Staff tree trimmer wins tree-climbing championship

Tree trimmer Jessica Petrini prepares to climb into a coast live oak on campus.
Petrini looks for dead wood to trim from the tree.
Fellow tree trimmer Stan Higgins works on a different tree.
Tree trimmers Sam Pumroy (top) and Dave Kapellas work on a transplanted coast live oak-one of the most successful transplants Kapellas has seen. (Photos by Gwen Mickelson)

UCSC has given rise to Pulitzer Prize winners, Pew Scholars, All-American athletes, and National Academy of Sciences members.

Now the campus can also boast that it has a tree-climbing champion.

Staff tree trimmer Jessica Petrini won the women's division of the Western Chapter International Society of Arboriculture Tree Climbing Championships, held June 13-15 in Elk Grove.

"I was totally amazed," said Petrini, 34, of her win. "But really, it was just icing on the cake for me, because regardless of the outcome, I learned so much."

Contestants competed in five timed events:

  • Work climb: Contestants must climb to five stations in the tree, performing a different task at each station.
  • Aerial rescue: Contestants must reach and safely lower an injured climber (in this case, a life-sized mannequin).
  • Throwline: Tests contestants' ability to accurately place lines in a tree at heights ranging from 40 to 60 feet.
  • Belayed speed climb: Contestants ascend a predetermined route from ground to about 60 feet.
  • Secured footlock: Measures climbers' ability to perform 40-foot vertical ascent using double-climbing line.

Petrini's supervisor, Roger Edberg, assistant superintendent of Grounds Services, said her win was exciting.

But, he said, "I wasn't too surprised. She's motivated and pretty tough."

Climbing speed isn't so much a factor for Grounds Services, but many of the skills involved in the competition carry over into the tree-trimming job, said Edberg.

Having won her chapter's competition, Petrini is now preparing for the organization-wide International Tree Climbing Championship, which will take place July 26-27 in St. Louis, Mo.

She thinks the international meet will prove far more challenging than the regional one, where she competed against only two other women.

"I'm gonna get smoked," Petrini laughed, while taking a break from trimming dead wood out of a coast live oak at Stevenson College on a recent weekday. "These women I'm going to be competing against in St. Louis are pretty much the who's-who in women's tree climbing."

There's a who's-who in women's tree climbing?

Indeed. Men have been competing in the event since it started in 1976, and women began in 2001.

The International Tree Climbing Championship was initially proposed in 1975 by Dick Alvarez of Atascadero, owner of Arbor Tree Surgery. Alvarez began running a number of events in his own company, with the intent to preserve classic tree-climbing skills. The competition grew as Alvarez invited other companies to attend his annual company picnic. Eventually, it became a chapter-sanctioned event.

This year's regional competition was the first Petrini had competed in, but she's been in the landscaping and tree-care field for quite awhile.

Her interest started in high school when she joined the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that offers conservation internships and summer trail crew opportunities to more than 3,000 people each year. She volunteered on a wilderness trail crew, then was hired onto a crew in Idaho.

She worked as a gardener at the University House from 2000-2006. But her goal is to become a registered consulting arborist with American Society of Consulting Arborists. To that end, in 2006 she earned an arborist certification, which requires passing a 200-question written exam. In 2007 she earned her tree-worker certification, for which she had to demonstrate climbing and knot-tying skills.

Mom to three boys--Venny, 9, Anthony, 6, and Niccolo, 4--Petrini also owns a landscaping maintenance business and an artificial lawn businesses with husband Wade.

She also serves on the board of the Central Coast Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association.

Petrini is one of four staff tree trimmers on the UCSC campus. Her colleagues are Stan Higgins, Dave Kapellas, and Sam Pumroy.

Tree crew operations include routine maintenance, safety trimming, emergency response, planting, and consulting with construction projects, according to Edberg.

The tree-trimmers maintain about 6,000 trees in the landscaped areas of campus, said Edberg, as well as provide varying levels of management in the more-wooded zones.

For Petrini, tree work is a labor of love, but also provides a certain level of job security.

"Trees are taken for granted," she said. "People depend on trees for shade, air quality, and food. There's always going to be the need for people who can consult and provide guidance on the best way to care for them."

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