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Michigan tree climbing championship competition: showcasing arborists skills.

Being one with nature -- and showcasing Spiderman-like skills is what it’s all about. I’m talking about the Michigan tree climbing championship competition. It’s also called rock climbing in the trees.

It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday and the 23rd annual Michigan Tree Climbing Championship is underway. In Emerson Park in Tree City USA also known as Midland. I marveled at a sport I never even heard of before. Tree climbing. Done by contestants… Tree Climbers who call themselves arborists.

“Arborist is a general term to describe somebody that cares for the trees”.

Annie Kruise is the Executive Director of the Arboriculture Society of Michigan. She said of the thirty contestants they are all true arborists.

“Caring for the trees is important and this is just an event that showcases what it takes to actually care for the trees. We make it fun and competitive. That’s just the spirit of the competition”.

Arborists from around the state come to compete in five events. Aerial rescue; competitors rescue a dummy in a tree,

work climb:They ring a series of bells hanging in a tree,

Ascent or climbing a rope,

belayed speed climb:they race to the top (of a tree)

and throwline competitors toss a rope over a tree limb.

Sounds easy enough, right?

The events simulate work practices arborists use every day.

Those are people who chemically treat sick trees, and who climb trees to prune dead wood and keep branches away from power lines.

The sport is a showcase for arborists skills and it’s gaining a following.

“Where are you going to see such a cool thing for free”.

Ger Pastuszka and his wife drove from Lapeer to watch the event, not really knowing what to expect. He said they were not disappointed and will likely travel up to Traverse City to watch again next year.

“It’s unbelievable and it's educational. I think this is going to be the next new hot recreational sport there is”.

Bo Burke operates “Climb A Tree” the only recreational tree climbing company in the mid-west. It’s located in Leelanau county.

“Yeah we got this annual kids climb we do every year when we hold these events”.

“We like to get the public involved by bringing the neighborhood kids in. It's a free climb. We typically start ages at five but a lot of the other older kids, as you can see right now, they’re going up the ropes themselves. What about you, do you want to go up”?

And you know what, I did go up. And the perspective you get from high up in a tree is great. -- I mean I was pretty high but I didn't go nearly as high as the competitors.

“About three quarters of the way up there my arms started to quit out on me”.

Jamie Dowd is new to the sport. He said every event is difficult but free ascent is especially tough.

“This is the free ascent. I would say 60 foot rope ascent. It’s basically free ascent so you can use any system you want. Any kind of climbing system whether it's mechanical, or a friction hitch, anything. You just have to get up there”.

So I wondered, how does somebody become a competitive tree climber.?

“I was peer pressured a little bit by some guys I work with”.

First year competitor Nick Cornett said the well seasoned guys encourage the young guys to at least give it a try.

“You know being a new guy I was nervous just being in a tree having a lot of people watching. So that’s nerve racking too. But there’s guys I've never met before in my life who have helped me out a lot today. Yelling at me from the ground on what to do and what not to do, that was a big help today”.

Announcer: “We have the results of the preliminary events today please make your way to the pavilion”.

The winners in prelims were Wayne Ellison from Clio, his co-worker, rookie climber Dominic Gutierrez from Burton, and Jake Carufel from near Detroit who’s defending his title.

Annie Kruise said finals are know as ‘the master’s challenge’.

“Each of the three contestants have thirty minutes to complete a variety of simulations that they would do in the real workplace in the tree and they are scored on their time, and their technique, and their efficiencies”.

Travis: Are you nervous?

Climber: Very!

The rookie, Dominic Gutierrez said he never imagined he would do this well in competition. He’s been a tree trimmer out of the IBEW Local 17 in Detroit for just over a year.

His nerves were against him but once he got his bearings he made it competitive, He said he kept his eye on defending champion Jake Carufel.

“It's gonna be close. I'm not sure how I scored compared to how he scored, but we’ll see here shortly”.

Everybody knew it was close. So to add to the suspense, spectators were asked to close their eyes while trophies were handed out.

Announcer: Open your eyes!

“It almost feels like a dream. Honestly, it doesn't even feel real. It’s crazy. I love it though. It's a great time. I’m just lost for words right now”.  

Gutierrez will compete and showcase his respect for nature at the international tree climbing competition in Ohio, next August.

“We are losing that connection to the outdoors and there has been scientific research out there that has actually proven that being outdoors relieves stress. So, if we can help people understand one part of our industry and encourage people to come outdoors and see what we can do in the trees, we’re just helping the community”.

Spending nearly all day at the event I can say climbing isn't for everybody, but the outdoors should be.