A few years ago, Emily Fisher helped some friends clear branches from ponderosa pines near Placid Lake.
“They got me up in one of those trees, and I loved every second of it,” she said.
She loved it so much, in fact, she moved to Seattle to learn the art and profession of tree climbing from a world champion. Now the certified arborist is owner of Missoula Tree Preservation, and in August Fisher heads to the 2014 International Tree Climbing Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“People are so supportive, and they just want you to have fun and be safe and learn,” Fisher said.
Arborists have many different areas of specialty, including pathology and consulting, and Fisher is one of just a handful of arborist tree climbers based in Missoula. On Friday, roughly a week before she heads to compete in Wisconsin Aug. 2 and 3, she talked about her love for trees and climbing as she hoisted herself up a rope looped around the branch of an old oak tree and negotiated her way around its limbs.
The career is a draw in part because it’s a combination of a profession and an extreme sport. Fisher, who has a master’s degree from the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation, said it’s important to shed light on the work because logging has been more of a focus here, yet tree climbing is a natural option for anyone wanting to do forestry in a more urban environment.
Fisher, for one, was taken with the job the moment she climbed her first tree.
“As soon as I got a little taste of it, I wanted more,” she said.
To head up the white oak in her neighborhood, Fisher dons a helmet and steps into her harness, a “recliner in the sky.”
The harness weighs 25 pounds on an average day, on a day without a chain saw. It holds a variety of her tools of the trade, including a hand saw, a lifeline she uses when she’s cutting off branches, and a cambium saver, which saves the bark on a tree because it allows her to pull a rope through rings attached to another rope instead of through the branch itself.
“I think it’s something people didn’t use not that long ago, but it makes our impact on the tree that much less damaging,” Fisher said.
The oak stands 50 feet tall, but its branches probably measure 60 feet wide, and Fisher estimates it’s at least 60 years old, maybe 80. Her neighbors let her and others climb the tree, and it’s somewhat famous among a small group of people who track good trees.
“This is an amazing oak tree. Oaks are really fun ’cause they’re quite spready and the branches are really strong,” Fisher said.
To climb, her arms and legs use the rope almost as though it’s a ladder. Since the rope is holding her up, she can wander into the far reaches of branches without putting her full weight on them.
Fisher has been competing for the last three years, and her favorite event is called the “work climb.” Competitors climb up a tree and negotiate routes to five or six different stations, hit a bell at each station with their hand saws, and the fastest climber wins.
“It simulates what we do, and you just get to move through the tree,” she said.
For her, the events are less about awards and more about the camaraderie and the opportunity to expose people to trees, banyans in Hawaii and eucalyptus in Pasadena, California. Nonetheless, last year was Fisher’s first time going to the world competition, and she came in 11th overall. She’s taken home awards from nationals, too, including a first place prize for aerial rescue; she’s come in fourth overall.
At work, in addition to her arborist tasks, Fisher rescues cats who get themselves stuck in trees, sometimes responding to calls that come in after midnight.
“Hey. Fluffy is up in the tree again. Can you come and help?”
She doesn’t charge for the service because she believes it’s important for people to call. It’s a myth that cats can always make their way down a tree, and if they stay up too long, they can become sick and dehydrated.
The arborist worked as a wildland firefighter for five years, and climbing also is hard work physically, with as many as nine or 10 hours in a tree in the case of a removal. Fisher, though, loves being outside, and she’s always worked in the outdoors.
“I get to have the most beautiful office in the world every day,” she said.
Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (406) 523-5262.