As show season gets underway, arborists will have a few opportunities to put their pole-climbing skills to the test. But suppose you’ve never competed before. Where do you begin and what do you need to know? essentialARB’s Wiltshire Dave attempted to find out.

PRIOR to the APF Show last year, pole climbing held only miserable memories associated with work for me. Poplar or beech stems, massive chainsaws and tiny drop zones, exhaustion, woodchip in your eyes and pain. Oh, and freezing fingers, rain or blistering heat and tight deadlines.

But APF 2022’s Husqvarna-sponsored event, organised by Terry Bennett from Pole Climbing Ltd and sponsored by AUS (a name I entirely misunderstood, as I’ll explain later), changed all that. Suddenly my eyes were opened to a sport that looked great fun to take part in, but is equally enthralling and entertaining to the crowds.

I’d been aware the practice of pole climbing for competition and entertainment existed, but knew very little about it. Keen to learn more, I started with Terry, who I rang and was helpful and willing to cooperate.

I’ll try to sum it up succinctly, and bear in mind I’m talking about the sport from a UK perspective (I wouldn’t know where to start with Canadian, Australian or American versions). Basically, you wear spikes if you’re a tree surgeon or modified toe spikes if expert, then race to the top of an 80-ft pole and ring a bell.

Despite the thrilling spectacle, it’s actually pretty safe. A team of belayers take up the slack, so you are safe from falling, but that doesn’t take away from the levels of fitness and skill required.

The contest I watched was run over three days and the fastest time in each category secured some reasonable prize money. It was classed as a world event, though the participants I met on the day all seemed to live in York, Durham or Shropshire, though I didn’t meet everyone (I was so fascinated by the spectacle that I failed in my journalistic efforts to get much idea of who was there).

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Terry, a working-at-height instructor for the utility industry, seems to have fallen as accidentally into being a pole-climbing organiser as I have into writing.

Perhaps that’s just the way for worn-out arborists (or not-so-worn-out, in Terry’s case).

They’ll do whatever happens to come along when they realise tree surgery isn’t well suited to the elderly.

Terry won the pole-climbing event at the Royal Welsh Show in 2005 with a time of 30 seconds. This seemed quite fast to me, but I know from limited research that sub-nine seconds is more of a winning time these days.

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“I won,” he told me. “But there were only three or four competitors.”

He was hooked and soon found a way to combine work, holidays and pole climbing into one.

“The money for coming first or second is good, but it would be better if there was some sort of spread of the prizes across all levels of ability, which might encourage more first-timers into the competitions,” he said.

I thought perhaps I might make a living in the yet-to-be-invented ‘broken’ category.

Terry told me the early competitions were run by voluntary organisations and individuals, with the now defunct World Pole Climbing Association vanishing in 2008 or thereabouts.

Somehow he became the main organiser and now runs many of the UK competitions alongside his other work, attending around half a dozen big events each year, such as the APF when it is on, the Royal Three Counties, the Autumn Show, the Kent County Show and Woodfest (though the latter two are no longer running pole-climbing events).

Terry is keen to encourage people to take part, either as novices in the tree surgeon category, experts, or ladies. He said: “It’s a fun weekend, not just competition, but offering good times with like-minded people and the chance of winning a few pounds in prize money.”

Only if you win, I thought, imagining myself coming last and not even getting a rosette.

Anyway, contact Terry if you want to have a go at any of the aforementioned events. He’s easy to talk to, encouraging and enthusiastic.

Next I rang an old friend, Neil Portlock, who runs a tree business in Highworth.

“Do you know much about pole climbing, Neil?” I asked, having talked through his most recent break-in (I think I’ll write about arb theft next – unlike pole climbing, it’s something I do have experience of).

“I entered a competition in the late 1990s, at the Royal Highland Show in Scotland,” he said, surprising me. I thought he only climbed stuff out of necessity, not pleasure. “I won.”

Well, that sums up the point of the article. You need to be in it to win it and you might surprise yourself. If you’ve dismantled enough monoliths, can overcome the fear of failure or showing yourself up in front of a crowd, then apply, enter and see what happens.

On the day of the APF 2022 I chatted with several of the female pole climbers who were enthusiastic and adrenaline-fuelled. A couple of them were business owners and one, a young lady doing her first event, was nervous but determined. I really wanted to follow up for this feature by asking how she overcame her trepidation and still managed to put in a good time, but wasn’t able to.

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Instead, I tried to do a bit of research on the internet, to find out more about the UK events and speak to some of the competitors. The web had information, but not all of it was useful. One of the pages was in Welsh, which I couldn’t read, I stumbled across some pole dancing and managed to steer myself away and was bemused by a fellow in the Far East who had made a pole-climbing device out of some old flip flops and metal tubing. Fascinating and time-wasting.

Eventually I realised where I could find information. I’d assumed, in my complete ignorance, that AUS meant Australia, but it actually stands for Associated Utility Services, which sponsors the events. On the AUS page I watched a video of someone racing up a pole – guess who!

Terry had been at the Three Counties Show, not organising but climbing a pole and then descending with great panache. As he said, the belay team are very important and he had complete trust in them. I spoke to his son, who at 14 should qualify to compete as a novice climber.

“What’s your fastest time?” I asked, having discovered he first ascended a pole at the age of eight, albeit with the help of the belay team.

“11.4 seconds,” he said, as if this was somehow normal. I was astounded. So much for the novice angle, I thought.

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He went on to explain that his goal was to beat Dan Whelan, the world champion. Ambitious, but I guess that’s what it takes. Dan’s grandfather ascended a pole in his 80s, which means Lewis Bennett has plenty of time to fulfil his dream if Dan keeps going as long.

Lewis explained the poles are usually 80-ft high but sometimes 100, such as at the Royal Welsh Show. I wanted to know how he coped with the pressure of being watched. The crowds at the APF seemed pretty relaxed, but they were all as transfixed as I was when the competitors raced. Nine seconds or so didn’t eat into the drinking time too much, so pole climbing is the ideal distraction at these shows for the arborist who doesn’t want to concentrate too hard on their day off.

“I worry about my technique, but enjoy the thrill of being cheered on,” he told me.
Ultimately, Lewis is interested in working on wind turbines. He also had an interest in his father’s job, as commentator at the events, so move aside Dad, watch your back Dan and good luck to Lewis. 

Someone else who spoke to me was Henry Warren-Hastings, a contract climber from Coventry, causing me to wonder if anyone south of Swindon has ever climbed a pole. He was affable and informative, telling me that being a part of the community of pole climbers was something he enjoyed. 

“I’ve tried to persuade the arborists I work with to have a go,” he said, going on to tell me that he had cajoled one other to join him. “He loved it and is going to do more.” 

We chatted about tree surgeons and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the profession has either had enough of climbing stuff after the working week, or is worried the criticism from colleagues might be too harsh if they don’t do well.

I get that, but maybe also it’s a case of wanting to sit in the sun, drink beer and take it easy at the shows. Tree work is hard and I certainly don’t begrudge a fellow for wanting a bit of proper downtime.

Henry had some decent results, around 14 and 16 seconds, and had the best times in the UK in 2019, in his category of ‘tree surgery’ (forgive me if I haven’t got that entirely correct, I still don’t fully comprehend the criteria for being a champion, except that it has something to do with overall best times over a season).

Henry started out in the tree surgeons’ class five or six years ago in his early 20s and then graduated to expert, meaning he was competing against people who were the actual fastest overall, like Dan Whelan and Emma Cakebread. The latter seems not only to be hold her own in competition with men, but beating them too.

In fact, I might have done Emma a disservice at the APF. Not knowing much about the sport I bumped into her and very briefly chatted, not knowing who she was until very recently. She was modest enough not to mention her status in the pole-climbing world and the only thing I mentioned in my subsequent article was about her horse (sorry Emma, poor research on my part).

Returning to the expert Henry, he explained something that had me slightly baffled.

“We have to make our own toe spikes,” he said, explaining that only the tree surgeons used side spikes. I’d heard this before. It seemed odd that nobody manufactured the devices as a business, but he explained the sport has such a small following that it probably isn’t worth a company getting involved.

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Henry told me stuff about ‘strut’ toe spikes and having help making his from a classic car enthusiast, but I can’t claim to have fully understood so won’t go into the technical stuff here.

This article started life as an insightful piece on novices entering the sport. Most of the competitors I managed to speak to were hardly novices, but the main takeaway is that they want more of you involved, so give it a go.

Finally, having said above that I’d take part if there was a veteran’s class, I found out there is one. It means that one day you might see me, complete with NHS-funded spare parts, racing up a pole. I’m hoping for a time of sub-nine – that is nine minutes.

If you need proper information on events, competitions, etc, Terry Bennett is your man. He can be contacted on or 07711 398628.