Her outstanding career saw her winning the title of climbing World Champion, as well as serving as President of the Victorian Tree Industry Organisation and Director of the International Society of Arboriculture Australia Chapter. Yet very humble about her achievements, Kiah Martin talks to AA about the aim for high quality service, skills and practice.
Kiah Martin is climbing competition royalty. Her glittering honour roll marks her as Australia’s most successful female climber with her victory at the 2003 International Tree Climbing Championship (ITCC) making her our nation’s only ever World Champion. Then there are the three runners-up medals at the ITCC, two Asia Pacific Tree Climbing Championship wins and a dominating ten times as Australian Champion. That’s one crammed trophy cabinet.
Yet this decorated arborist is humble about her achievements. Kiah looks back on her competition career – particularly the World Championship win – with expected pride, but ultimately sees climbing competitions as the best way to learn and hone skills relevant to arb work, travel nationally and internationally, mix with and learn from other professionals and have a lot of fun along the way.
“The competitions push you in terms of professional development on a number of levels,” she said. “The technical skills and the ability to perform under pressure set you up for a stronger career in the industry. I’ve found that any student I’ve worked with has improved if they enter a competition. That includes their skills, techniques and openness to learn new things and being able to approach tree problems from various different angles.”
Kiah’s competition career began while Senior Arborist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and Camborne. Her peers and instructors at University of Melbourne’s Burnley College compelled her to give it a try to enhance her work skills. “I liked the idea that there’s a nice relationship between competition and work; you can benefit both spheres by participating,” she said.
Success came quickly. From her first spur climbing event in 1998 she entered the 1999 Australian Tree Climbing Championships and duly became national champion. Incredibly, it was a title she defended for the next seven years, before re-claiming her crown in 2010 and 2011 again. So what was her secret? Kiah answered modestly, saying that although her competition record may seem dominant, her wins also included elements of luck for her and misfortune or bad luck for her often formidable competition. When pushed, she did concede there was some skill and plenty of practice on her part too.
Such sustained success would suggest Kiah loved or was even addicted to the buzz of competition. Quite the opposite she insisted. “I don’t enjoy the adrenalin,” she said. “I know a lot of people get off on the adrenalin rush, but it doesn’t make me feel great at all. It’s pretty nerve racking, and at the World Championships I was even more nervous about the participation, expectation and the enhanced competition – the people there are the best of the best.”
Heading to USA for the first ITCC world championship for women in 2001, Kiah placed third. “There were only seven female competitors from across the world that year,” she said. “This year there were 26, so the competition has grown enormously.” In 2002 Kiah secured second spot, and the next year, in Montreal, Canada, she became World Champion. “It was super exciting and I was elated to win it, especially against such quality opposition,” she said.
Taking the right calculated risks, her obvious intelligence and confidence in her ability all played their part, along with support and understanding from her competitors.
“The camaraderie and the networking was excellent, and you get to see people really interested in their profession and see their techniques. I’d encourage anybody to get involved. You can further your career in ways you’d never imagine in terms of travel, working abroad, networking at different events, and comps are just a wonderful experience to be part of.”
Kiah said she’s not officially retired from climbing championships, but hasn’t competed since 2013.
“I’d had some pretty average performances after not working in trees as much. I was on the ground more, writing reports, in the office, running a business. I didn’t have time to practice and I didn’t want to compete while under prepared. If you’re not tree climbing day in and day out you’re not properly prepared for high adrenaline competition. You leave yourself more open to injuries and mistakes. That said, I do think about a comeback, my skill set is still there, but it would take a fair effort.”
As director of her Tree Style business – which was founded in 2012 – Kiah’s daily work life includes fine aesthetic pruning of mature trees, upkeep and promotion of the urban forest and consulting.
“I’m always on the tools in the trees,“ she said. “My aim is high quality service and I think you need to be on the job for that.”
“You can further your career in ways you’d never imagine in terms of travel, working abroad, networking at different events, and comps are just a wonderful experience to be part of.”
She’s also hugely active in the arb community. Kiah’s consulted and taught in colleges, been president of the Victorian Tree Industry Organisation, Director of the International Society of Arboriculture Australia Chapter, co-ordinated events for Women of the Trees, and been a Husqvarna chainsaw ambassador since 2014. She hopes to teach more in future, and is acutely aware of helping the next generation of arborists.
“Greater arboriculture education, training packages for trade level certificates, licensing and consistency across the board nationally are things I’d like to see more of, and it’s good to see arb associations and bodies working hard in these directions,” Kiah said. “We need to manage trees not just for humans but holistically for their broader place in the environment. I can see that changing for the good over the next two decades. Possibly less pruning and removal of trees and more on preserving them as retained habitats”
Kiah is a huge champion of arboriculture as a career, not least when it’s aligned with the competition climbing that’s brought her so much personal and professional satisfaction. “There are so many rewards to be had. I’d encourage anyone with even a remote interest to get involved, skill up, educate yourself and do the physical training. It’s a wonderful career. And with the comps, the prizes, accolades and fun aren’t bad as well.”