COLUMBIA — Equipped with her climbing boots, hardhat, ropes and saddle, Ann Koenig jumps from branch to branch of a towering white oak. Cars pass on a nearby road, and if curious drivers noticed the ropes dangling to the ground, they might have caught a surprising glimpse of a woman more than 40 feet up in a tree.
“It’s a wonderful, big white oak,” Koenig said of her favorite tree. “I climb in that tree a lot, so I’ve gotten very familiar with it. I can kind of draw out where the branches are.”
The tree is located near the Missouri Department of Conservation in Columbia, where Koenig works as an urban forester. Climbing trees isn’t part of her job, but she is sharpening her skills in preparation for the International Tree Climbing Championship on July 26 in St. Louis.
Koenig was born in Canada but has spent the majority of her life in mid-Missouri. She graduated from MU with a degree in forestry and has worked in the field for 11 years. She also traveled to Ghana, West Africa, with the Peace Corps as a forestry volunteer.
“I’m a big fan of the outdoors and a big fan of plants and all things green,” she said. “Forestry was a degree where you could be around plants, study plants and do something good for the environment.”
Koenig, now 35, began climbing trees competitively three years ago. She is a member of the Midwestern Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture and the only woman who climbs competitively in her chapter’s seven-state region.
Last month, Koenig excelled in the Midwestern Tree Climbing Championship in Sioux Falls, S.D. She earned a chainsaw, climbing rope, $150 worth of new climbing gear and the opportunity to advance to the international competition.
Tree climbing first sparked Koenig’s interest in 2002 while she was in Seattle for the International Society of Arboriculture’s annual conference. The conference is held in conjunction with the ISA’s International Tree Climbing Championship, and Koenig witnessed the most talented tree climbers from all over the world.
“I saw men climbing, and it was awesome. Then I saw women climbing, and that was even more awesome,” she said. “In watching it, I thought it looked like an interesting skill. It looked like something I would like to do, but I didn’t have any idea of what the dynamics were.”
Koenig was so impressed by the skill it took to complete the different tree climbing events, she became determined to learn it herself.
She showed up at the 2005 ISA annual conference in Nashville, Tenn., toting a saddle that had been given to her by an arborist.
“I went with my saddle in hand. I didn’t even know what to do with it, but I hoped somebody would explain it to me,” she said. “I really went in driven.”
A climber helped answer her questions and showed her the basics. She began to keep a notebook of skills she learned and advice she received along the way. At that point, she decided to study tree climbing more intensely. She bought a book and a section of rope to practice tying knots. Gradually she started practicing down low in trees, working her way up.
Now Koenig trains a couple times a day, nearly every day of the week. She said she usually practice at home in her yard of 36 trees. She finds time to practice early in the morning before her children wake up and at night after they go to bed. She also practices after work, on the weekends and whenever she can find spare time.
Koenig said she has a tremendous support group in her husband, Fred Koenig, and their two sons, 6-year-old Henry and 3-year-old Oliver.
Because tree climbing requires strength, Fred Koenig said his wife does push-ups, sit-ups and runs to stay fit. He said she takes training seriously, and in return, she has gotten a lot of enjoyment from climbing.
“I’m really proud of how far she’s come,” Fred Koenig said. “She went into it not knowing much and worked hard to learn the skills. It’s been exciting to see how much she’s developed.”
Henry Koenig acknowledges his mom’s success as a tree climber, which Ann Koenig appreciates.
“Last year, he said, ‘Mom, you look like Spider-Woman. Can you do that at my birthday party?’” she recalled. “I loved that!”
For her birthday this year, Henry made his mom a special birthday gift — a tree made from a toilet paper roll and green construction paper. Attached to an orange ribbon in the tree is an image of his mom climbing.
The 2008 International Tree Climbing Championship will be Ann Koenig’s second time to compete at the international level. She competed in the 2007 world finals, placing 14th out of 19 women.
“It was challenging,” she said of her first international competition. “The trees were big with slick bark because it was raining a little bit. The women are very supportive, and the men are extremely supportive of the women being there and of one another. It was such an incredible experience.”
She said it doesn’t matter to her where she finishes this year, but she would like to complete all of the events with time to spare as well as earn points in every event.
“I would be so thrilled if I finish every event on time,” Ann Koenig said. “I’ll know I have improved my skills if I manage to get (the events) done in the time that is allotted. That would be really awesome.”