Michigan tree climbers reach for the prize in the skies

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — A huge red oak tree shook in 20 mile-per-hour wind. A climber 60 feet above the ground held on to his safety lines, waiting to begin his appointed tasks.

“It’s a little unsettling with the wind,” said Jacob Forella, 27, of White Lake, one of 38 competitors in the 25th annual Michigan Tree Climbing Championship held over the weekend.

Jordan Lynch, 31, of Mattawan prepares to secure a dummy at the 25th Michigan Tree Climbing Championship on Saturday.

“We’re safe with our lines and equipment, so I’m OK.”

Sponsored by the Arboriculture Society of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a nonprofit organization of foresters, arborists and academia, the annual event draws tree surgeons who climb into the branches from all over Michigan for two days of educational events and competition. . 

On Saturday at the Grand Traverse Commons, climbers had bags of rope, harnesses, carabiners and specialized tools for their safety. 

“It’s an educational event as much as it is competition,” said Annie Kruise, executive director of the society. “The young climbers learn from the seasoned climbers; there’s an exchange of information all weekend.”

Jacob Forella, 27, of White Lake anticipates his next move during the 25th Michigan Tree Climbing Championship.

Five stations were set up in the trees, testing the knowledge and strength of the climbers. Each station had volunteers and a judge, all of whom were experienced climbers who check equipment and watch carefully as each competitor works a tree. Each task is completed when the climber rings a bell high in the tree.

The stations simulate work a climber would perform.

The tasks cover aerial rescue, which tests the proper rescue of an injured climber; work climb, testing a climber’s ability to move about a tree using a rope and harness where five tasks have to be completed; ascent, testing a climber’s ability to ascend into a tree, ring a bell and return to the ground safely; relayed speed climb, where a predetermined route through a tree 60 feet above the ground is timed; and throwline, a timed event testing a competitor's ability to accurately place a climbing line into a tree up to 60 feet.

“We’re dedicated to safety and skill,” said Bo Burke, Michigan Tree Climbing Competition chairman. “As arborists, we have these competitions once a year to talk about new techniques, equipment and enjoy some camaraderie.” 

The day began with a prayer at sunrise with a bagpiper leading the climbers to the first task in a huge red oak near the restored buildings at the Grand Traverse Commons, a former state hospital.

“Work climb is my favorite event,” Forella said. “I enjoy the challenge of working a tree that I have never been in, and completing the tasks in a good time.”

Jordan Lynch, 31, of Mattawan positions a dummy he "rescued" during the 25th Michigan Tree Climbing Championship Saturday in Traverse City.

The oldest competitor was Mike Meredith, 53, of Grosse Pointe Farms.

"I used to be a rock climber,” he said, “but there are a lot more trees in Michigan to climb, and I like the challenges.”

This year’s winners in the Master’s Challenge Championships were Matt Prince in the men’s division and Katharine Chornyak in the women’s division. Both work for Guardian Tree Experts in Ann Arbor.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.