Out on a Limb
Shelly Wollerman admits she was “freaking out” the first time she worked on the “tree crew.”
“I was 15 feet off the ground and was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” she recalled of working for her employer, Steven R. Bassett, Inc., a landscaping company in the Town of Verona.
Four years later, the Fitchburg resident has clearly conquered her fear.
On Aug. 2, Wollerman will represent Wisconsin for the fourth consecutive year at the International Tree Climbing Championship in Milwaukee. Previous competitions have taken her to Australia, Portland, Ore. and Toronto, Canada.
In a sport and vocation dominated by men, Wollerman said she became the state’s first female entrant at the ITCC in “five or six years” when she qualified in 2011. At the ITCCs, she competes against 15-20 of the top female climbers from around the world.
Wollerman, 29, grew up on a dairy farm near Fond du Lac and played four sports in high school. She didn’t climb trees much as a kid, but her first job as a teenager was for a landscaping firm in her hometown. She liked the work and decided to study horticulture and landscape design at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
“I knew I liked to be outdoors and I knew I couldn’t have a desk job; it’s not who I am,” she said.
In 2009, she was hired at Bassett and moved to Fitchburg. Early on, she did routine maintenance and landscaping for the company or worked as a “groundie,” hauling and chipping brush and preparing gear for her co-workers in the trees. She became a certified arborist in 2010.
When two of her coworkers left the company in 2010, Wollerman was asked if she wanted to join the tree crew. She said yes and, to prepare, lifted weights to strengthen her upper body. It didn’t help much.
“I was so sore the next day,” she said of her first day of pruning. “You can’t really train for it.”
But she liked the work and kept at it, eventually becoming a crew foreman. She rises most days at 4:30 a.m., checks the weather and gets to work as early as 6 a.m. to prep equipment for that day’s job.
A coworker in 2010 also suggested she try her hand at competitive tree climbing, which requires contestants, armed with gear like harnesses, ropes and handsaws, to perform a variety of tasks that require speed, strength and agility.
What really piqued Wollerman’s interest, she said, was that ITCC qualifiers could get a free trip to that year’s event in Australia, courtesy of the Wisconsin Arborists Association.
“I said, ‘Sign me up, what do I have to do?’” Wollerman said.
Competitors are scored individually in five events: “Aerial Rescue,” “Work Climb,” “Secured Footlock,” “Belayed Speed Climb” and “Throwline.”
Wollerman doesn’t do much specialized training for the contest. After all, hoisting chain saws while scaling trunks during her day job is training enough.
Her best showing at internationals is 11th place, though this year she’s hoping to snag a top-three finish in the “work climb” or “aerial rescue” competitions.
She’s particularly qualified for the latter contest, a timed test that requires climbers to “save” a life-sized dummy from a treetop. She has been an emergency responder in Belleville since June 2013.
Wollerman said she became an EMT because of the dangers of her day job.
“If you use a chainsaw in a tree,” she said, “it’s dangerous. I thought the more prepared I was to deal with something like that, it couldn’t hurt.”
Wollerman said she’s driven, in part, by the desire to “disprove people” that as a woman, she can handle the physical rigors of climbing. But her arborist co-workers and fellow contestants have been completely supportive, she added.
“They’re just a big bunch of friendly guys to work with, and they give you credit where credit’s due,” she said.
Though this year’s ITCC in Milwaukee won’t take her to faraway lands, she’s excited to compete in her home state.
“Everybody I know is going to be there,” she said. “All the guys I work with, my family’s going to be there, so it should be fun.”
In addition to competing at ITCC, Wollerman has other goals in mind, including doing more landscape design work to satisfy her creative side and scaling some of the nation’s tallest trees.
“I want to climb a redwood,” she said. “I haven’t done that, and it would be pretty interesting.”