Rural Chrissy a cut above the rest

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Chrissy Spence has been quietly climbing her way to victory across the globe for the past 14 years, reasonably unnoticed. She speaks to Mandy Cooper about her journey to the top.

New Zealand’s two-time rural woman of the year lives just down the road.

Chrissy Spence has spent the last six years, off and on, living in Paradise, near Glenorchy.

At the moment she’s taking a break from climbing trees to work alongside her sister at Paradise Trust.

Yip, that’s right, climbing trees.

Spence has about 15 world, NZ and Asia Pacific titles for women’s competitive tree climbing.

Last month she won the rural woman award for her success in the sport at the Norwood NZ Rural Sports Awards – for the second year running.

“I wasn’t actually expecting to get it two years in a row – it was cool, it was nice to be recognised outside of the tree climbing scene.”

She beat shearer Maryanne Baty of Gisborne to nab the award.

Spence, 36, an arborist by trade, hails from Gisborne herself, where she grew up on a sheep and beef farm.

Her brother-in-law introduced her to tree climbing 14 years ago, when she was 22.

She’s since had stints working overseas in Australia and Europe as an arborist.

Although it’s tough on the body, Spence finds the hardest thing is having to cut down beautiful trees to make way for houses.

In fact, that’s why she left Auckland after a couple years, when blanket tree protection laws were repealed in 2012.

“Everyone was just cutting down their big, old trees and as an arborist you didn’t have a voice – so yeah, I got out of it.

“They’ve seen everything [the trees] and they just get chopped down.”

She now contracts in the Southland area.

Spence reckons there are about five competitive Kiwi female tree climbers and about 80 men.

Her industry is also very much dominated by men. She puts it down to a lack of education that it’s a job at all, especially one that can be done equally by the genders.

“When I started there were probably more chicks than there are now and I thought ‘shit, I better get good at this now because I’m gonna have so much competition in years to come’, but it just hasn’t come through.”

When it comes to competing, Spence’s biggest challenge is keeping a handle on her nerves.

She says it’s exhausting anticipating her climb while watching up to 50 competitors take on the same tree.

“You probably only do 20 minutes of climbing a day.”

The competitions are based on speed, technique and skill, depending on the category.

She gives up her competition spot at the national Kiwi comps these days to give other budding tree climbers a shot.

Once they win the national title they then head off to the worldwide competition where they’re up against about 18 other fiercely-competitive tree climbers.

Spence helps out at the national events to make up numbers for vollies as they often have shortages.

It’s not all about the competition for her.

“Tree climbing’s not paid but it’s a good way to network and socialise with people.”

She’s a big advocate for all sorts of different niche sports that often don’t see the light of national news despite international success.

“NZ does have a lot of hidden talent because we’re not [all] rugby stars or netball stars and we’re not in the mainstream TV.”

Spence was nominated by the NZ Arboricultural Association for the woman of the year award and says she wouldn’t have put her own name forward.

But she hopes that it encourages other people to speak up for their rural achievements, no matter how off the beaten track they are. “Hopefully it inspires other people.”

mandy.cooper@scene.co.nz