PROVO — Erica Hale leans back on her elbows with her legs stretched in front of her as she watches her boyfriend, a certified arborist, jog along a tree branch the width of a man's arm Saturday morning.

A smile lifts the corners of Hale's mouth when the ping of the tin bell — suspended 40 feet above her head — sounds and then her boyfriend's lithe frame is bounding through the limbs toward his next target.

Today, Hale said, watching him navigate the tree tops isn't a problem.

"It is fine in a competition, but when he's out there (at work) hanging by a branch with one arm and holding a chain saw to cut a branch with the other. ... Oh my gosh, I can't even look," she said.

Hale's boyfriend, Tyler Geurts, was one of 19 certified arborists and competitors from around Utah to ascend trees at high speed and swing through branches more than 50 feet above the grass at Provo's Pioneer Park during the 14th annual Utah State Tree Climbing Championships.

Officials judged the participants in a variety of events that required them to climb a free-hanging 60-foot rope using two different techniques, toss a throw ball 40 to 60 feet high to set climbing lines, perform an aerial rescue and navigate through the limbs of a 75-foot American Elm using an array of climbing skills.

"It gives arborists a chance to come out and compete," said Scott Bunker of the Utah Community Forest Council, who was an official at the event. "It's a good opportunity to come out and learn about new techniques and see new equipment."

The competition also attracted people with different backgrounds and skill levels. Many in the competition were certified arborists, some were working to become certified and others currently work in a different field but love to compete.

Preston Colver, a 24-year-old Brigham Young University student, recently became involved in the field when he picked up a job with the tree crew on campus.

"I didn't even know this existed two years ago," Colver said. "I got involved, and as time progressed I realized I wanted this to be a part of my life."

With a collegiate national title in team tree climbing, Colver is making arborist work a part of his life. Saturday's competition was Colver's first professional event.

Many people, like Colver two years ago, don't know about arborists or what they do. "A lot of times they confuse us with lumberjacks," Colver said.

Arborists' goal is to keep trees in the cities alive and healthy. City trees have an average life span of seven years, which is extremely short compared to forest trees that can live much more than 70 years.

"That's what (arborists) are hoping to do, is help trees live around people," Colver said. "Most of that is pruning. You want to prune the tree to keep it healthy. You want to prune the tree to keep it safe and of course to keep it beautiful."

Pruning techniques are easy to learn, Colver said, but "if you don't know what you're doing, then you can do a lot of damage."

Saturday's competition didn't require any actual pruning, but competitors had to display their ability in using a hand saw and pole pruner by tapping bells suspended 40-60 feet above the ground.

In the Master's Challenge, the final competition of the day involving the top five scorers, the men had to combine all of the skills tested individually in the five preliminary events.

Competitor Matt ErKelens, who has been involved in tree climbing for only four years, demonstrated skill and ability to take first place in the competition sponsored by the Utah Community Forest Council, Utah chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, and Diamond Tree Service.

ErKelens will compete in the national championships in St. Louis with people from all over the world.

"I'm going to train my butt off and represent the Utah chapter and win a championship," ErKelens said.


E-mail: lriddle@desnews.com