Learning the ropes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


Jim Skiera, executive director of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), is craning his neck to see a climber high up in a tree. The climber scampers across the canopy, ringing small bells tied to the branches, all part of a tree-climbing competition that has brought together Hong Kong's small climbing and arborist community.

'It's unusual for arborists and climbers to get together like this,' Skiera says, pointing out that only a few of the competitors work as arborists. 'There are United States ISA chapters that have been around for years and I've never seen them host an event like this.'

While some of Hong Kong's tree climbers do it for sport, others, such as Choi So-man, see little distinction between working with trees and climbing them for pleasure. Choi began climbing trees in 2007 after she read an article about arboriculture. Soon, Choi, in her 30s, quit her job and enrolled in courses to qualify as a tree risk assessor.

Choi and I have agreed to meet at a grove of eucalyptus trees in Nam Sang Wai, from where Shenzhen and the Guangdong border are visible in the distance. We climb a tree and make ourselves comfortable before Choi begins to tell her story.

'I loved trees when I was younger, but I didn't climb them,' Choi says, echoing the popular view in Hong Kong that trees are to be admired from the ground, not from within the canopy. 'When I found out there were people climbing them in Hong Kong I thought it was wonderful and I wanted to join.'

Choi climbs three or four times a week, either for work or play. 'I feel free when I'm in a tree,' she says. She has been quietly humming and singing to herself since our climb began, stopping only to let a spider run across her hand. 'You hear the insects, the wind in the leaves. I sometimes just climb to the top and sit and enjoy it.'

She has tried, without much luck, to convince friends to join her in the branches, and she concludes that most Hongkongers 'don't have enough muscles' to do the sport. Many men are intimidated by her passion.

'They say, 'Oh, you're so dark and your skin is not good.' I don't care though,' Choi says, a touch of defiance in her voice. 'When I started I got big blisters on my hands. When my blisters healed, I'd go climbing again and get fresh ones.'

A basic set of climbing equipment, including harness, ropes and boots, costs about HK$8,000, putting the sport within reach for many of Hong Kong's adrenaline junkies. A recent climbing competition, held at Sammy Au Wing-sum's Sheung Shui property on November 19 and 20, attracted 37 competitors, more than last year but fewer than the organisers had hoped for. The sport is slowly growing in popularity, and there's even a school team, run by Fung Kai No1 Secondary School.

It is the mix of physical sport and spiritual connection that attracts most climbers.

For Kelvin Chan Kwok-hin, it was a chance to have a career that suited his restless nature. He was fresh out of university and searching for work when he discovered his love of trees.

'It's a special place. No one else goes here,' Chan says of his workplace.

'Most of my friends think it's dangerous, but many of them also think it's cool,' Chan says. ''You climb trees all day? Cool!' And yes, the girls think it's cool, too.'