Area man goes out on the limb and to the top of his profession

  • Kelly-Heidbreder

    Kelly Heidbreder

  • Kelly Heidbreder
    Kelly Heidbreder

    It is common to find Matt Cornell just hanging around on the job. Matter of fact, he gets paid to climb trees. He is an arborist and is considered the best tree climber in Ohio.

    Mr. Cornell has worked for L.E. Savory Tree and Lawn for six years. His daughter Emily and son Archie get to brag that their dad is good at climbing trees. The 38-year-old father of two takes his kids and wife Sarah all over the country for climbing competitions to stay sharp.

    PHOTO GALLERY: The Tree Trimmer.

    “I recently took the family with me to the American Tree Climbing Competition and placed in the top 38 out of 64 climbers,” he said. “I am training every day at work. I am always moving through a tree and it is just second nature to me.” 

    I've always been passionate about doing tree work,
    I've always been passionate about doing tree work," certified arborist Matt Cornell said.

    Top of his game
    Climbing competitions highlight the skill of the arborist to move through a tree. He is the first state champion to come from northwest Ohio and he took the top prize for the fastest and safest climb. They gave the climbers 22 minutes to get to three bell stations.

    “Usually, the main anchor point at the top of the tree is somewhere between 75 to 90 feet up in the air,” Mr. Cornell said. Not only did he have to go up, but he had to go out 40 feet on each limb to ring the bell. Then he had to use his ropes to get to the other bell, which was on the opposite side of the tree.

    This is the only big event sanctioned by the Ohio International Society of Arboriculture. It was in Sunset Memorial Park in North Olmsted near Cleveland in May. Each arborist went through five different events. There is a work climb, a speed climb, an aerial rescue, throw line competition and a secured foot lock competition. Only the top three finishers qualify for the Master’s Competition at the end.

    Mr. Cornell was able to beat out two other arborists from Columbus in that final challenge. He said he has done this competition for the past years and made it to the top three for the last three years.

    As the Ohio State Tree Climbing Champion, he will go to Toronto and compete in the World Champion International Tree Climbing Competition Saturday through Wednesday. 

    Tools of the trade
    Climbing trees isn’t a kid’s game when you are talking to someone who may need to cut down a 100-year-old tree in their yard. “People get pretty attached to their trees and I understand this. They add to your property value and many people have sentimental attachments. So when I give them a diagnosis on how to care for their tree, I want to have all of the right tools,” Mr. Cornell said.

    He climbs through the tree utilizing ropes, a saddle, cutting tools, strong muscles and a sharp mind. He doesn’t use any fancy footwear. “You should never let anyone climb in your tree with spikes on their boots. It will do more harm than good to your tree,” he said.

    He uses a two and a half inch climbing rope, 10-ounce weights that he sets to a branch union in a tree and accesses other branches. And you can’t forget the hard hat, safety glasses and gloves.

    As he climbs he said he has to keep a 45-degree angle from the main trunk line so he won’t take radical swings. As he climbs, he controls the friction on his rope with a hitch on his belt.

    “It takes a lot of endurance to do this job so you have got to be in good physical condition plus [have] mental stability, because it is dangerous work. You have to stay focused and stay a couple steps ahead of yourself to be safe in the tree while making pruning cuts,” he explained. 

    "Climbing trees has always been second nature to me."

    Tree doctor
    He says he cares for trees like a surgeon cares for a patient. “Trees are living organisms and I like to compare it to a doctor who works on people. I consider myself a tree surgeon and manage trimming the tree for the health of the tree, good aesthetic appeal, and getting rid of anything hazardous parts of the tree.”

    By degree, he is a certified arborist and has taken about four years of horticulture science to literally keep his skills sharp.

    Whenever he works on a tree he makes sure to take out anything that is dead and dying or anything that would be unsafe for the homeowners below. Usually it is important to take some weight off the ends of the branches to help the tree. The larger limbs are lowered to the ground using ropes in the tree to make sure nothing below gets damaged.

    “I am always looking at the branch unions and structure before I consider where to cut. I take time to think about what is best for the tree and in the customer’s best interest and also his safety. There are so many situations where I really need to think outside of the box and there is a lot of engineering involved when you are up in the tree.”

    Mr. Cornell said he is blessed to have a job he enjoys.

    “I have been climbing for 17 years. I find these climbing competitions help advance my skill sets and advance my technique in this changing industry,” he said. “I still love hanging out in trees and I think I have another good 20-25 years of climbing in me. It is so much fun that it really does, doesn’t feel like he work.”

    Contact Kelly Heidbreder at