Tree Huggers

arborist climbing a tree with mountains in the backround

Telluride Arborist celebrates twenty years of climbing (and caring for) trees

By Christina Callicott

They weren’t the most auspicious of beginnings. Natalie arrived from Eugene, Oregon in December 1997, mid-snowstorm, in a beat-up Chevy with bald tires. She and a friend wearily and warily navigated the Ophir Loop in a whiteout. “We were freaking out! We didn’t even know where we were, it was snowing so hard,” she recalled.

Landing for the night at their new digs, the old San Bernardo schoolhouse, they woke the next morning to news of an avalanche fatality in the couloir above. That afternoon, they watched as a rescue helicopter flew away with its mournful load.

Fortunately, things got better from there.

In January 1999, Tyler and his brother Blaine left Wisconsin in two Volvo station wagons. When Tyler’s broke down on I-70 at Copper Mountain, they called a tow truck, piled Tyler’s belongings into Blaine’s Volvo, and kept on trucking to Telluride. The brothers lived in tents up on the Jud Wiebe for the winter. It took all of two weeks for Tyler and Natalie to cross paths. More than twenty years later, they have a son, Briar; a home in Ophir; and a successful business, Telluride Arborist, the primary point of care for trees across the region.

While Natalie came to Telluride for the sun and snow—“I spent some rainy winters in Eugene!”—Tyler was drawn to the climbing. “I’d read about Ouray and I’d read about Bridal Veil, and I was so stoked to come here and climb these big ice waterfalls,” he said. He did climb Bridal Veil, the Ice Hose, and much more, but climbing trees is what keeps him busy today.

“We climb all the trees we work on,” said Tyler. While being a small business might preclude the purchase of a mechanized lift, the fact is, Tyler and his crew love trees, and they love to climb.

Do they climb trees with spikes on their shoes, like you see on television? “No, gaffs wound the tree,” he explained. “If you ever see someone using gaffs to climb a tree and prune it, you know you have the wrong person for the job.”

Instead, they use lead weights tied to a small-diameter rope, and with an underhand throw they lob the weights and line over a branch. Then they use the line to pull up a larger-diameter arborist rope and, finally, ascenders or prussiks to climb the rope.

To illustrate some of the boys’ athletic feats, Natalie pulled out a picture of Big Bertha, a cottonwood in Montrose with a circumference of twenty-seven feet and branches up to three feet in diameter that spread laterally over the earth. “Because it’s such a broadly spreading tree,” Tyler said, “there aren’t a lot of good anchors above the workers. So we have to tie into a rope that is anchored toward the center of the tree and then walk out on a limb with our pruning tool, with the possibility that if we fall, we pendulum a long ways.”

It was climbing that introduced Tyler to arboriculture, through his college climbing partner who majored in urban forestry. Tyler pitched in on a job at his parents’ house, and he was hooked, later taking full-time arboriculture jobs in Wisconsin and Oregon to learn the trade and its underlying science. For a time, he and Natalie worked as a team, with him in the tree and her on the ground. “I’ve done a lot of rock and ice climbing,” she said, “and I prefer to belay.”

Somebody’s gotta keep the family grounded.

For many years, Natalie ran her own business doing landscape design and installations. Today, Natalie is Telluride Arborist’s office manager, social media specialist, and den mother. “Our employees are like our family,” she said, “and I feel like I have a bunch of sons. I feel like I have a bunch of young men to look out for, because it is dangerous work.”

I asked Tyler to define arboriculture. “To me, it’s really the science of caring for trees in a people environment,” he said. “The trees we take care of have targets under them: a house, a car, the clients’ kids. Our job is to mitigate the hazard and to help keep these trees alive and vigorous.”

They achieve this goal through a combination of pruning, supporting the tree’s structure with padded cables, and the diagnosis and treatment of pests and diseases. In addition to private homeowners, they serve regional municipalities, keeping the area’s town parks and campgrounds safe and beautiful. “We’ve worked with Lake City for ten years, Ridgway Parks for at least fifteen, and the Town of Telluride for eighteen,” Natalie said. “We keep the Bluegrass festival safe,” she laughed.

            “Nobody was really doing this work when we got here,” Tyler said. “We found a niche, and we provided a service that was greatly needed.”

This year, Telluride Arborist celebrates its twentieth year in business. Since they started, the science of arboriculture has grown, and Tyler has kept pace, doing continuing education to maintain his certification. Some of their old employees have started their own businesses and their own families. Others stay on as year-round employees or return year after year to work the busy summer season. “Our employees are our friends,” Tyler said. “We look out for each other at work, and we enjoy being in each other’s company.”

            It’s quite the feat to live in Telluride, have a family, do what you love, and enable your friends to do the same. But Telluride Arborist is about creating a legacy. “One of my biggest pleasures is when people come to us with a giant tree that they want to preserve,” Tyler said. “They need someone to prune it with care and to give them good advice, to help them preserve the legacy of this ancient tree. It’s exciting to think that these trees that I’m working on will be seen by people when I’m long gone. And we are part of their story.”

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