By Alison Brownlee
Ben Sauve knows how to climb a tree.
The 29-year-old Huntsville resident proved it first to the province by becoming the 2009 Ontario Tree Climbing Champion, and then to the world by competing in the 2010 International Tree Climbing Competition in Chicago.
Born in Lavaltrie, Que., Sauve began climbing trees professionally in 2007 when he moved to Ontario and became an arborist. The International Arboriculture Society championship in Chicago was his third competition in as many years. Of the 39 competitors he was up against, including those from Austria, Sweden, France, Demark, Belgium and Italy, he placed 14th.
“You’re facing some of the best in the world,” he says. “I’m happy with 14th, but I think I’m harder on myself than other people would be.”
The people who came to cheer him on in Chicago – his wife, parents, co-workers and employer – were ecstatic with his performance.
“They were really proud of where I placed,” says Sauve, who is the first climber from Muskoka to ever win a provincial championship and, subsequently, compete at the international level.
For the competition, Sauve had to take part in five preliminary events – aerial rescue, belayed speed climb, secured footlock climb, throwline, and work climb – all of which were based on speed and technique.
The belayed speed climb, for example, requires climbers to travel 60 feet up a tree using a climbing harness and rope. Sauve completed the climb in 37.07 seconds. The competitor who placed first in that event, 2009 champion Jared Abrojena, did it in 31.16 seconds.
But on competition day, Sauve says everyone had to move a little faster. Times for some of the events had been reduced due to special circumstances. Usually a two-day event, the championship was jammed into the Sunday because it rained Saturday and the trees were too slick to climb safely.
“The six-minute throwline became a four-minute throwline, the aerial rescue became less time, I think the work climb became less time, just so they could squeeze everyone into one day,” he says. “They did what they had to do.”
The time reductions were an issue for Sauve only once, and that was during the throwline competition. The story is almost heartbreaking.
While prepping to climb a tree, arborists attach a ball weighted with lead pellets to a thin string and throw it over a tree limb. The string acts as a guiding line and is attached to a thicker climbing rope. Once the ball and string are over a secure branch, the arborist pulls the string back to the ground, bringing the climbing rope securely over the limb.
The throwline event requires competitors to swing the throwball at targets in a tree. Each successful hit earns 10 points and pulling a climbing rope through scores another five. But Sauve scored zero in that event. He says his throwball got stuck on a twig going for 10 points and despite hustling to hit another target, he ran out of time.
“That’s disappointment and encouragement at the same time,” he says with a sigh. “If I had scored that 10-pointer, I would have come in fourth.”
The Swedish competitor that did place fourth during the preliminaries had a score of 125.11 and Sauve ended with 111.22. If he had hit his throwline target and earned the bonus points, he would have ended with 126.22. With fourth place, he could have competed in the finals for first place overall.
In another event, though, Sauve says he improved his performance. Aerial rescue, during which a climber has to ‘rescue’ a 180 lb. dummy from a tree, is scored based on ingenuity and technique as well as time.
In past provincial competitions, including 2008 in Owen Sound and 2009 in Hamilton, the event had tripped him up, he says.
“In Owen Sound, I got so excited and I was so anxious, I climbed up, got to the victim, looked down and all my stuff was on the ground, so I had to wing it. I didn’t do very well that year,” he says.
The second year, he ran out of time.
“But I didn’t run out of time in Chicago, and if you look at the scores, I think I came in pretty average. So that was a confidence booster.”
Sauve didn’t always expect to be a champion tree-climber, or even an arborist. In 2001, he chose to come to Huntsville for a one-year college program, which was based on modular classes that involved bible studies interspersed with outdoor sports.
“I did white-water kayaking, rock climbing, ice climbing, camping, canoeing – you got your certification in different areas – and I fell in love with ice and rock climbing,” he says. “I just started climbing everything I could get my hands on.”
Having completed his course, he headed back to Quebec to find a job and ended up with two – a part-time job working at a shop rebuilding alternators, and another working at a paintball factory making paintballs.
“It was pretty boring,” he says.
Then, in 2004, he married a girl from Ontario.
“My job wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “And my wife was having a really hard time with the language and wanted to be closer to her family, so we decided it was best to move to Ontario. But I didn’t want to move anywhere other than Muskoka.”
Sauve knew the area because he spent his summers as a teen working at a camp near Huntsville. Before leaving Quebec, an employer got him hooked on climbing trees, though his technique didn’t seem to be working very well, he says.
“All I knew was rock climbing technique, so I started using that to climb trees. It worked out okay, but it wasn’t the best, so I started buying books and through those I educated myself.”
By 2007, he was employed with Pavey Tree in Dwight, but only under the condition he went to school and became formally trained as an arborist.
When January 2008 rolled around, Sauve was enrolled at Fleming College, working on his climbing skills and learning about urban forest science, tree and shrub identification, and tree removals.
He knew he wanted to start competing the year he started working in Dwight.
“I watched a couple of my co-workers compete in Niagara Falls in 2007, and I said to myself, I could do this kind of thing,” he says. “So I spent that September, all through the first semester, and that summer getting my skills ready for the 2008 competition in Owen Sound.”
It was his first competition and he came in fourth overall. The following year, he came in first.
He says he doesn’t do much in the way of training, and he definitely doesn’t go to the gym.
“Every day is like a training day – I climb every day at work – so really, to come home and go to the gym, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. You just burn yourself out,” he says. Instead, he practices climbing on a co-worker’s maple tree, and says he treats every opportunity at work as a training session.
“I try to treat every climb as a work climb. Every day I have to throw that string up in a tree, and that’s how you work on your accuracy. Fortunately, I’ve never had to do a real aerial rescue, and I hope I never have to,” he says. “I don’t footlock everyday, but when I do, I try to make it worth my while. And speed climbing is just climbing.”
Sauve’s employer, Phil Pavey, says everyone with the company was very excited when Sauve won the provincial title. They were there to cheer him on at that point, too.
“I, as an employer, am thrilled to be somewhat of a coach to some of my guys, and really it’s heartwarming to see a fellow like Ben warm up to some of the suggestions over the years, and to see him actually excel, moving quite quickly in his skill development,” says Pavey.
“Ben has done very well and we’re extremely proud of his accomplishments, the way he represented himself as well as the way he represented the company he works for.”
He says the competition provides bragging rights for the competitors because of its prestige.
“He was climbing, really, with international champions, which is really kind of neat,” says Pavey. “And when you know that there are climbers from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, all of these people are competing here at the international level, so it’s not just a small little dorky competition, it’s the real deal.”
And although several climbers have come close to taking home provincial championship titles, Pavey says Sauve is the first one to bring the title back to the region.
“This area has never had an Ontario winner, so it’s really nice to see Muskoka be put on the map with some of the quality and skill sets that we’re producing up here,” he says. “It’s not just a southern Ontario or an urban kind of thing – we’re able to produce some quality people up here, too.”
Sauve will get the chance to defend his provincial title during the 2010 competition in Perth on Sept. 11. If he wins, he may get a paid trip to Australia to compete in the 2011 international championship.