Canadian champion lumberjack Stirling Hart can’t remember the first time he strapped on a climbing rope and scaled a tree.
It’s not because he’s blocked out the memory or suffered some horrific injury (we’ll get to that big scar on his face later), it’s because he was so young when he started in the family business — grandfather Gordon Hart was a Canadian champion axeman, father Greg Hart was a world champion speed climber — that it was literally before his living memory.
“When I started walking I started climbing,” the North Vancouver resident told the North Shore News Saturday, adding that he has no idea how it went the first time he tried speed climbing. “I was only four years old. I’m pretty sure what happened is they just strapped me to the tree and said, ‘Go for it.’ I was too young to know how to get out of the belt, so I had no choice.”
Born and raised in Maple Ridge, Hart owned his first axe at age three and was competing in lumberjack competitions against grown men by the age of eight. By his early 20s he held three speed climbing world records. He just turned 26 and still is the record holder in the 90-foot and 100-foot speed climbs, events that involve shimmying up a smooth wooden pole using spiked shoes and a rope belt and then plunging back to earth while tapping the wood every 20 feet or so to slow the descent ever so slightly. When he set his world record in the 90-foot climb, Hart touched the tree just five times on the way down.
“You’ve got to be a little bit crazy, I think,” said Hart about the secret to speed climbing. “There’s no safety in it. When you’re doing it you climb up that high, if you slip, you’re going to be on the ground. In order to be the fastest, you can’t be afraid to fall.”
Climbers have been clocked at 40 miles per hour on the way down the pole and the landing can do a lot of damage even though there’s a big crash mat at the bottom.
“When you hit the ground you still feel it,” said Hart, who has suffered serious injuries to his feet and ankles in the sport. For that reason he shifted his focus away from climbing into the chopping and sawing events that are featured in the Stihl Timbersports series. It was a bold move for a few reasons, the first being that he was walking away from his status as the best speed climber in the world. The key word for Hart, however, was walking.
“I’d done everything I wanted to achieve in climbing,” he said. “I want to be able to walk by the time I’m 40 and have kids.”
The other eyebrow-raising aspect of Hart’s event switch was his size. He’s a strapping fellow but many of his competitors tower over him at the Timbersports events.
“Everybody knew me as a tree climber,” he said. “If you look at Timbersports, the climbers are all kind of skinny athletic guys, and the Timbersports guys are all big, daunting guys. . . . The top five to eight guys in the world are all six-foot-six and 280 pounds. And then there’s me — I’m 5-11, 170 pounds soaking wet.”
No problem though — Hart went out and proved it’s not the size of the lumberjack, it’s how you swing the axe. In his first Timbersports Canadian championships he finished second, and last year he was crowned Canadian Champion, earning a spot on the national team for the World Championships. How did he do it?
“Heart. You’ve got to have heart,” he said with a laugh, adding that his experience and training have a little something to do with it as well. “The sport is all about technique. Brute strength definitely plays a part in it, but it’s all science. The way you present that axe to the wood, or the way you pull on that saw — it’s all technique. I just had to make my technique perfect, and that’s how I’ve been able to keep up with the best guys in the world.”
Hart’s decision to move from climbing to Timbersports to protect his body got an ironic twist five years ago when he suffered his most gruesome injury while wielding an axe.
“I know you’re dying to ask,” Hart said with a laugh when he caught me sneaking a glance at the scar on his face during our interview.
He was in Australia competing in a springboard event — a supreme lumberjack test that sees competitors slot two springboards into a tree trunk, hopping up to the top where they balance and chop through a block of wood. On that occasion, however, it all went wrong for Hart.
“I chopped that notch, stuck the axe in the tree and went to grab the board and the axe fell out of the tree. Just the tip of it caught me in the face,” he said. “That was a lot of blood and a lot of stitches.”
The axe luckily missed his eye and his neck but it left a scar that starts about an inch away from his right eye and runs right down to his mouth. It was a dangerous accident but Hart admitted that he now wears it as a lumberjack badge of honour.
“I don’t have a beard, so I had to get a scar,” he said with a laugh. “It’s become my predominant marking. Everybody recognizes me in public: ‘Oh yeah, the kid with the scar across his face.’ It’s worked out good for marketing as well. . . . Climbing I’ve torn both ankles, broken both feet. Shoulders, knees, hips. None of them were quite as dramatic as taking an axe to the face.”
The injury hasn’t slowed him down at all. The day after we spoke Hart took the stage for the Stihl Timbersports Western Qualifier held at the PNE in front of an appreciative crowd taking in the massive Vancouver Craft Beer Week finale. He finished first in the pro competition, earning a berth in the 2015 Stihl Timbersports Canadian Championships scheduled for July 19 in Niagara Falls where he’ll attempt to defend his national title and earn another world championship berth.
Lumberjack fans who missed him at the Beer Week event can still catch Hart in action most every day working his summer job as a performer in Grouse Mountain’s Lumberjack Show. He’s been performing three shows a day, seven days a week, six months a year for close to a decade now. In the winter he keeps himself sharp working as a tree topper for West Vancouver’s Burley Boys Tree Service.
It all adds up to enough for him pay the bills, including some expensive, cutting edge equipment. He may not have had any choice in climbing that first tree, and there have been some nicks along the way, but Hart said it’s a dream come true that he’s been able to turn his “glorified hobby” into a career while also proudly carrying on his family’s legacy.
“I get to travel around doing the sport I love and I even get paid for it,” he said. “It’s really cool for me to be able to carry on in (my family’s) footsteps.”