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Firefighter challenges Columbia Tower

Firefighter Jon Gabelein competed in this year’s Columbia Tower Climb in Seattle. - Photo courtesy Fire District 3
Firefighter Jon Gabelein competed in this year’s Columbia Tower Climb in Seattle.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Fire District 3

It was an endurance test for a South Whidbey firefighter and a cancer survivor to climb 69 floors wearing 60 pounds of gear.

On March 5, Jon Gabelein, volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician for Island county Fire District 3, tested his mettle along with more than 1,000 other firefighters in the 20th annual Columbia Tower Climb.

The event — the largest individual firefighting competition in the world — is an annual fund-raiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Gabelein, a cancer survivor himself, was inspired by the cause. As a teen he suffered from bone cancer and underwent chemotherapy and surgery.

This was his first year in the event.

“It was tough,” said Gabelein. “But I’ll be back next year.”

“Cancer patients stood on the landings and urged us on,” he said.

That was a motivator for Gabelein.

“Seeing the patients, especially the kids and what they have to go through, made my effort seem small by comparison.”

Firefighters from the Northwest region and as far away as New Zealand scaled the 788-foot-high Columbia Tower. Gabelein was the only participant from South Whidbey.

Gabelein completed the climb in 24 minutes. The best time was 11 minutes.

“It was a mental challenge,” Gabelein said.

“To keep going floor after floor. I didn’t want to read the floor numbers as I passed by. It seemed like I was climbing floor 53 over and over,” he said.

“I had to focus on the challenge and just keep going.”

Participants climbed 1,311 steps.

The Coupeville teacher said he hoped to take some steps two at a time, but with all the gear, Gabelein found it impossible. Still, he stepped up to the challenge.

“I climbed everyone of those 1,311 steps,” he said.

The firefighters were decked out in full bunker gear including boots, pants turnout coats, helmets, fire gloves and breathing apparatus.

That presented its own challenge. There were water stations every 10 floors.

“Temperature was a big challenge. I was boiling under my gear,” he said. “When you asked for water, volunteers pulled our jackets back and poured water down our backs.”

That caused another challenge, too.

“I noticed my boots were getting heavier and realized they were filling up with water,” he said.

Breathing bottles were exchanged at floor 40.

“We had to watch our breathing gauges to monitor our air, and try not to breathe too fast or too deep,” he said.

At the finish volunteers had water and bagels waiting for the climbers.

“They just peeled off our gear and let us recover,” he said.

The observation deck overlooking Seattle doubled as the finish line.

“The view was sweet, just top notch,” Gabelein said.

Knowing what to expect will make it easier next year. Gabelein says he will do more training and better his time next year.

“It’s for a good cause, and for a firefighter, it’s an awesome training exercise.”

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