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Climbing to the Top

If you had been there in August, crouched on the soggy Warner Park grass, squinting into the leafy canopy, you would have seen Joe House BS’95 moving purposefully among the branches like an arboreal Spiderman, ducking obstacles, ringing bells, hitting targets and rescuing an injured dummy.

If you had been there in July, at the Olympics of tree climbing, watching competitors from 13 countries scrambling through branches on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, you would have seen House toss a lead-filled pouch to hit targets 40 and 60 feet above him.

If you could see Joe House climb, you would know this man is born to be in the trees. The way he grasps a climbing rope between his gloved fingers and his toes and launches himself upward, scaling 50 feet in just 16 seconds—it is an art form. And few in the world do it better. A Wisconsin native who studied forestry at CALS, House has twice won the Wisconsin Arborists Association’s tree climbing competition, and last year he placed sixth overall at the international competition in Hawaii.

But House’s art is also a science. And his sport is also his job. Four days a week, he works for Madison’s Stephenson Tree Care, which employs six arborists to prune, remove and care for urban trees. “I’m a surgeon, I remove limbs,” he says with a laugh.

Surgery is an apt metaphor, because arboriculture demands both physical and mental strength, combining biology with on-the-fly knowledge of physics and mathematics. Not long ago, House and his tree-care team spent two and a half days removing a 100-foot-tall tree that had fallen on the roof of a client’s house. Each cut piece, wrapped in ropes and hauled by pulleys, weighed close to 1,000 pounds. Arborists must constantly make quick mental calculations about how to support and move such heavy loads. Errors can be catastrophic.

You drove past theat work site, and you gave them the eyeball…Now, with the competitions, it’s such a community of sharing.

“You really have to understand what you are doing when you’re taking a huge tree down,” says owner John Stephenson. “If things go bad in a hurry, you can be injured or killed. That’s the reality of this industry.”

To be prepared, Stephenson’s employees perform regular drills and simulate aerial rescues at least twice a year. But safety hasn’t always been the bottom line in arboriculture, he says.

“There was this association, years ago with tree companies being … we call them ruthless, toothless, dirty tree trimmers,” says Stephenson. “There are plenty of those types of companies still out there, but they’re going away.”

One reason they are is the rise of climbing competitions. While they inject an element of fun and rivalry—and maybe a chance to show off—the competitions also offer a venue for sharing and learning good practices. And that is helping change the culture of the industry. In the old days, says House, “you never talked to anybody. You drove past that work site, and you gave them the eyeball, and you know … you didn’t like them. And now, with the competitions, it’s such a community of sharing.”

That suits House just fine. “Like this year at internationals, I picked up probably four revolutionary things that I’m more than happy to share with the guys in Wisconsin,” he says.

Climbing events have grown significantly over the years, both in popularity and sophistication. “When the Wisconsin competitions started in the mid-1990s, it was just a bunch of climbers trying to see how fast they could go, with skimpy leather saddles and hemp ropes,” says Mike Wendt of the Wisconsin Arborists Association. Now they’ve evolved to high-tech, standardized championships, which typically involve a full day of events that test speed, agility and accuracy.

Like any athlete, House trains rigorously for the competitions. In addition to on-the-job practice, he climbs at his home on Madison’s west side, which he and his wife Lori bought partly for its climbing opportunities. Towering white and red pines dot the yard, and a wide stone chimney offers plenty of handholds for rock climbing. The couple even spent a recent Fourth of July nested 40 feet up in a white pines to watch fireworks, carrying a baby monitor to keep tabs on their sleeping daughter.

Although he is equally adept as a rock climber, House loves climbing trees because—well, he loves trees. He loves moving through the wide open branches of red and white oaks and reading each tree’s story from the things he finds. He especially loves hanging in the canopy during fall bird migrations when cedar waxwings flutter around his ropes.

At the same time, House wants nothing more than to preserve those experiences for future generations. He is not likely to set any tree-climbing height records, for example, because he doesn’t think scaling redwoods is responsible. Even walking around these ancient trees compacts soils and threatens roots, he says, adding, “I’m worried that our need to get close to these trees is killing them,” And in that case, the best way to save them is to keep his feet on the ground.