Two installers double-teaming a massive 60' spruce tree in the Park City, UT.
Two installers double-teaming a massive 60' spruce tree in the Park City, UT.
Two installers double-teaming a massive 60-foot spruce tree in Park City, Utah (Photo: Vance Brand)

The Daring Dirtbags Who Make Salt Lake City Sparkle

In Utah, Christmas-tree lights are a very big deal. Meet the itinerant crew of climbers, river guides, ski bums, trekkers, and thru-hikers who work like super-elves to get ready for the year’s most beautiful holiday.

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Ryan Irvin is 55 feet in the air, on the railing-guarded platform of a cherry picker, when the mechanical boom that moves him around stops working. He’s standing on the second rail with no safety gear, reaching into the top of a 67-foot ponderosa pine tree named Big Red, which stands near a busy intersection in the middle of Orem, Utah, 45 miles south of Salt Lake City. It’s the first week of November, and the smells of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Panda Express are wafting from their respective street corners by the town’s library and police station, where Big Red and several other large trees rise up. Car horns punctuate the traffic noise as drivers yell things like “Thank you!” and “It’s not Christmas yet!”

Time is money when you’re a professional Christmas-light installer who gets paid by the number of strands you hang, so Irvin continues his aggressive branch-wrapping from the outside in, toward the trunk. Deep inside Big Red, two guys with arborist harnesses hang from ropes, ready to connect Irvin’s outside strands to the power cords they’ve strung up the tree. Travis “T-Pow” Powell is even higher up, tightrope-walking all the way out on a slippery limb to individually wrap smaller branches that he can’t reach from his lift. The tree shakes from all the thrashing, as balled-up light strands fall out of buckets and pinball to the ground. Branches crack off and land on Terrence Ferguson, the operations manager, as he tries to re-splice the lift’s wires so Irvin can eventually come back down. As the rain picks up, the temperature drops 20 degrees in three hours, and by 10 A.M. everybody is cold and soaked.

“This tree eats lights,” says T-Pow, referring to Big Red, which they’ll wrap exclusively in red LEDs. “The dense-needle bushes on the outside cover all the branches inside that have lights on them, so you have to put up even more to cover it. That also lets us make more money.” It’s T-Pow’s 11th season here as a Christmas-light installer, or as he calls it: an L-pro. (That stands for “lighting professional.”) As a veteran L-pro, the 37-year-old will make at least $55,000 in the ten weeks between October 1 and December 15, then spend the rest of his year on climbing and skiing expeditions in Alaska, where he lives and guides, interspersed with mountaineering trips to Argentina and maybe a powder-chasing adventure in Japan.

“I’m the only one here who actually likes Christmas lights,” he said earlier, while driving a company van to the job with three pairs of gloves drying on the dashboard. “I take pride in my work and always want it to look good, like when I would help my parents hang lights at home growing up.”

Ryan Irvin, left, and Travis “T-Pow” Powell
Ryan Irvin, left, and Travis “T-Pow” Powell (Scott Yorko)
Powell at the big Orem job
Powell at the big Orem job (Ryan Irvin)

In 2011, T-Pow guided Vance and Kira Brand—now the husband-and-wife owners of Christmas Light Professionals—on a glacier hike in the St. Elias Mountains near McCarthy, Alaska. The couple was there on a road trip in one of Vance’s custom-built vans, with the goal of exploring and recruiting gritty workers who were already comfortable operating in high-stress environments with bad weather, and staying positive about it.

“Guides are used to leading and problem-solving, and their fear management is high, especially with heights,” says Ryan Brand, Vance’s brother and business partner. Ever since, they’ve been recruiting mountain guides, river guides, and van-dwelling dirtbag climbers, many of whom make all or most of their annual income in the ten-week Christmas-lights season and spend the rest of the year mounting expeditions, ski bumming, traveling, climbing, and thru-hiking.

“If I’d known when I was twentysomething years old that I could go to work for a company and make enough money in a short time frame to chase adventures all over the world, I probably would have been all over it,” Vance tells me while sitting in his corner office at the company warehouse in Murray, Utah. Outside, an Oregon-plated Chevy Astro van with snowboards strapped to the roof is parked next to a van with Alaska plates and a whitewater kayak hanging off the back. Upstairs, bunk-bed employee housing can be smelled from the stairwell.

Vance and Ryan—who are both tall and have strong facial features that bear some resemblance to a couple of Baldwin brothers—are the sons of an electrician and grew up in Salt Lake City. Vance started this business 33 years ago while working as a window washer; some of his clients asked him to hang their Christmas lights (since he was already up on the roof). The company has grown year to year since then. Now, as the largest residential Christmas-lights installer in the West, the outfit tackles around 200 jobs a day in peak season—mostly for private residences, with some businesses or city jobs like the one in Orem thrown in. “Everything from Grandma’s house for $250 to malls for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Vance. They bill out several million dollars each year, before costs and payroll, and in 2022 alone they’ll hang about 800,000 feet of roofline and close to 2.5 million feet of lights in trees.

As a veteran installer, Travis “T-Pow” Powell will make at least $55,000 in the ten weeks between October 1 and December 15, then spend the rest of his year on climbing and skiing expeditions in Alaska.

At present, the company employs 47 installers and 12 office workers, including people who staff a side operation in Denver. But Denver homeowners, it must be said, usually ask for far fewer lights, and trees there are typically “spun” around the outside rather than wrapped in strands along every branch—the technique that’s standard practice in the Crossroads of the West. The Salt Lake City area is the zenith of Christmas-light decoration, and in your average middle-class, cookie-cutter neighborhood, several houses per block will have professionally installed lights every year.

“Salt Lake became a bigger Christmas-lights-driven city than any other city because of what the Mormon church does with the annual lighting downtown at Temple Square,” says Ryan. “There’s always been a lot of demand here.”

Indeed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints goes all out with their 35-acre downtown complex, which includes the Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake Tabernacle, Salt Lake Assembly Hall, the Seagull Monument, two visitor centers, museums, libraries, and a conference center. Starting in August, a full-time grounds crew of 30 begins adorning 800-plus trees and shrubs with lights wrapped so close together on every branch that you can hardly see the trunks. Lights float on a huge reflecting pool inside crystal balls, and people come from all over the state to ooh and ahh. Other light displays in the area, including a luminaria attraction in Lehi, as well as lights placed at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo, have tried to outdo the LDS light exhibit by going bigger and brighter, using hundreds of thousands more lights.

“We decorate the trees to accentuate their shape, size, and structure, and to draw attention to nature and the creator, not ourselves,” says Jay Warnick, manager of grounds services for Temple Square. “Our mission with the lights is to create an oasis, just like if you came across this in the middle of the desert, that gives you a feeling of safety and peace. That’s the motivation of the people who spend so many hours meticulously wrapping those branches each season.”

Irvin hangs strands in a large pine tree with some assistance from a mechanical lift and pole hook.
Irvin hangs strands in a large pine tree with some assistance from a mechanical lift and pole hook. (Scott Yorko)
Irvin in an aspen
Irvin in an aspen (Ryan Irvin)

The non-LDS L-pros don’t exactly share this sentiment of safety and peace when it comes to lights. “You’ll have times when a day went way longer than expected, and after finishing a job scheduled for 7 P.M., you stop at a gas station at 11 P.M. and pound a Red Bull to make it through the next few hours of work,” Ryan Irvin says of the team’s typical 80-to-90-hour, six-day workweek. Irvin is a mountaineering photographer based in Alaska who first started installing lights in 2014, after hearing about it through a guiding company he was working for in Oregon.

“We play lots of dance music,” he says, “anything to trick your body into staying awake longer while climbing trees and hanging off roofs and trying not to fall off a 24-foot ladder.” After a pause, he adds: “Then you try not to fall asleep at the wheel at 3 A.M. while driving home, and you’ll try to turn your brain off and sleep for 3.5 hours with wrist braces on because of the carpal tunnel the job gives you.” All this while having “lightmares,” which Irvin thinks of as the brain’s sensory reaction to so many hours of so many lights. Other L-pros report lightmares about wrapping lights in trees that never end, getting shocked, failing to locate a complicated power source, and tumbling off roofs.

Given the intensity of these work conditions, injuries are surprisingly rare. Aside from small things like getting poked in the eye with a tree branch, more serious calamities, such as broken bones, have occurred only once every few years. “It’s almost always just a small ladder fall or something that’s not the most dangerous thing they do,” Kira says. “They’re rarely falling off a roof—it’s almost always ten feet or less off the ground. The last bone break was someone who was installing on the garage of a one-story house, fell back off a ladder, and broke his wrist.” She tells installers not to go on roofs when there’s a small, slippery amount of snow, though roofs are actually safer when there’s a significant amount of snow, which adds traction.

Since the installers get paid based on how fast they work, not on the number of hours they log, they often can’t leave a job until it’s done, regardless of whether there’s on-site access to a bathroom. “Everyone has a poop story where they had to go somewhere undesirable, like the bushes in someone’s yard, or a cardboard box,” Irvin says. One veteran installer had to use a 7-Eleven hot-dog tray for this purpose, while positioned underneath a client’s porch. One local first-year straight-up pooped in his pants and had to call his dad to come pick him up.

As soon as the weather turns cold and nasty, the job requires doing all these things in freezing rain or driving snow without any shelter, often on ladders, on roofs, or high up in trees. If anyone wants to quit, this is generally the time, but that’s a tough move to make, since installers get paid their full sum only if they finish the entire season. This tends to bond them in a dark camaraderie of shared misery. The vibe they give off is like that of an intensely close, dysfunctional family whose members are not unfamiliar with spontaneous breakdowns and outbursts.

Powell at work in Orem
Powell at work in Orem (Ryan Irvin)
Irvin stapling over an edge in the Deer Valley area of Park City
Irvin stapling over an edge in the Deer Valley area of Park City (Ryan Irvin)

It’s the day after Halloween. Under a gray sky, pumpkins are smashed on the sidewalk, and wind is whipping across the lawn of a giant house perched on a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac in a posh section of the neighborhood called Cottonwood Heights.

“This is the last house I’d want to do on a day like this,” Irvin says as he scoots a 40-foot ladder along a brick wall between wind gusts, trying not to crack the ceramic roof tiles on a “carriage house” where four Ferraris reside. The house, owned by an insurance executive, has pointy spires and hundreds of trees planted along a cascading river that flows through the yard. The owner pays $5,000 to have Christmas lights hung every year and almost as much for Halloween, along with smaller hangs for Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July.

Irvin is working with Aubree Campbell, a blond, cherub-faced 22-year-old from Idaho who’s dancing to music in her headphones. She’s as bubbly as can be, but at week four on the job, she admits to having a “weeping hour” every night when she breaks down from the stress.

“After hours of climbing the same ponderosa tree, the adrenaline of the heights and fear and wind while high up on the ladder is taking its toll,” she says. Campbell was going to become a nurse, but after a brief work stint in New Zealand, she changed life plans and impulsively bought a van she calls Stewie. With no passenger seat and a dog named Gwen, she made her way to Alaska, picking up barista shifts along the way and eventually finding work river guiding for Chilkat Guides, out of Haines.

“This is way better!” she says about the fast money that comes from doing lights. Eight other guides from Haines are on the crew this year too, all of them experienced at running rivers like the Tatshenshini and Alsek. Several are planning to take their light-hanging money and raft the Grand Canyon for the month of February, then they’ll go to Mexico to rock-climb and Spain to backpack. Two of them are planning to ride motorcycles from India to Vietnam on a three-month expedition. For obvious reasons, some L-pros tend to hesitate when you ask where they live, usually settling on a vague mention of where they came from most recently.

“The transient out-of-towners work best here,” Vance says, “because they have a more focused ten-week mindset—without local commitments or distractions, like going out and partying at night.”

Down on the ground, 20 feet below Irvin and Campbell, another import from Haines—a 25-year-old named Raven Delhanty—is learning the ropes after signing on just four days ago. A veteran installer is showing her how to properly wrap pine trees, to make the lights look evenly distributed.

Delhanty finds the whole Christmas-lights thing to be over the top, but she’s rolling with it. “It’s wasteful, it’s opulent, excessive, and pointless, but I like that it pays me,” she says from inside the tree. “If I worked at Walmart, I’d feel abhorrent about that, too. That’s true of most people here—not in it for the joy of Christmas and decorative spirit.” Delhanty’s boyfriend, Hayden, was wrapping a treetop the other day in Park City; at one point the homeowner came out and asked if he could go even higher, to make the lights look taller and brighter than the neighbors’. “People see the Hallmark cards and want that,” Hayden says. “I get it. But it seems ridiculous to me. It feels like it’s all a competition.”

The sun sets, and the crew still has an entire cluster forest of scrub oaks to wrap in red and green. Straddling the top of an articulating ladder is 24-year-old Duncan McWilliam-Grench, another first-year installer getting thrown into the fire. He lives in his van, and he spent several weeks climbing in Moab and Indian Creek before taking this job. He hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, then worked in North Carolina in a jigsaw-puzzle factory, in a gear shop, and as a climbing guide.

“Work is work,” he says. “I’m not serving a community in need with this job, but it’s not bad.” His parents are just glad he’s working. They keep telling him to get a steady job or finish school, neither of which he wants to do. He was closing in on an outdoor education degree at North Carolina’s Brevard College when he dropped out with a 4.0. “It’s a degree for a field you don’t need a degree in,” he says. “Most second-year installers here make more money than my outdoor ed professors do in a year.” That’s hard to confirm, but these days it’s not uncommon for a second-year installer to bring home more than $30,000 in the ten-week season.

There are plenty of ways to wring the juice out of life, and as a freelance journalist for about half my adulthood, I’ve managed to see a substantial slice of the world. The work is a stressful, inconsistent, low-paying grind with a bleak future, but the stories I get to tell are enough to make people think I have a dream job. Talking with these young installers about what they plan to do with their money and time after Christmas, I can’t help but feel a rare spot of envy for the way they’re going about their youth, prioritizing experiences over any sort of traditional, prescribed career track. Why work all year when you can condense it into a shoulder season, doing so with people who share your passions and values? What would I have done with such quick money in my twenties? Maybe I would have taken on fewer unpaid internships and assignments I didn’t really want, instead focusing on pursuits that seemed more important and lit me up with inspiration.

While I’m pondering my life, I hear McWilliam-Grench fighting a snarl of branches in a tree. “I’m going to fucking hate Christmas after this!” he yells.

A fully lit tree in Orem
A fully lit tree in Orem (Ryan Irvin)
A job in Kaysville
A job in Kaysville (Ryan Irvin)

Saturday arrives. It’s the sixth straight day during the fifth week of the season, and morale is plummeting. Emily Rice, a tiny veteran installer with dark dreadlocks, a lip tattoo, blue eyes, and a squeaky voice, is lying on the sidewalk under a roadside tree wearing a high-visibility fluorescent rain jacket and groaning with back pain. “The rain means you get shocked more and work slower, but no one can see you cry,” she says, only half-joking. Shocks can happen when strands get cut, exposing the copper wire and charging whatever they come in contact with, whether it’s an installer’s hand or the metal ladder they’re standing on. Even without nicked wires, water running along the strands conducts current from the open outlet plug connections and charges the whole thing. Sometimes it’s enough to paralyze a hand or arm for a quick second, or burn a blister into their skin.

Others are near the breaking point too, sitting in their vans and falling asleep or staring at the trees—dreading the climb back up and trying to stay motivated. “Bitching about the job is part of the job, but so is joking about it,” says an installer named Nick Mitchell. “You need to get it out. You can’t let the bitching bring you down, but you can’t let it fester.”

It takes about two weeks for the job’s intensity to wear on people, and it can be especially tough for newbies who are dealing with a steep learning curve. Whenever anyone comes in with a bad attitude, the company tries to get them to quit as soon as possible before they affect the rest of the team. Even so, the retention rate after the first year is always low, which means roughly 25 new employees will show up in the same week every year. “It’s a shitshow,” says Terrence Ferguson.

One L-pro who’s not lacking in motivation or enthusiasm is A’trayl Frietag, a 35-year-old with a shapely blond beard and pink, leathery hands. The sixth-year installer is known for being the company cheerleader. “You’re worth it!” he’ll yell to first-years as they reach out to wrap the end of a branch with one foot hooked in the crotch of a tree.

“It’s wasteful, it’s opulent, excessive, and pointless, but I like that it pays me,” Raven Delhanty says from inside a tree. “If I worked at Walmart, I’d feel abhorrent about that, too. That’s true of most people here.”

Frietag slams energy drinks and rarely takes breaks until the job is done, regardless of group morale. He grew up in the foster system with an alcoholic mother and a father who was murdered when he was nine. He used to come straight to work from a methadone clinic, before relapsing and going back to prison for several years on repeat-offender drug and theft charges. He got out in 2017, convinced Vance to rehire him, and has been kicking ass ever since—renting a house with sober roommates and driving an Acura TL, a Harley, and a truck for a landscaping business he has.

“With lights, I found out I’m an artist,” Frietag says while he takes us down Interstate 15 toward Orem. “I feel like I can create something meaningful beyond money.” He doesn’t care about the holiday culture of Christmas lights, and even though he knows they make people happy, he sometimes struggles with wistful feelings about the many beautiful homes and families he sees. Or projects like this nearly six-figure Orem job.

“I can’t figure out why they don’t do something else with that money, like build a shelter or low-income housing or a recovery center,” he says. “… I did a house yesterday where the woman spent seven grand like it’s nothing, and I wondered what else she could have bought with that money. Then I looked around at all the cars in her driveway and realized she can still buy anything she wants.”

It’s a shared conflict for these people—frivolous spending from which they directly benefit. “Most of us come from tight, rural communities and wouldn’t choose to live life in a city around people with such different values and personal priorities,” says 33-year-old Chris Muse, a river guide from Haines. Muse brought most of the other Alaskans to the job this year and will get a $500 recruitment bonus for each of them. He’s joined other L-pros on expeditions in Nepal and will lead the February Grand Canyon trip—all while saving money for flight school. “We’re part of a system of people using a lot of their disposable income to do something that’s not necessary for their survival,” he says. “It’s singularly American, but they’re stoked on it here.”

Lights at the Willow Creek Country Club in Sandy
Lights at the Willow Creek Country Club in Sandy (Ryan Irvin)
A display with streamers for a homestead resort in Heber City
A display with streamers for a homestead resort in Heber City (Ryan Irvin)

Back at the warehouse, where lights are stored in the off-season, much of the crew is hanging out together on a cloudy Saturday evening, cooking burgers, laughing about who hung how many strands in the rain, and debating who’s the biggest badass. Some tell stories of how many KNAR points they earned—a Shane McConkey-inspired game that stands for Kira’s Numerical Assessment of Radness—in categories like Alpine Style, which means finishing a whole house without coming down from the roof (500 points). Other achievements include the Houdini (getting off a roof without using a ladder, 300 points); the Terrence (eating nothing but donuts and Red Bull all day, 300 points); Call Your Mom while Bulbing the Peak (putting the last light on the highest point of a roof, 150 points); Accidentally Drink Out of Your Pee Bottle (minus 200 points); and Take a Customer on a Date to Red Lobster (2,000 points).

Some talk about putting on a warehouse light show later, spinning bulb strands into tracers. This group knows how to make fun out of dismal moments, and it’s clear that they need each other to survive their ultra-unusual lifestyle, which combines all sorts of hardship with Christmas cheer. While burgers char on the grill, Ryan Irvin grins and says, “These are good people to go through hell with.”