Jason Gerrish gives no hint he feels any pressure. The March day is humid and slightly overcast, and more than 100 people are standing around in the woods of Moss Park in Orlando. Some in the crowd begin chanting, "Go, Jason, go," and Gerrish's anxious wife, Meadow, reminds him she'll shout out the elapsed time while he ascends. But as the excitement mounts, Gerrish — tall, lithe, poised — defaults to Zen. His breathing slows. He shows no emotion. He looks only at the 60-foot live oak in the arena's center.
Gerrish knows the competition at the Florida state championship, and it is formidable. There's the powerful bearded dude from St. Pete who won five years ago. Also preparing is Doug, a veteran arborist from the Orlando area — strong, determined, a perennial contender. And then there's Tim Walters, a 34-year-old from Tallahassee and a finalist in the past eight state contests who believes this could be his year to unseat the champ.
"I've gotten so close to beating him," Walters says of Gerrish. "But he's just a natural, and you need to do everything right to take him out. I do my best, and he does a little bit better. He's like the unicorn I just can't catch."
Gerrish pays no attention to the chatter and even less to his opponents' longing. "I tune it out," he says, concentrating instead on what has made him the last man standing in four of the past five annual Florida state finals: strength, agility, fearlessness, and high-flying grace under pressure.
He's won the state title in 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2014, missing out in 2015.tweet this
This might sound like motocross racing, X Games skateboarding, or the televised finals of American Ninja Warrior. But it's none of those things. Instead, what Jason Gerrish does better than anyone else in Florida is compete in a sport so obscure that few even know it exists.
At the age of 41, Gerrish is a champion tree climber — a nimble scaler of oaks, pines, and banyans, a man who can hoist himself into a leafy, high-rise canopy as effortlessly as a less adventuresome soul might walk around the block. The annual International Society of Arboriculture contests that Gerrish regularly wins involve not only quickly gaining the upper reaches of tall trees, but also completing a host of other tasks associated with being an arborist. The Pinecrest resident trims trees for a living, but scaling them and testing himself against others who do the same is his passion.
"No one really understands this thing we do," Gerrish says. "It's like having it all to yourself, this skill that almost nobody is capable of judging. Everybody tells me: 'Oh, I loved climbing trees when I was a kid; I was so good at it.' They have no idea."
For Gerrish, competitive success often hinges on the throwline. In this timed event, competitors hurl a 14-ounce, weighted beanbag clipped to a polyethylene line over a high, sturdy limb, attach it to a harness, and then use it as a climbing rope.
"Throwline is always the wildcard to me," he says. "If you don't make the high branch you want after a couple of throws, you decide to try for a lower one. And if you don't make that quickly, you get a little frantic. It can go sideways in a hurry."
On this day, Gerrish uses a swinging, underhand windup to whip the beanbag high into the leaves. But his first toss strikes the limb and tumbles back to Earth. Cheers of "Come on, Jason" puncture the awkward quiet as he quickly gathers up the line and positions himself for another toss. This time, the beanbag sails over the target limb, and spectators break into applause. The defending champ sets his climbing line, jumps into his harness, and within minutes is hiking himself six stories into the air with a thrusting motion that makes him look like a lanky inchworm on speed.
"He is amazing," says Tim Murray, a St. Petersburg-based arborist who often judges climbing competitions. "I think it's his attitude, being comfortable in the tree. He's calm, smooth, got a plan. He does aloft what everybody else does standing on the ground."
This year, Gerrish took the Florida crown by beating nearly 40 other competitors in the men's division in a series of events that include aerial rescue of a 160-pound dummy — representing a tree trimmer stranded by heatstroke or a heart attack — and speed climbing. He also won the state title in 2017, 2016, and 2014, missing out in 2015 because, he says, "I was just off, maybe in a little funk."
Gerrish's next challenge will come in early August, when he'll face up to 70 of the world's best climbers in the International Tree Climbing Championship, held in a Columbus, Ohio park with white oaks and sycamores taller than eight-story buildings. His opponents will hail from Australia and New Zealand, where they routinely scale 200-foot eucalyptus trees; Europe, where Douglas firs can grow even taller; and California, where giant redwoods rise to more than 300 feet.
When Gerrish is at the top of South Florida's tallest trees, he's only 50 or 60 feet up, well below the height at which arborists in tall-timber areas routinely work. He understands the consequences of falling, even out of a Florida tree. Despite what others might think, he's afraid of heights.
"It is scary," he says. "People say, 'I don't have a fear of heights,' but I think everyone has it. I get scared a lot up there. Jumping from one limb to another up there alone for most of the day, I can get to feeling uneasy. You're thinking constantly. You get in bad situations. It's a dangerous job, and that crosses my mind.
"But I love this. What else would I do, sit in an office?"
In a risk-averse world, children might not be encouraged to climb trees or dream of a perch in the heavens as much as they once did. Modern parents can be overprotective. Indeed, in their book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), authors Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler list climbing a tree as number 28. To support their contention, the authors quote the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Britain: "Climbing trees and falling out of them is all part of growing up, and having small injuries helps children learn about risks."
Among adults, recreational tree climbing has become big business, like ziplining or skydiving. Tree-climbing schools and adventure outfitters have popped up all around the United States, including some that offer to string a hammock-like "tree boat" in the upper reaches and invite clients to spend the night far above the forest floor. (Vertical Voyages in St. Louis offers a night in a white oak tree for $425, which includes breakfast in bed.)
"The primal reaction we see among climbers is joy and a sense of connection to the natural world," says Danny Lyons, who runs a school in Gainesville called Canopy Climbers. "They say it's amazing, beautiful, thrilling."
"Give us a call, and if it must be done, give the tree a hug & say 'goodbye.' "tweet this
In his best-selling 2015 book, The Hidden Life of Trees, German woodsman Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world's forests, we must first recognize that trees are "wonderful beings" with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.
However, just because trees are wonderful does not mean they will bail out reckless humans. Free climbing — what kids do in the backyard or the park — can be dangerous, Lyons says. But supervised climbing, using the same rope and harness gear that Gerrish and arborists employ, is generally secure. And once up there, Lyons says, "It feels safe to be tucked away in the top of the tree."
Sure, dangers exist. Plummeting from the top of a tree is a big one. "It's not the fall; it's the sudden stop," Gerrish says. (In 2016, 13 arborists or tree trimmers died in the United States after falling out of trees, according to the Tree Care Industry Association, a New Hampshire-based trade group. Another 12 workers died of falls from aerial lifts or ladders. The typical fall victim was unsecured, the association says.)
In more than 25 years of climbing, Gerrish has not fallen. He's had some close calls when branches broke or ropes slipped, but his injuries as an arborist have been minor, he says. After inadvertently cornering a squirrel at the end of a lonely limb, he had to duck its charge. He's been bitten by a 12-inch tokay gecko that attacked him after he surprised it. And he's always on alert for bees, wasps, and power lines. (On the ground, Gerrish lost the tip of his left pinkie to a wood-working blade.)
But competitive climbing emphasizes safety, and so does Gerrish. He grew up in South Miami, the younger of two sons of a carpenter. His mom balanced childcare and advertising work. As a kid, he surfed, played tag with his friends in the branches of ficus trees, volunteered at a wildlife rescue center, and developed an affinity for the natural world.
"We were like free-range chickens, riding our bikes everywhere, to the Gables, Key Biscayne, South Dade," he says. By the time Gerrish and his crew graduated from bicycles to dirt bikes, they were bridge jumping, pool hopping, prowling Biscayne Bay in a 15-foot Boston Whaler, water skiing, and writing messages in the sand traps of golf courses, then being chased by maintenance staff in golf carts. "It was stupid stuff," he says.
School was never a good fit. After Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, when almost everyone in South Miami-Dade was knee-deep in storm debris, Gerrish discovered a pathway to the future. With a chainsaw borrowed from his girlfriend's dad, he and a buddy began making money. They specialized in the Dade County pines that after the storm began to die off by the thousands, victims of stress and insects. Gerrish used spikes to climb the pines and, for $50 each, brought them down. It was painstaking work. The pair made up to $300 per day, he recalls.
At the age of 16, Gerrish dropped out of Coral Gables Senior High and planned to make tree work his career. But after failing to get a job with a tree service, he realized he had lots to learn. So he apprenticed himself to Will Harden, a South Miami arborist he met working in the neighborhood.
"He was a scrawny kid when he first showed up," the 73-year-old Harden recalls. "I showed him how to do a climbing knot, and he got into it very seriously. He thought the work was exciting."
Harden says Gerrish had a natural aptitude for climbing. He learned quickly, put on muscle, and, within a year, "I hardly recognized him," Harden says. "He was lean, like a spider monkey."
Gerrish describes himself as a "suburban lumberjack." He understands the nature and tendencies of South Florida trees and knows something about the diseases that can affect them. And he cares about trees.
"I am not going to top a tree or hat-rack it or do something that would leave it with a large wound," he says.
Gerrish's passions and his granola ethic are as clear as a lone palm in a desert. The name of his company is Tree Huggers. On the website, he reveals the angst he feels if he must kill a tree. "We've been pruning, trimming, and removing trees (that's always sad) since 1997," he writes. "Give us a call, and if it must be done, give the tree a hug & say 'goodbye.'"
Chris Pruett worked with Gerrish for several years before starting his own Coconut Grove-based business. The 35-year-old considers Gerrish his mentor. "He once told me: 'If you want to learn how to prune trees, go into the woods and see how they prune themselves. You cannot outsmart the trees,'" Pruett says.
For Gerrish, the long, hot days spent hanging out on limbs and hauling brush are a way to support himself, his wife Meadow, and their two children, ages 17 and 12. He also has a warehouse full of reclaimed wood, suitable for coffee tables, cutting boards, and headboards. It's all for sale through the website subtropicalhardwoods.com. But he would rather be in a tree than polishing its remains.
"I like everything about it," he says of climbing trees. "I like the trees — they are underappreciated — and I need the physical exertion of it."
Says Harden: "People don't get into this business for the money. In this neighborhood, people don't climb mountains or race cars, things that cost money. They climb trees. And they're all crazy."
Arborists may be crazy about climbing, but those who are successful and long-lived cannot afford to be crazy foolish. It's a long way down.
The prelude to every arboreal ballet Gerrish performs begins with meticulous preparation. He pulls gear from his 1999 Isuzu NPR carrier, a customized dump truck that seems held together by plywood and rust, and lays it out on the grass. There are rigging lines, a harness, two mechanical contraptions called ascenders, a helmet, carabiners, water bottles, a rake, and cutting tools that include a handsaw, a pole saw, and a Stihl MS 150 chainsaw that weighs less than six pounds and is designed for arborists.
Before he ascends, Gerrish concocts a plan. From the ground, he has surveyed the tree to spot the areas that need to be thinned out and branches that should come down. "I have a road map in my mind of where I'll go," he says. "The idea is to be efficient, to make one sweep of the tree, top to bottom, and get all the work done."
Gerrish uses no ladders. He doesn't have a hydraulic bucket lift on the back of his truck. He climbs the tree. So every pruning job, including one he worked recently in South Miami, begins with the same throwline toss he uses in competition. Once the climbing rope is fixed, Gerrish steps into a harness — also called a climbing saddle — that fits like a see-through pair of tighty-whities. Then, with one end of the line anchored to the base of a nearby tree, he ties a climbing knot (his is called a French prusik) to the line, snaps on a carabiner that attaches to his harness, and, with the ascenders clamped to the rope and fitted over his shoes, readies himself to walk up the tree. The ascenders allow him to climb, and tiny teeth inside the devices prevent him from slipping down the rope.
Leaning back, Gerrish puts his weight on the line. His feet lift off the ground, he rocks gently in a rope swing for a few seconds, and then he begins to rise. Blastoff!
Once he's up in the canopy, he swings through the leaves, raising and lowering himself with the ropes to navigate. He doesn't cling to the tree limbs with his hands or sit on them, but instead seems to fly among the branches while he makes his rounds. His weight is on the rope.
To see Gerrish flitting through the leafy world above is to appreciate his skill and athletic grace. He sails through the canopy like a spring-loaded lemur, confident and light-footed. "I'm like Spider-Man," he says, a nod to the harness that prevents him from plunging if he makes a mistake.
At the end of one long branch, Gerrish spots a clump of greenery that should come off. To reach it, he uses his legs to push away from one of the tree's central trunks and is suddenly dangling freely by the half-inch polyester rope. As he sways slightly in the breeze, he hoists himself until he can plant his feet on a horizontal branch. Then he executes a series of bunny hops that carry him out toward the end of the limb, high above the yard below.
Gerrish never seems to strain. Although he will later wring out his long-sleeved shirt, sopping with sweat, he remains calm, serene, confident in his path. He's quiet. The only sounds are the occasional click of carabiners, the breeze, the song of a mockingbird, and a passing car. When he arrives at his destination, he draws a handsaw from his utility belt and slices off a small clump of green that floats down through the branches and lands on the grass with a soft whoosh.
Gerrish competed for the first time in 2001 and since then has participated in more than a dozen climbing contests in several states. He is now one of the older competitors and, because he's over the age of 40, qualifies for the ISA's Geezer Tree Climbing Championships. (He finished second this year at the competition, held in January in Windermere, Florida.)
He stays fit by working, watching what he eats, and doing a little yoga. "I've still got five years left to compete at this level," he says.
Alisha Amundson, an Orlando arborist and the reigning Florida women's climbing champion — and often the only female competitor in the state contest — says she is "in awe" of Gerrish. "He has a quiet, assertive, confident presence. He's very gifted, a natural."
Adds St. Petersburg climbing judge Tim Murray: "I've never see Jason panic. He stays relaxed and calm. He's definitely above and beyond."
At the three-day international competition in Ohio, Gerrish will use the skills he employs every day in five timed events that pit him against the most agile tree climbers on the planet. Most are also arborists.
The top five finishers qualify for the Masters Challenge and the title of best in the world. Sure to be there is defending world champion James Kilpatrick, a native of New Zealand who now works in Germany. "He's so smooth, so calm," Gerrish says. "He never even seems to be out of breath."
To become international champion, Gerrish will first have to do something he has never done before: make the finals. In three previous internationals, his best finish was 21st in 2016. He was 26th last year in the competition held at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
The finalists compete one by one in a timed event in which they must climb a tree and move rapidly around the crown while performing tasks such as tossing a stick into a bucket on the ground and edging out to the end of a long limb while making it dip earthward as little as possible. The competitors ring a cowbell tied to the tree at each station.
Contestants are sequestered so they cannot watch other competitors and learn from their successful techniques or failures.
Between now and August 3, when the international competition begins in Ohio, Gerrish plans to invest in some new gear, including rope and carabiners, and practice skills such as the limb toss and throwing the beanbag over a high limb.
Locally, it's hard to find trees that are as tall as those he might encounter up North. Another difficulty: the required speaking to a dummy during the aerial rescue competition. Gerrish admits he sometimes finds it hard to continually offer soothing reassurance to a mannequin when it gives no response.
The key to victory, he says, is to quiet the mind and concentrate on his breathing. He cannot afford to think of falling. "Being champion tree climber is an obscure title, but it's fun to try, and I'll do the best I can to win it," he says. "Just knowing you're one of the best at what you do helps balance the perception of those who don't distinguish between what we do and the guy who is cutting the grass."