This is not a public service announcement

Off to Tampa in Florida on Tuesday to go to ITCC.

This got me thinking about the Tree Climbing Competitions, what they are, what they aim to be and how they are run.

My first experience of a competition was the Swiss TCC in 1999. The first European TCC I went to was in  Valencia, also in 1999 and the first international was in Milwaukee the following year. I competed every year from there onwards until 2008. I then became involved with the organization of the events, becoming Head Technician for ETCC and later also for ITCC, and am now chairperson for the ETCC.

Over the years these events have changed a lot.

My understanding of them was and is that they are an expression of climbers’ culture within arboriculture, a culture that is vibrant, diverse and full of energy. It is hard not to come away from these events buzzing. Rather than them being about who won, the TCCs are a gathering of members of this widely dispersed tribe, offering an opportunity to meet up, exchange techniques, share stories and  to experience a moment in time together, not just the competitors, but all persons involved in one form or other in running the event or who even those who have “merely” come to watch.

Over the years, however, my observation is that this has changed. The expectations of competitors of the the event have risen and organizing them is becoming increasingly challenging. This in turn has lead to a degree of professionalization in regards to the organizational structure required, also budgets have grown larger, necessitating more sponsorship and partners.

All very well. It is good for things to evolve and not to become a museum showcase, to go with the times.

Yet still… I am sometimes surprised by how demanding people can be. Some examples?

  • Set up a nice event for us, you hear?! Make the climbs challenging…
  • The trees should be big and spectacular
  • The trees should be close together so that gear does not have to be carried to far between event
  • The trees should not be too close together so that they do not interfere with competitors’ concentration
  • Of course t-shirts shall be provided. And be good quality. And with colored prints on…
  • High-quality catering with veg option… (ok, that one I can relate to. I get annoyed going somewhere and the choice is: sausage or…. sausage. OK, I’ll have the bread in that case)
  • Camping on site
  • Party with music, please
  • Beer not too expensive
  • Catering not too expensive
  • Camping not too expensive
  • Prizes shall be high-quality – and lots of ’em

And so the list goes on…. quite daunting when you think about it.

But here is the thing that sometimes seems to be forgotten: all the folk organizing these events do so on a voluntary basis, it is not a public service. And should therefore not be taken for granted. It is fun to organize a good event when it is met with genuine appreciation – however, if you feel under pressure to do so in order to fulfill expectations, this changes the picture profoundly.

I sometimes wonder if the development has gone too far in the direction of professionalization and whether we should not wind the clock back: meet up in some location with a bunch of trees, no sponsorship, no t-shirts, not catering – nothing. And see what kind of effect that would have – might prove interesting.

In my opinion the TCCs belong to all who care about them, without hierarchies, regardless of whether you are in the organization, a climber, a techie, a judge or a spectator. If you care enough to be there, you become part of the event. For me the high point is not the Masters’ Challenge on Sunday afternoon, but the many moments before that. I love the atmosphere when all the volunteers turn up, the meetings before the event, the feverish buzz of gear inspection, the hive of activity of the preliminary events on Saturday… all this to me captures the essence of the climbing competitions. All of this means that it is genuinely not so important who comes out tops in the end. You ask me who won the comp after the event, I probably will have forgotten already – because it is not so important.

The importance of organizing and meeting up for these events is that we are adding an important facet to the mosaic which makes up climbers’ culture. One of many…