Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Beau Nagan, arborist and winner of the Illinois Tree Climbing Championship.
I climbed trees maybe more than your average kid. My dad did landscaping and tree work, so we never really got in trouble for climbing; I’m one of four boys, and he was just trying to keep us from beating each other up all the time. My younger brother Cormac is actually also a tree-climbing champion—he came in second in the men’s division in the world this year.
You basically use a system of ropes and pulleys. All of our ropes are minimally rated at 5,400 pounds. They also can’t stretch more than 7 percent at a 10 percent load, which is a lot different than a rock-climbing rope, which has to have stretch since you’re falling into it. If you’re climbing properly on a tree, you never fall; you swing. And any piece of hardware we use has to have two different methods of locking and has to be minimally rated for about 5,000 pounds.
One of the events in the championship is aerial rescue. There’s an injured “climber” in the tree, which is a dummy, of course, and you have five minutes to bring it down. Another is belayed speed, which is similar to a climbing-wall race, except we use tree branches. So you’ll start on the ground, and as soon as you hit the top of the tree, you ring a bell. In another one, you attach a rope to yourself and wrap the rope around your feet and inchworm up it for 50 feet as fast as you can. Anything under 20 seconds is really good, and 13.8 is the best ever. The best I’ve done is 16.8.
When I first started doing tree work, I was not too terribly comfortable with the heights, not because I’m afraid of heights per se, but because I didn’t really trust the equipment, and it seems counterintuitive to let go of something with your hands. I will, to this day, get a little nervous if I’m in a very tall tree that doesn’t have branches underneath me. There’s something that makes you feel more secure about being surrounded by the tree itself.
Being an arborist is one of the more dangerous jobs in the world, and it’s pretty easy to make big mistakes. That’s why safety’s so important. I try to do everything the same way every time to just grind it into my brain. There have been many close calls in my life. I would prefer not to talk about things like that.
When I was a kid I’d climb to the top of a tree and not think about it, but now the safety of it is so ingrained in me that I really don’t climb trees more than a few feet off the ground without ropes. I did set up a giant tree swing for my kids. It’s only about five, six feet off the ground, but once they start swinging, they’re going 40 feet or so. That was my daughter’s birthday party, instead of going to FunFlatables. I even had one of the other dads ask me to swing him around. It was exhausting to try to swing a grown man who’s bigger than me, but hey, fun is fun. I’m not gonna crush anybody’s dreams. v