Growing up, Nicole Benjamin was always outside.
She climbed trees on her parents’ farm in Minnesota. In college, she worked as a landscaper.
Then, she got an “adult job.” And she hated it.
“I don’t know why I thought that getting a desk job would be the way to go when I always enjoyed being outside and working with my hands,” the 34-year-old said.
That’s when she applied for an entry-level job at Heartwood Tree Service, a tree care company with the mission to “help trees outlive humans.”
Since then, she’s become a certified arborist and learned how to climb trees. And on Friday, she’ll represent North Carolina and Heartwood at this year’s International Tree Climbing Competition in Columbus, Ohio.
Today’s pain, tomorrow’s strength
Benjamin keeps the temperature inside her house at a balmy 80 degrees so her body doesn’t go into shock during a long day working in the heat.
At Heartwood, her typical day lasts from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., with her crew handling everything from taking down a single limb to fully removing trees.
It’s mentally and physically taxing work, but Benjamin pushes through any challenges. She has a tattoo on the inside of her right bicep that says “today’s pain tomorrow’s strength.”
The founder of Heartwood, Patrick George, is a former player and avid supporter of the Charlotte Rugby Club.
So, when Benjamin, a rugby player on the women’s team, 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, and they tend to be team-oriented,” George said.
Benjamin said she doesn’t imagine herself returning to a desk job, even though tree work can be exhausting.
“I know 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 said.
When Benjamin told her family that she was going to be a tree care worker, she said they were excited but nervous.
Tree work is the deadliest job in the United States, according to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2016.
Benjamin has been working at Heartwood for three years. Although she’s still new to the industry, Isaac Basson, the operations manager at Heartwood, said she is 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,” Basson said.
Benjamin is the only female production climber at Heartwood, but she likes to think that she’s one of the guys.
“We all work as a team and joke through the day the same way I think they would with male coworkers,” she said. “It’s nice because I have 10 dads and 20 brothers.”
‘Like a monkey on a rope’
From August 3-5, Benjamin will vie for an international title at her sixth tree climbing competition.
In order to qualify for the championships, Benjamin 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.
This weekend, she will compete against more than 70 climbers from 20 countries in five events, each of which is a condensed part of a tree care workers’ day.
Benjamin said her favorite event is Work Climb, which involves ringing bells as the competitor descends the tree.
“It’s so fun,” she said. “You’re swinging around the tree like a monkey on a rope as fast as you can.”
Another event is Aerial Rescue, during which climbers respond to an emergency situation, such as a climber having an asthma attack or getting pinned under a limb.
The top three placers in each event will receive a cash prize. The finalists also will have an opportunity to compete for additional cash prizes and climbing gear in the championship round.
Benjamin said that, although she’s competitive, she likes the sport because of the camaraderie between climbers.
“You’ll go to each station in your groups, so 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.”