Some climbers are of the social type. Others, corporate.
But Matt Starks, 34, of Independence — with his boyish exuberance and hands that clasp like Vise Grips — is of the original, one might even say evolutionary, variety.
He’s a tree climber, a professional tree trimmer, whose lemurlike ability to hop from limb to limb or scale a trunk are so superior that it was announced Monday he will be one of 61 contestants, representing entrants from 17 countries, who will compete at the end of March at the International Tree Climbing Championship.
Yes, there is such a thing.
Created by the International Society of Arboriculture, a group dedicated to safe care and cultivation of trees and shrubs, the competition on March 21 and 22 in Tampa, Fla., marks its 39th year.
“This is my passion,” Starks said Monday morning after he was found — where else? — climbing down with helmet and gear, a chain saw dangling from his hip harness, from the middle branches of a 40-feet-tall walnut tree in Gladstone.
Starks has been trimming trees for nearly 16 years, ever since an uncle forced him 30 feet up into the branches of an ice-damaged tree in his native Ellijay, Ga. No safety ropes that day. “Idiotic,” Starks said in his Georgian drawl. No helmet, either.
Now arboriculture is all about safety and being kind to trees (no shoe spikes when he scrambles up a trunk), and, for him, fun.
“I love my job,” Starks said while working a shift for Farage Tree & Stump Removal. “I could not think of doing anything else. How many people get to say they climb trees for a living, swinging from branches like a monkey?”
The competition is more than that. It begins with five preliminary events, a sense of which can be had from video of the 2014 competition. One is the belayed speed climb, scrambling up a tree by rope as fast as you can. Starks’ time to get 50 feet high: 12 seconds.
“I’m a super-competitive person,” he said. adding that his daily work acts as his training. “My girlfriend hates playing anything with me. I have to win.”
Other events in the competition include: an aerial rescue; climbing a tree and hauling a dummy down to safety; the work climb, whereby the climber hops from one target branch to the next; the secured footlock, climbing a rope in a special fashion; and the throw line, which tests a competitor’s ability to use a ball to toss a rope over specified branches, some as high as 70 feet.
Starks won other preliminary competitions to get to the international championship, which has been held in locales as distant as New Zealand. The first competition, in 1976, was held in St. Louis. The championship includes divisions for men and women with competitors coming from as far as Australia, Japan, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy and Belgium.
“We generally consider these men and women the best of the best,” said Sonia Garth, a spokeswoman for the Illinois-based arboriculture society, which started in 1924. “For most, probably 100 percent, of our competitors their training is their day-to-day work.”
Even with a focus on safety, swinging from branch to branch and wielding a chain saw has its inherent risks.
Starks, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Ava, said he never climbs without safety equipment. He even weaves his own safety ropes. It doesn’t stop tragedy. Two and a half years ago, he was using a chain saw in a tree near Lake Lotawana when he accidentally cut his rope.
He fell 40 feet, landing on his back, breaking bones and requiring an emergency airlift to a hospital, where he spent four days in the intensive care unit.
“That’s what saved my life,” Starks said, pointing to his hard hat. “If I hadn’t had that on, they said my skull would have split in half.”
He’s hardly complaining. “I was up competing 10 weeks later,” he said.
But he didn’t have health insurance, and he still is slowly paying off about $100,000 in medical bills.
First place wins in each of the five preliminary contests bring $250 each, with $500 each for the final winners in the men’s and women’s divisions.