tree and land in the bull's-eye with both feet, balanced. You can't take your time; you have to be about your business.

What is the master challenge, and what did you have to do?

The master challenge is a composite of the other events. Organizers chose a sizeable tree with three workstations. The four finalists can't see the person's climb before. You take your throw line, set a line in the tree and enter it (most people use the foot-lock method), get up into the top of the tree, tie in, move through the stations in a timely manner and come out of the tree. When you hit the ground, you disconnect and get all of your equipment out of the tree before time stops. There's a 20-minute limit.

What kinds of trees are the best to engage in this kind of climbing?

Usually oaks, sycamores — something with a spreading crown and lots of branches. They pick the best specimen on the site. This year it was a nice big white oak, probably 90 feet tall.

What's your greatest attribute in these kinds of competitions?

Resourcefulness. I'm constantly learning new ways to manage risk and mistakes, and recover from problems. With any tree-climber, the best skill they can possess is the ability to do many tasks different ways.

How do weather conditions affect tree climbing?

You have to be prepared to climb in any circumstance. When I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, doing the international [competition] there, the conditions changed dramatically. In the morning, it had just rained. Those climbers got a slippery tree. Then it warmed up and was dry and those climbers got a good tree. By the end of the day — I was the last climber — a 40-mile-an-hour wind came up, so I had to deal with the wind situation.

When did you know this was something you'd want to do, not only professionally but also competitively?

It's kind of a comedy of errors [laughs]. I was in our prayer room at Rock Church praying for a job, and a guy walked in the door and said, "Hey, do you want a job?" So I said, "Sure." I was 21-and-a-half when I got into tree work. I'll be 37 in August. I came to Virginia Beach to go into the ministry, and the Lord sent me into tree work. Then a year ago, I was going to start Colonial Tree Care of Williamsburg, and the Lord sent me into ministry. I'm pastoring the Rock Church of Williamsburg right now. I'm doing tree work to provide for my family while we're getting established.

I take it you don't have a fear of heights?

Not anymore. I used to, back in the beginning. Every time I'd get up that tree I'd say, Lord, please help me. I was scared because you'd start up and the wind would blow. But I got over that a long time ago.

What does it feel like to be in the very tip-top of a tree?

It's a lot of fun. When you're a young production climber, a lot of times you don't stop to appreciate the view. It's really nice when you're in the top of a tree, when it's warm out and it sways a little bit, to sit back once in a while and enjoy it. S


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