Volunteer firefighter Walter Moorhead after reaching the 69th floor of the Columbia Tower. The picture on his helmet is Carol Ross, his wife, who recently died of sarcoma.
At the front, taking this selfie, is Dorianne Sprehe. Walter Moorhead is in the center. Clockwise from Sprehe are Adam Sprehe, Jordan Buness, Dustin Johnson,,Tim Buness and Chris Hatton.
Story last updated at 2/14/2017 - 8:58 pm
On March 11, six Wrangell firefighters will gear up in bunker gear and air packs and time themselves as they climb the 69 floors of the Columbia Tower in Seattle.
Firefighters from across the world put themselves through 1,311 arduous steps to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Washington and Alaska through the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb.
Last year, out of the 26 states and eight countries that had fire departments with participating teams, the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb raised $2.3 million. Out of that, the Wrangell team raised $16,667, placing them third for the most fundraising per capita. Through group fundraisers and individual solicitations, the team broke their record in terms of donations. This year, they hope to raise a comparable amount. The Scott Firefighter Stairclimb as a whole aims to raise $2.5 million in 2017. As of print time, Wrangell has raised more than $4,000, putting them at least 40 percent along to their goal of at least $10,000 for 2017.
For volunteer firefighter Walter Moorhead, last year was his first time getting involved on Wrangell’s stairclimb team. His wife, Carol Ross, had recently died of sarcoma, which is a cancer that arises in bones and connective tissue like fat and muscle. When Moorhead was approached by Adam and Dorianne Sprehe to join the Wrangell team, he agreed.
“… Although the fundraiser is for leukemia, and my wife died of sarcoma, a different kind of cancer, it was the closest thing available to me,” Moorhead said. “It was a real good experience for me and fairly therapeutic at the time. It gave me something to work at.”
Moorhead was joined by another two recruits, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Buness, and with previous member Christine Hatton, they made six (the Wrangell’s volunteer fire department has 40-45 members, he said).
All the bunker gear and air packs together weigh about 40 pounds. Bunker gear can get hot due to the insulation, and the confinement of the mask and gear can make some people feel claustrophobic, so training is important.
To prepare last year, the team would go on group hikes in their bunker gear, which helped them condition their bodies while simultaneously advertising for the fundraiser to anyone who saw them. Somebody who was thankful to the Wrangell Fire Department even wrote a check for a used stair machine they could set up in the fire hall to climb on with their gear on. The team used to climb on the stair machine at the Wrangell Swimming Pool, but an alarm would go off on their air tanks when they had ¼ left, which was obnoxious to the other patrons.
Moorhead has been training five days a week, going 1,311 steps at a time. He times himself, getting himself at least a minute under his record last year of 22 minutes.
“Stairs and stair machines aren’t the same thing,” he said, explaining how he has to climb more floors on the machine to have the same number of steps. “It’s a good substitute, something you can do even when it’s rainy and icy.”
On climb day, firefighters gather in the courtyard of the Columbia Tower, geared up and waiting their turns. Every 15 seconds, another firefighter is allowed to enter the stairwell, swipe the chip-patch on their sleeve to begin their time count, and then make their ascent. Each team member is spaced out from each other, so when they reach the 40th floor and get the option to exit the stairwell to get a new air pack from their seventh team member who is standing by, they don’t create a backlog and ruin each others’ times.
“It’s your judgment call on whether you need a fresh bottle. Most people do,” Moorhead said. Each team has a member who isn’t climbing standing by to change air packs or watch for anyone having any physical difficulties.
Some people can do the whole climb in with one pack, like Andrew Drobeck, who reached the top and swiped his chip at 10 minutes and 43 seconds in 2016. Moorhead hit the middle of the pack at 889/1619 with a time of 22 minutes and 36 seconds, and with the second best time of his team. Once a firefighter finishes, they can take the elevator back down.
“Your performance is not attached to the money because you raised all the money independent of your performance and that’s all turned in before you climb,” Moorhead said. “The time you make is just a personal challenge issue.”
Checks and cash can be given directly to a member of the team. To donate online, go to: llswa.org/site/TR/Events/FirefighterStairclimb?team_id=65792&pg=team&fr_id=1552.