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Contestants Swing Through the Trees in Texas Climbing Championship in Plano

Miguel Pastenes competing in the work climb event for the 2010 Texas Tree Climbing Championship.
Miguel Pastenes competing in the work climb event for the 2010 Texas Tree Climbing Championship.

Published May 23, 2010 By JEFF MOSIER


PLANO – One of the most youthful pastimes was handed over to the adults at a Plano park for much of Saturday.

Twenty-seven of the most skilled tree climbers – all but a few from Texas – gathered at Bob Woodruff Park on Friday and Saturday to scale, scamper and swing their ways around timber towering nearly 100 feet.

The competition was sponsored by the state chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. The winner competes in the international contest to be held this summer near Chicago.

The finals featured plenty of veteran competitors. One finalist, Jimmy Prichard of Fort Worth, made it to the finals four out of the last eight years and comes from a family of arborists.

"Every man I know in my family with my last name is an arborist," said Prichard, who owns Integrity Tree Care.

Another of the four finalists, Jimmy Saucier, who traded in his oil patch job to scale and prune trees in Amarillo, was immediately competing for state championships when he switched careers in 2002. He said this was his third or fourth finals.

On Friday, the men gathered in an orchard of trees that's been around for centuries to compete using skills they need every day, or in some cases hope they'll never use. They were timed in speed climbs, rated on accuracy in hurling throw lines used as guides for their climbing ropes, and judged on mock aerial rescues that they sped dozens of feet up a tree to perform.

On Saturday afternoon, the top four scorers scaled a 90-foot pecan and had to ring four bells in different sections.

Miguel Pastenes was the second to climb Saturday afternoon and part of a championship heritage that began with his boss. Steve Houser, owner of Wylie-based Arborilogical Services Inc., helped organize the games in the 1980s. The championship cup – made of wood, of course – bears Houser's name and has gone to his employees every year since 1999.

That string was broken Saturday when Abram Zies, owner of Arbor Care in Fort Worth, finished first.

Pastenes, who finished seventh in last year's international competition in Rhode Island and nearly broke a world record in one contest there, sped up a rope into the pecan as family, friends, colleagues and the curious watched.

Within 14 seconds, he was about 50 feet up. The crowd let out of chorus of "woos" as a strong gust whipped through the park and made the branches holding Pastenes sway as he reached 65 feet.

A few moments later, he had moved so high that he was almost invisible to the audience. Minutes later, he was moving with a gymnast's ease on to a branch to ring one of the bells.

Swinging from one section of the tree to the other got Pastenes enthusiastic applause and admiration from those on the ground.

Cheering on his employee, Houser said the crowd appreciates a bit of flare. But he said participants are also serious about safety, which has become an increasing priority for the tree-trimming industry. The contest wasn't held from 1987 to 1989 because organizers couldn't get insurance. The insurance industry rates their jobs as among the nation's most dangerous.

"You may only get one chance to make a mistake in this business," Houser said.

Another person in the business nodded his head vigorously when he heard this. He pulled up the leg of his blue jeans to show a scar stretching at least 6 inches along his knee and calf.

John Hayman of Dallas said he estimated the limb that crushed his knee weighed 300 pounds and left him needing nine surgeries.

"I couldn't walk for a year," he said.

But Hayman said he still climbs. If he needs to clear his head, he said, he grabs a chainsaw and goes to the top of a tree that could use some trimming.

Even with the dangers, Houser said there's an allure to scaling trees that never goes away for some. He said he remembers explaining his career choice to his mother.

"Look, Mom," he remembers saying. "I found a way that I never have to grow up."

About the author

Mr. Jeff Mosier

Mr. Mosier is staff writer with The Dallas Morning News.

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