by Lou Mancinelli
The Chestnut Hill area is home to countless acres of wooded land. But how fast do you think you could climb those trees in the Wissahickon, if you had to, and those big maples, elms and oaks across town?

Most likely you could not do it faster than Rob Thigpen, an arborist with Wyndmoor’s Shechtman Tree Care, who won first place at this year’s annual Western Climbing Championship for the Pennsylvania-Delaware Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) on May 7 in Pittsburgh. As a result, Thigpen competed in the International Tree Climbing Championship (ITCC) on July 23 and 24 in Australia, where climbers displayed their skills and speed in some of Sydney’s tallest eucalyptus trees.

“Some people are just not competitors; they don’t like that realm,” says Thigpen, 40, “but I think this can benefit any climber in the long-term.”

“One of the things the Climbing Championship does is it raises the level of knowledge and experience for everyone in the industry,” says Penn-Del ISA Board of Directors President Gene McMillen, of Shreiner Tree Care in Quarryville, PA. “Many new techniques have been introduced [from things like rock-climbing and caving] over the past decade that have made the work in our industry safer and more efficient. People are anxious to share and teach one another their techniques.”

Thigpen, a Bucks County resident, has been climbing trees for 22 years. He has also climbed the Moshulu boat, at Penn’s Landing. With his friends, he climbs various other buildings and ships, like Baltimore’s USS Constitution, a historic Navy ship from the War of 1812 with a 198-foot-high mainmast. The sport, he admits, is dangerous.

At 17, the Bronx and upstate New York-raised young man needed a job. Through a friend, Thigpen took a job trimming trees in Doylestown. He’s been in the area ever since and competed in the first overseas ISA ITCC in 1998 in Birmingham, England.

While it may seem like an unusual sport, “it’s big,” insists Shechtman Tree Care owner and founder Zach Shechtman, who himself has been climbing for 15 years.

“We do it because it’s a chance for tree guys from all over the country to come together and learn. It’s a great test of tree climbing skill, athletic ability and technical knowledge,” says Shechtman, who has worked as a volunteer at the competition. Three Shechtman employees competed in this year’s event. “At the end of the day, everyone walks away a better climber.”

The competition is a five-event affair, where each climber earns points and is judged based on his safety, speed and technical precision. At the conclusion of the championship, the climber with the most points wins. The events are a work climb; speed climb, an aerial rescue of a dummy from a tree; the throw ball and the foot-lock, where the climber climbs a rope hanging 56 feet from the tree but cannot use any of the tree’s limbs to reach the top.

“This area is a real intense chapter,” said Shechtman, 35, who is also a rock climber. “If you can win here, you can win anywhere.”

Thigpen traveled to Pittsburgh to compete in the Western Championship of the Penn-Del Chapter because he placed in the top five, thus qualifying to compete in the Eastern Championships. Though injury prevented him from competing in this year’s Eastern Championships, Thigpen won the Chapter Championship and thus qualified for the chance to compete in Sydney.

“Every day at work you really work out the kinks,” said Thigpen. “On the job every tree is different. You’re learning how to be safe and efficient.”

In Australia, Thigpen placed 17th overall, “so we officially have the 17th best climber in the world,” said Tracy Shechtman, office manager (and Zach’s wife). “His best placement was second for the Throwline competition, and he also had the third best time in the Work Climb, although he didn’t place in the top three for that.” (Anyone interested in seeing all of the results of the competition in Australia should visit http://itcc.isa-arbor.com/results/2011results.aspx)

Shechtman Tree Care is a tree preservation company founded in 2004. Based in Wyndmoor and Wyncote, its arborists care for the trees at Morris Arboretum and scores of other fine trees in the area. Their core mission is to care for veteran trees while maintaining, respecting and protecting the environment.

The Penn-Del Chapter of the ISA was founded in 1960 to foster a greater appreciation for shade trees and promote professional arboriculture in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

For more information about the Penn-Del ISA Chapter, visit www.PennDelISA.org. For more information about Shechtman Tree Care, visit www.ShekTree.com, call 215-776-TREE (8733), or email info@shektree.com.