Let’s hear it for Speedclimb!

Speedclimb sometimes seems to me to be like the kid at school that everybody picks on and bullies. Admittedly, out of all the events that make up a tree climbing competition, superficially at least, it has least connection to real-life tree work. But I have decided the time has come to stand up for Speedclimb and to say no to the bullying.

Every event is designed to represent one, or multiple, aspects of tree work. Or a skill set required to perform these. As such, I will admit that Speedclimb sticks out a bit like a sore thumb. But only until you start thinking about it. What can you actually demonstrate with Speedclimb? A lot is down to set-up, which I will come back to in a minute, but essentially the competitor shows his or her ability to climb a structure on-sight in a safe, efficient manner. Climbing the structure is a key concept and was the reason we started using artificial climbing holds or stumps ratcheted onto stems in cases where the designated tree had a suitable limb structure in the canopy but the stem below was bare. Traditionally this was bridged by adding in bits of rope or allowing the climbers to pull themselves up on the fall of the belay. However, this totally changes the character of the event, turning it into an assessment of upper body strength rather than agility.

The message I would have to teams setting Speedclimb at the comps is: get creative! Consider what would be a fun climb for you. Start the competitors upside down, switch trees half way, use trees with unusual structures. Introduce an element that makes your Speedclimb unique. At the European TCC in Thun in 2013, for instance, we used a tree with a strong lean over the lake, the competitors started on the lower side of the tree from a rowing boat, then spiraled around onto the top side to finally hit the bell. This made for great imagery AND two climbers fell in the lake to boot!

Having said that the set up shall obviously also be safe. To illustrate this risk assessment process I would like to run through the set up of this year’s Speedclimb for the Euro TCC in Monza.

Photo © Moritz Sellmann

I got into the tree, a lime with a height of about 30m, with my friend Renè on Wednesday morning, the first day of set-up. After some pretty light pruning, essentially removing the dead wood and some light thinning to open up the spectator side a bit, we decided the tree was workable. Also, it became clear that it would require quite a few handholds to bridge the lower part of the stem to allow competitors access to the canopy. Once there, it was a breeze the rest of the way up.

*Sigh* Been there before…

But then I happened to look across and saw that right next to the lime was a cherry tree. So we started toying with the idea of creating a 8m long traverse at about 18m height between the two trees. This would require a floating anchor and extensive rigging.

So we got to work.

We rigged a double line, made up of 14mm double braid, for the floating anchor, we re-routed them through pulley at the high points to anchor them lower down, thus compressing rather than bending the high points. The pulley were backed up. The floating anchor consisted of  a pintoLOOP, attached with a Prusik around both lines, again backed up with a sling and a karabiner. Then we used the same 14mm rigging line to create the upper and lower traverse. Obviously, one of the worries when rigging floating anchors like this is the open angle you are creating and the load on the anchor points. When we loaded the floating anchor, the movement was not excessive. However, despite that we decided to guy the cherry out the back, through an adjacent oak down to a ground anchor. This further reduced movement. On Thursday, by which time Dirk, the SC head judge and his team were on site, we decided to replace the rigging lines with ratchet straps, as otherwise there was going to be too much movement and slippage in the course of the day, meaning that the climb would not be the same for everybody.

The floating anchor was placed in such a way, that from the moment the competitor stepped onto the traverse, moved across and stepped up the the bell, the amount of line remained more or less the same, making for an easy belay. The belay team was placed so that they have a full view of the climb all the way up. Additionally there was a in-tree technician just above the traverse point over to the cherry. Worst case, if someone were to slip and fall off the traverse, they would swing into open space.

In the end, this climb assessed the competitors ability to navigate through the handholds, climbing the structure, moving through the canopy, traversing to the cherry and moving up to the bell. The climb had distinct different parts to it and required climbers to switch from one mode to the other.

Watching competitors during the preliminary events made me reflect upon how we are naturally attracted by fluid, elegant movements. I suspect this is because they are at the same time efficient. So if it is efficiency we are attempting to showcase, I say that Speedclimb is a viable option – if you invest a bit of time and effort into your set-up and get it right.

More than that, it can be a fun and creative process on the way.

Big thanks for this one go out to Renè, Dirk and the rest of the Monza Speedclimb posse (who of course were not only Belgians, as the drawing above might make you believe, apologies to Nobuko and Gildas).

P.S. Before someone else mentions is: Yes, the belay in the drawing above would not work. Call it artistic liberty. The slings on the left hand cherry stem and the belay were on the back side, so on the side the climber traversed on. It was easier to draw this way… 😉