A Pinewood, North Carolina woman used to have a job that involved sitting at a desk all day. She hated it, so she traded it for sitting in a harness rig working for Heartwood Tree Service — and found her bliss. She’ll soon represent the state and Heartwood at this year’s International Tree Climbing Competition in Columbus, Ohio, according to a story in the Charlotte Observer.
It’s not that surprising a move for 34-year-old Nicole Benjamin. Growing up, she was always outdoors, climbing trees on her parent’s Minnesota farm. In college, she worked as a landscaper. But then, she got an “adult job,” indoors, sitting at that cursed desk.
After three years at Heartwood, she’s become a certified arborist — and learned how to climb trees the safe, professional way. Isaac Basson, Heartwood’s operations manager, says she’s a fast learner. “We usually say you know just enough to not get hurt after six years, so to do it in three is an achievement.”
“I don’t know why I thought getting a desk job would be the way to go when I always enjoyed being outside and working with my hands,” says Benjamin.
And playing outside, too. Being a member of the women’s team at the Charlotte Rugby Club is how she met Heartwood’s founder (and former rugby player) Patrick George. When she approached him about a job, he was excited to hire her.
“People who play rugby are a natural fit because they see hard work as fitness training, and they tend to be team-oriented,” George says.
Benjamin doesn’t imagine herself ever returning to that dreaded desk. “When I’m up there, I don’t have to think about other stuff because I’m so focused in on one thing — to not die — that everything else in the world just goes away,” she says.
The only female production climber at Heartwood likes to think of herself as ‘one of the guys.’ “We all work as a team and joke through the day the same way I think they would with a male coworker,” she said. “It’s nice, like having 10 dads and 20 brothers.”
When Benjamin told her real family about her new job, they were excited for her, but also nervous. They had a good cause to be; tree work is the deadliest job in the United States, according to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2016.
Benjamin will soon vie for an international title at her sixth tree climbing competition. In order to qualify, she had to be a top finisher at the Southern Chapter Tree Climbing Competition in Memphis last March. She went unchallenged as the sole female competitor.
The events are based on a typical tree worker’s day. Her favorite event is Work Climb, which involves ringing bells as the competitor descends the tree. “It’s so fun. You’re swinging around the tree like a monkey on a rope as fast as you can.”
Another is Aerial Rescue, where competitors respond to another climber having an asthma attack or getting pinned under a limb.
Although Benjamin is competitive, she likes the sport because of the camaraderie between climbers. “It turns into a team thing where you’re cheering people on,” she said. “You’re competing against each other, but you’re still trying to help everyone do their best.”
If anyone needs encouragement, perhaps she’ll show them the tattoo she has on the inside of her right bicep. It reads: “Today’s pain, tomorrow’s strength.”