A Q&A with Joe House

The professional tree climber offers up his unique perspective on the world.

Photo by Tessa Claire Photography

Explain your job in one sentence.
I’m trying to make trees and people live in the same space without hurting each other.

Where are you from originally?
Menomonee Falls.

What were you like as a kid?
Very verbal. I climbed everything.  

When did you first know being a tree climber was what you wanted to do?
I started at the University of Wisconsin in 1992 and I had an urban forestry internship here in Madison. I remember walking around the building where I met the crew, and there was a gentleman up in the tree doing a big silver maple removal. I remember watching this guy swinging around in the tree, removing big limbs, and thinking, “Oh yeah!” When I worked with them for the season, I pretty much figured that I had found my profession.

Do you have a favorite tree memory? 
There are too many trees to answer this. Climbing a three-hundred-foot Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest ranks high. That’s two thousand years old. That’s as high as a thirty-story building. The tallest trees in Wisconsin are around 120 feet. When the wind blows, the canopy moves twelve feet—and so does the climber

What are the risks of your job?
Many: Gravity (you can’t turn it off), electrical lines, chainsaws, chippers, heat, cold, hornets’ nests.

Do you ever get nervous when climbing?
On the really tall cottonwoods or red oaks, the branch that you chose to tie into while on the ground will seem to get smaller and smaller the higher you climb.

The biggest rewards?  
I really love to teach what I have learned to others. And keeping our landscape trees healthy is a great joy to me.

What is the most common misperception about the job?
Squirrels are friendly.

What personality traits are needed to be an arborist?
Machoism works against you. Humility works for you. You need to have an interest in trees and the environment. Climbing is a small subset of arboriculture. Not all people who think they will like being up there do.

How has the field changed over the years?
I am climbing trees better now in 2013 than I did in 1994 when I was in my early twenties. Equipment has advanced and climbers are looking at their equipment as a system and how all the components work together. Everyone who competes has gotten better. Some travel the world doing multiple competitions in a year.

What has been a special memory?
On my thirty-eighth birthday, [my daughter’s] present to me was to have pizza in the tree. Some of my buddies came over and rigged the tree, and we climbed up and ate.

Tell me about a challenging competition climb.
Australia was my worst. It was crazy. As I was footlocking my race, a helicopter went by and scared the giant fruit bats—the flying foxes. So as I’m doing this race, there are flying foxes all over. And the kookaburra birds are all laughing. But don’t get me wrong, it’s the coolest thing ever to be doing a competition with all that crazy stuff going on.

How have the competitions influenced the profession?
There’s nothing like competition to make people try new stuff. And the people that do these competitions generally are more willing to learn. They’re not stuck.

What do the neighbors think?
They love it! I’ve taken all of the neighbors tree climbing.

It’s 8 o'clock on a Friday night. What are you usually doing?
Playing yard games with my kids.

How many times have you won the state-level competition?
I’ve won it seven times now and it’s fun to go to internationals because you get to see all the other international friends. I will be competing in the internationals this summer in Toronto. It should be fantastic. They do a lot of interesting locations. It’s fun for the fact that you get to climb all different kinds of trees all over the world. I’ve climbed in some of the giant eucalyptus down in Australia, and in Hawaii I climbed a baobab tree.

How have the competitions influenced the profession?
There’s nothing like competition to make people try new stuff. And the people that do these competitions generally are more willing to learn. They’re not stuck.

House operates Tree House Arbor Science and competes in the International Society of Arboriculture’s International Tree Climbing Championship August 3–4 in Toronto.

Find more First Person Q&As here

Hannah Kiddoo is a Madison-based writer.

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