Every year firefighters from across the country compete to see who, while wearing their firefighting gear, can climb the stairs to the top of the tallest building in Seattle the fastest. And every year for the last seven, Missoula’s city fire department has won.
It’s all a part of a competition to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
And it brought a few Missoula firefighters to Highlander Brewing on a recent snowy evening. Part of the proceeds from drinks went toward the department’s fundraising efforts.
Firefighter Blake Meyers steps away from his pizza and beer to describe the biggest issue with climbing 69 flights of stairs in 50 pounds of firefighting gear -- something most of Missoula’s team members can do in under 20 minutes.
“All of your body heat is contained within your gear and it makes you very hot in a very quick amount of time. And that temperature just goes up and up with so many people in the stairwell throughout the day. So the later in the day you go, the hotter it gets. And the faster you go, the hotter you’re going to be.”
Meyers is one of 11 members on the department’s stair climbing team.
On March 10, they’ll join around 2,000 other firefighters from across the U.S. and around the world, put on their full uniforms and oxygen masks, and climb the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle. It’s a task symbolizing the difficult journey cancer patients face.
Since the climb started in 1991, the event has raised over $17 million.
“The competition that really matters is on the fundraising front," Meyers says. "Because that’s what we’re all there to do is raise money.”
But getting to the top the fastest adds to the excitement.
And to do that, it helps to train a little. That’s why Andy Drobeck takes some time out of his day to run up and down the stairwells in Missoula’s tallest building -- Aber Hall on the University of Montana campus. He goes to the stairwell he deems the least busy, trades out his sneakers for heavy boots, slides his insulated, yellow-striped pants and jacket over his gym shorts and t-shirt, and puts on his helmet. He leaves his gloves and oxygen tank behind for now.
At 11 stories, the college residence hall doesn’t quite compare to the Columbia Center, but Drobeck says, it helps him get used to the heat.
“It’s kind of overbearing how hot you get. And I’m doing it quick compared to other people. Some people are suffering like that for an hour. That’s why I like going fast. You get it over quick.”
Drobeck got the fastest time overall six years in a row. And he holds the record for the fastest time ever in Seattle at 10 minutes and 39 seconds.
But the whole department is known for going fast. The Missoula City Fire Department has won the team event seven years in a row -- that event takes the total times of the top three finishers and compares it to other departments.
Malcolm Edwards hopes this year he might be in the top three for the team. But that’ll be hard work.
“Every year during it while I’m doing it, it hurts so bad, you know. And every year I think ‘Why am I doing this?’ But then you just kind of forget over the year how much it hurts. It’s all for good cause though. It really is. I’m joking around when I say ‘Why am I doing it.’ I’ll do it probably as long as I possibly can. It’s just a fun event.”
And no matter how tired he gets, Edwards says, there’s one thing that gives him extra motivation to keep going -- a reminder of what the climb is about. At each floor, firefighters pass a picture of a blood cancer patient.
“I’ll be climbing and just be extremely tired, your whole body is hot. You just want to be done. And then you’ll see a picture, and it’s like, ‘Man, I’ve got to push harder.’ To know that my little bit of pain for 10 or 15 minutes is nothing compared to what these people have gone through. And that translates over to fundraising too. It’s a good motivator just to raise more money, just to maybe prevent one or two lives of people that have to go through that.”
Between now and March 10, Edwards and the rest of the team will keep training. Some will use stair climbers. Others will climb Mount Sentinel. And a few, including Edwards, will count skiing as a part of their workout. But when the weather won’t allow for that, there’s always a few more runs up and down Aber Hall.
And there’s still fundraising to do. Last year, the Missoula team raised over $8,500. All of the proceeds raised go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Edwards says people can donate until the end of the month.