Local firefighters to represent Big Sky in Seattle

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

BIG SKY – At 605 feet, the Space Needle dominates Seattle’s skyline. It’s just not tall enough for firefighters.

In its 23rd year, the Scott-sponsored Firefighter Stairclimb is held in the 788-foot-tall Columbia Center, the second tallest building west of the Mississippi, and requires firefighters to climb 1,311 steps – 788 vertical feet – in full turnouts and carrying oxygen tanks.

Two new hires at the Big Sky Fire Department, Mike Bakke and Mitch Hamel, are participating in the event on March 9, which last year raised $1.44 million dollars for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. With 1,800 participants this year, it sold out in 14 minutes.

Bakke has been involved in the competition for four years, and it’s his third year racing.

“The first year, I was the junior guy in the Marietta Fire Department [in Bellingham, Wash.] and replacing oxygen tanks for senior guys,” said Bakke, 26, who started at BSFD with Hamel last October. “You got guys trying to haul ass, so it’s a stressful little operation.”

Racing up 69 flights of stairs in gear weighing roughly 65 pounds, competitors have to be in top physical shape. Bakke says training at altitude in Montana is a big advantage.

“I think this will be the best year of all,” Bakke said. “Last year I was competitive and [training] at sea level. The guys who have won the last five years have been Montana guys, which is pretty impressive.”

Missoula City firefighter Andrew Drobeck won the last two, coming in 2013 with a time of 10:48. “That’s incredibly fast,” Bakke said. “He’s not human, but we’re coming for him. The goal is obviously to win.”

Bakke and Hamel have been lifting weights and climbing on the department’s stair mill, as well as running hills and training at the Cold Smoke Crossfit gym in Bozeman.

“[The stairclimb] is exhausting, but [finishing] is an amazing feeling – just the accomplishment,” Bakke said. “And you can enjoy the view at the top for a couple minutes before you take the elevator down.”

Hamel, in his first year competing, has only an idea of how shredded competitors are after reaching the top of Columbia Center. But he’s eagerly anticipating the event.

“I was looking at photos the other day of past years’ events,” said Hamel, 31. “It looks like they’re worked at the end of it, sucking wind pretty hard. But it’ll be worth it. I’m looking forward to it no matter how I feel.”

This is the first year BSFD is sending representatives to the all-firefighter competition, which requires participants to pay a $55 entry fee and raise at least another $300. But most firefighters don’t cap their fundraising there.

Last year Bakke raised $1,500, he said, and the goal this year is $5,000. As of EBS press time, Feb. 5, Bakke and Hamel had raised $1,500.

The Boise Fire Department led all fundraising efforts on Feb. 5, having raised $28,650 since registration opened on Nov. 14, according to firefighterstairclimb.org. Last year Boise topped out at $44,900, the most ever for the event.

Donations to the Firefighter Stairclimb are accepted until March 25, and booths are out in Big Sky at The Cave, Grizzly Outfitters, Gallatin Alpine Sports and the Hungry Moose. All proceeds benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For more information and to donate online, visit firefighterstairclimb.org.