The wind turbines that Holly Zschetzsche loves fixing and maintaining are as tall as a football field is long—300 feet.
That’s in no way daunting for the 23-year-old who lives in Rumford and works on General Electric towers in Carthage and Canton, Maine, and Berlin, New Hampshire. She has zero fear about climbing these towers to do her daily work. In fact, it brings her boundless joy.
“It’s amazingly lucky that I’ve found what I like. No matter what the conditions are, it’s spectacular,” says Zschetzsche (pronounced Zetchie). “The whole valley, the fog in the morning. It’s all something to marvel at.”
As a child, she was always happy being many feet off the ground.
“My mom would tell you that I was always climbing on top of the couch and jumping off when I was really little, and I used to climb out my bedroom window and hop onto the roof to do my homework and just read books.”
In high school, as she considered her future, Zschetzsche knew that a small college north of her hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, offered a series of classes in careers that don’t typically attract women. Her mother had gone through the program and recommended it.
“I was a teenager and wasn’t really listening to my mother. I was like, OK, yeah, Mom. But I have my own plan.”
Zschetzsche knew she wanted to go to college—and had a great interest in glaciology, the study of snow and glaciers—but was more practical than most teens in considering what would come next (huge college debt and likely trouble finding a job in such an unusual field).
So she decided to earn her way through college by enlisting at age 17 in the Army National Guard. As a minor, she needed her parents’ permission.
“For me, it was a no-brainer,” she says.
Once she fulfilled her active-duty requirements—starting as an intelligence analyst and then learning about locomotives and electrical and mechanical technology—she enrolled in college, trying the program her mother had recommended years earlier.
“I did welding and nuclear power, and had signed up for the automotive part, but the moment I started the wind class, I just fell in love with it, and there was no other thing I wanted to do.”
She was hired as a traveling technician for wind turbines right out of school, saw much of the country and Canada, and landed her “dream job” about a year ago with G.E. in Maine. She’s the only woman on her team—a fact that does not deter her. But she says she does appreciate being able to interact with a few women staff members from time to time.
Before July, when she fractured her leg during an Army Reserve training session in California (her duty now consists of one weekend a month and two weeks each summer), Zschetzsche worked primarily on electrical and mechanical components of turbines, climbing towers daily except when platform conditions were too icy and snowy. She also can’t work on towers if temperatures reach below -25 degrees or above 107 degrees.
The injury will leave her sidelined for six to eight months, and that’s not sitting well for someone accustomed to working out six days a week to stay strong and limber and being outside for work daily.
She says it’s been terribly depressing and “the guys I work with try to help as much as they can. They give me play-by-plays about what they did up the tower that day. They try to keep me busy with paperwork, but it’s not the same as climbing. I always ask them to teach me something I didn’t know about the turbine before, and that usually boosts my mood the most,” says Zschetzsche, who has assumed the duties of environmental health and safety coordinator.
“I’m just glad it’s something I can return from,” she says.
Waiting to heal is especially tough for such a high-energy woman who loves downhill skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating and tried ice climbing last winter. Zschetzsche thrives on adventure and being outside her comfort zone.
To celebrate each of her last few birthdays, she’s taken trips that would make many people edgy to contemplate—bungee jumping in South America, skydiving in Cuba and swimming in a bioluminescent lagoon in Jamaica.
For her next birthday, Zschetzsche has her sights set on a winter climb of Mount Washington.
“I like to really welcome in each new year,” she explains with a laugh.
Patricia McCarthy is a longtime writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Portland, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).