"Industry athletes" who climb, cut and care for trees for a living showcased their trade Saturday in Wheaton during the annual Illinois Tree Climbing Championships.
Tree service trucks marked the spot where 18 competitors, all professional arborists, competed in five events and a master's challenge, using tall oaks at Cantigny Park as their obstacle course or raceway.
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"This competition showcases what the guys have to do in the field every day," said April Toney, executive director of the Illinois Arborist Association, which hosted the event.
Events including an aerial rescue, work climb and belayed speed climb mirrored tasks performed in municipal or residential tree care as well as utility line clearing, Toney said.
Competitors said the event accurately captured what they encounter on the job, from the stress of working above ground, to the thrill of the physical challenge, to an emphasis on safety.
"You see a lot of extremes from danger to entertainment," said David Meurer, who placed in the top three after the five events, earning himself a spot in the master's challenge. "We are industry athletes, we call ourselves. It's hard to find a better workout than ascending 70 feet into a tree on a daily basis."
Staying hydrated and communicating with those on the ground were judged as safety considerations during the competition.
"You've got to really be safety conscious because you're going up sometimes 40 feet in the tree with a running saw," Toney said.
The most important safety point Saturday involved the ropes that helped the climbers go from ground to treetop, Meurer said.
"I had to use up a lot of my time keeping my rope high and safe instead of moving around in the tree," he said, after finishing two of five elements of the master's challenge in the 20 minutes allotted.
Meurer secured his ropes where two branches came together, forming a Y, then began tying knots and connecting his harness before a hushed crowd of more than 50. When he started ascending, pulling himself up the line with alternating reaches of his arms and pushes of one foot, he earned applause and cheers.
Talented arborists have strong balance and enjoy being outdoors, said Todd Henderson, a judge for Saturday's competition and a past president of the Illinois Arborist Association. They have no fear of heights and don't shy away from physically demanding tasks.
"Most guys start as ground guys and work up -- literally," Henderson said.
Spectators, supporters and local tree care company representatives attended Saturday's event, which was sponsored by companies including Davey tree experts and Kramer Tree Specialists of West Chicago.
Toney said the annual Tree Climbing Championships are held at a different location across the state each year to introduce the general public to the work of arborists. The event has been held at least once before at Cantigny and at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.