Jason Gerrish has been climbing trees for a living since he dropped out of high school in 1992 to help clean up the arboreal mess left by Hurricane Andrew. Now the 37-year-old Miami native and owner of Tree Huggers is being recognized as the top tree climber in Florida.
Gerrish beat a field of 32 arborists in the Feb. 22 Florida Tree Climbing Championship in Lakeland put on by the state chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. He won $1,000 worth of tree-trimming tools and a spot in the world Tree Climbing Championship in Milwaukee on Aug. 2.
“It’s a challenge. It’s knowing you are at the top of your game,” Gerrish said.
The 1,400-member Florida organization headquartered in Sarasota has conducted the championship each year since 1996 “to have arborists who are particularly skilled at climbing and maintaining trees to show off their skills working in trees,” said Norm Easey, chapter CEO.
Gerrish has competed five times at the state level, and his highest previous finish was a second place in 2002. He really didn’t have to train very much for last month’s event since the five categories pretty much mirror what he does every day. Tree Huggers doesn’t have a bucket truck like what Florida Power & Light workers ride in to fix power lines — too expensive, Gerrish says — so he has to use ropes, pulleys, harness and clamps to get himself and his tools up and down a tree.
“You can see what’s rotten, what’s going on,” he said of tree climbing. “You get better cuts.”
The state championship consisted of five events: tossing a throw ball with a line attached over a designated tree branch; belayed speed climbing, or, hoisting oneself up a tree using feet and a rope; work climbing, which involves starting at the top of a tree and completing tasks at five stations among the boughs; aerial rescue, which is rescuing a dummy trapped high up in a tree; and footlock, which is pulling oneself up a tree with feet locked in a rope.
“I didn’t think I was going to win. I wasn’t smooth at all,” Gerrish said.
He expects tough competition at the Milwaukee event, which is considered the tree climbing Olympics with about 45 contestants from around the world.
Gerrish wishes more people understood what arboriculture really entails.
“It’s like a lawn man, in people’s opinion,” he said. “It’s really nothing like that. It’s a dynamic game. It’s a puzzle you have to make everything fit. The ultimate goal is tree health and architecture for the long term. They’re so much like people; they move in slow motion. Nothing keeps my attention like trees do.”