A CANCER CLIMB
Capt. Johan Nilsson has done the LLS Firefighter Stairclimb for the past three years, but none were quite as meaningful as the most recent.
Capt. Nilsson, of the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, recently lost his father-in-law, Chuck Kessel, to multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.
Mr. Kessel was named an honoree for the 28th annual stair climb hosted by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society earlier this month at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle. The event raises funds for blood cancer research and patient services.
Nearly 2,000 firefighters — current, former and volunteer — from around the world gather in the Emerald City at the second tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
The firefighters climb 69 flights of stairs, totaling 1,356 steps, to reach the highly acclaimed Sky View Observatory.
Participants are required to complete the daunting task in full uniform, towing an extra 40 or 50 pounds or so, while using a self-contained breathing apparatus.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Capt. Nilsson told the News-Press.
Capt. Nilsson has taken his family to the event over the years, but this year he was able to take his mother-in-law, Leslie, who, because her late husband was an honoree, was able to go to the top of the tower to watch Capt. Nilsson finish the climb.
“It was definitely special for her,” he said.
Capt. Nilsson got involved with the event through a friend — Capt. Jeremy Henderson of the Ventura City Fire Department. Friends from paramedic school, the duo was part of a 19-member team led by Capt. Henderson.
“I think everyone is touched by cancer in some form and in some way,” Capt. Nilsson said. “For all of us to go up there and raise money for blood cancer, it really hits home for everyone in their own personal way.”
Capt. Henderson told the News-Press he has done the climb for the last 10 years. His mother was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2008 and he came across the event and wanted to give it a try.
“Once you get in the stairwell it’s really pretty brutal,” Capt. Henderson said.
Over the years, Capt. Henderson has been able to raise thousands for blood cancer research. Since the first ever climb in 1991, the event has raised more than $17 million for LLS, according to the event website.
Capt. Nilsson said that by Year 3 he knew what to expect in terms of the physical and mental strain the climb puts on his body.
The same could not be said for Bryce Wible, a firefighter and paramedic with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, who did his first climb this year.
Mr. Wible, who has been with the department for six years and is stationed in Santa Ynez, told the News-Press he trained for about a month to get in shape.
“I knew I had to pace myself,” Mr. Wible said. “Once I started I really tried to conserve air. I didn’t want to stop, so I just kept a good pace going up and was able to make it.”
Mr. Wible finished with a time of 17:44, good for 342nd place out of some 1,925 participants. Capt. Nilsson finished with a time of 20:24 and Capt. Henderson at 20:40 — which he joked has gotten progressively worse over the years. The top time was 11:03.
As the firefighters ascend the stairs, pictures of cancer survivors, cancer victims and event honorees hang on the walls.
“That in itself reminds you why you’re there and why you do what you do,” Mr. Wible said.
“Every photo is motivation, there’s no doubt about that,” added Capt. Nilsson.
Mr. Wible and Capt. Henderson weren’t sure how much money they were able to raise this year, but the worthy cause is what was most important to them. Each participant is required to raise a minimum of $300.
Capt. Nilsson was able to raise more than $1,000 — a personal best. He intends on participating next year, while Capt. Henderson said he may be calling it quits.
“It was probably my last one, but I would never rule it out,” Capt. Henderson said.
Mr. Wible said he hopes to get others involved next year.
“It’s a great time, and obviously you’re raising money for a good cause,” Mr. Wible said. “And I’m really competitive, so now you just want to try and get a better time.”