A dozen firefighters who represented Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One were among more than 1,500 who donned some 50 pounds of gear — including helmet, fireproof coat and pants, boots, breathing apparatus and air tanks — and climbed 1,311 stairs on Sunday, from the fifth floor lobby to the 73rd floor observation deck of The Columbia Tower in Seattle.
The fundraiser raised nearly $1 million to battle blood cancers through the Washington/Alaska chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said Assistant Chief Steve Nixon, who participated in the event.
This year’s climb was the 22nd annual event and featured 1,550 firefighters from nearly 300 departments and 21 states and five countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand, all of whom climbed The Columbia Tower’s 69 flights of stairs up 788 feet of vertical elevation.
The stair climb is a grueling test of endurance like few others. The nature of the event also makes it difficult to train for.
“The easiest way is to maintain a certain level of fitness throughout the year, and then focus training,” said Nixon, who added it’s not something you can cram for.
Firefighter Eliza Hoover, 38, who placed third out of the Gig Harbor Fire & Medic contingent with a time of 19 minutes, 51 seconds (567th place out of the 1,473 firefighters who finished the climb), said the only way to approximate the experience for training purposes is to find another tall building and make the climb.
“Regardless of training, it’s still hard,” Hoover said of the energy-sapping endeavor.
“The steps are pretty relentless. They don’t give up,” said Nixon, who has participated in all of the stair climbs, with the exception of the inaugural event. “You cannot duplicate 69 floors straight up.”
Now that he’s older than when he first took on the stair climb 21 years ago, Nixon said he has to work harder to post a good time.
He’s also more cognizant of the fundraising aspect.
“I’ve kind of shifted my focus a little bit,” he said. “It just makes the climb worthwhile.”
That sentiment was echoed by other firefighters as well.
“A big motivator for me is the charity,” firefighter Brad Harris said. “It’s such a good cause.”
The 15 to 25 minutes of hot, hard work is made a little bit easier by keeping the cause of fighting blood cancers in mind, Harris said. There are reminders of what firefighters are climbing floor in the form of posters placed in the stairwell.
“It’s a fun day,” Hoover said.
The event has grown during its lifespan. Early stair-climb events turned out about 100 people, Nixon said.
“It’s just huge,” he said of the event’s contemporary popularity.
It also affords firefighters a chance to socialize in the course of raising money for a cause.
“It’s a fun time to catch up,” Nixon said. “It’s such a good cause. I know a lot of people affected by the disease. I just found out a close friend has issues. When you boil it down, it gets pretty easy to do some fundraising for that purpose.”
All three firefighters agreed that seeing people climb for those who have the disease — and in memory of those whose lives have been taken — was an emotional experience.
Bagpipers and drummers who played “Amazing Grace” also tugged at their heartstrings, Harris said.
In addition to Hoover’s third-place finish among the Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One team, Bren Corcoran placed first in 18:10 (358th overall), and Steve Larson, 42, was second in 18:18 (373rd overall).
The Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One team raised $6,650.
The Scott Firefighter Stair Climb will accept donations for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through March 28. To make a donation, visit www.firefighterstairclimb.org.
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_brett.