Arborist out on a limb in tree-climbing competition

Story by Colin Campbell
Raleigh News and Observer
September 6, 2012
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Raleigh arborist Cormac Nagan has made it official: He’s among the top 20 tree climbers in the world.

Yes, that’s a competitive sport. But it’s not one that adventurous children can try out -- at the International Tree Climbing Championships, seasoned tree-care professionals try new techniques and gear to reach unnervingly thin branches in the treetops.

“It’s based off what we do every day,” said Nagan, 29, taking a break from pruning trees around a North Raleigh Wendy’s restaurant. “Our focus is speed, efficiency and safety.”

The competition, held last month in Portland, Ore., isn’t just about who can get to the treetop fastest, though that’s the premise of one of the events. “It’s almost like you’re climbing like a little kid,” he said. “It’s like speed rock climbing.”

Other segments of the contest have a more serious bent. One involves an aerial rescue -- a key skill in an industry where accidents can happen 100 feet up. There’s also a throw-line competition to see who’s best at getting a rope system into a tree.

The Master’s Challenge for finalists starts on the ground, and climbers have to reach bells throughout the tree. “It gives the top guys a chance to show what they’ve got,” Nagan said.

Nagan finished 18th and didn’t make it to the Master’s Challenge this year, though his brother -- who works at an Illinois arboretum -- came in fourth.

The Southern region winner had finished fourth and 10th in previous world championships. With stiff competition this year, Nagan said one early misstep cost him. “As soon as you make one mistake, you know you’re going to watch on the second day,” he said. Nagan got into the tree-care business after helping out with the family landscaping company. He got a degree in arboriculture from Western Illinois University and went to North Carolina for work. He started his own business, Aerial Innovations Tree Care, in 2007 -- around the same time he started competitive tree climbing.

Nagan says the competitions help him become a better arborist, up on all the latest industry innovations. When your office is effectively in a tree, a traditional sit-down trade conference just doesn’t cut it.

“When you put a clock to it, you can see how efficiently your stuff works,” he said. “You pick up tools to add to your toolbox.”

(Contact Colin Campbell at

Colin Campbell


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