Sunday, December 10, 2023

1,356 steps: Lapinski brothers take on firefighter challenge

Mineral Independent | March 15, 2023 12:00 AM

On the morning of Sunday, March 12, two young men from the small town of Superior competed in Seattle at the 32nd annual LLS Firefighter Stairclimb in support of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Brothers Nathan and Jacob Lapinski, ascended the 788 feet of vertical elevation climbing the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle, the second tallest building west of the Mississippi.

The Lapinski brothers traveled to the event with their 11-man team from the Missoula Rural Fire Department. In all, 2,000 firefighters from across the United States and around the world scaled the 1,356 steps to reach the sky view observatory overlooking the Emerald City.

Nathan Lapinski portrayed the exciting commencement of the event that took place Sunday morning. He described, “There is an opening ceremony at 0730 with the Seattle Firefighter Pipe and Drum Band along with other speakers, then the race commences at 0800. There are battalions of 50 people each. Each battalion is staggered by 10 minutes. There is a climber entering the stairwell approximately every 10 seconds throughout the day. This year there are 41 battalions with the last going at 1510.”

This was Lapinski’s third year competing in the climb. He stated, “I feel like I’ve done decent in the last two years that I have competed. My first year was hampered by a knee injury but I still was able to get a decent time and was able to fundraise a good amount of money for the event. Last year I was able to improve my time significantly as well as continue to raise a good amount of money for the event. My last year climbing was 2022.”

Lapinski has been employed as a professional firefighter for almost four years now with the Missoula Rural Fire Department. He said, “I spent a little over two years prior to that as a “resident firefighter” which essentially is a live-in apprenticeship.” His brother Jacob is now in that role at MRFD as well. “I moved into station 2 to start my residency three days after I graduated high school. I was going to school for an associate degree in fire and rescue during that time,” explained Lapinski.

A graduate of Superior High School in 2017, Lapinski also had a head with his involvement in the Superior Volunteer Fire Department. He expressed, “My experience with SVFD was great. I was able to gain valuable skills and experience that enabled me to hit the ground running when I moved to MRFD. My experience there solidified my desire to become a career firefighter and enabled me to make choices early that set me up for success in the industry. I also was able to obtain my EMT with the superior area ambulance service which was a huge leg up when I started.” In Montana, an Emergency Medical Technician is the minimum Emergency Medical Services level required to get hired as a professional firefighter.

Throughout the past year, the Lapinski’s and the other 1998 other inspiring participants raised funds for blood cancer research and patient services for those fighting the disease. Since its establishment in 1991, the Stairclimb event has raised over $22 million dollars, with all proceeds directly benefiting The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The LLS Firefighter Stairclimb is the world's largest on-air stair climb competition. The competitors are career, volunteer, or retired firefighters that climb the tallest skyscraper in Seattle in full turnout gear, weighing over 50 pounds, while on-air. Throughout the grueling course, the foundation's focus is to “Remember that every step forward is representative of moving closer to a cure. Although this is an extreme test of physical endurance, it pales in comparison to what blood cancer patients endure.”

Lapinski shared “I have had multiple family members that have experienced cancer. What really inspired me is learning how firefighters have an elevated chance of cancer diagnosis due to the carcinogens we get exposed to in the line of duty. This event is a good way to raise money for cancer research as well as spend a weekend with brothers and sisters from around the country.”

To prepare physically for such a tenacious trial Lapinski and his department comrades use various training techniques. “We have practiced together at Jesse Hall at the UM in Missoula. It is 11 stories and is the best way for us to get some actual stairs in the Missoula area. We also have stair machines at all of our stations that we use regularly,” he noted.

Lapinski remarked, “My preferred method is building up a solid cardio base with running for the months prior to the event. I like to do three and five-mile runs at a higher intensity to simulate the effort that I will put in at the event. Stair climbing is hard on the knees so I tend to focus more on stairs in the last month and a half more so for muscle development.”

Not only are the competitors’ muscles and stamina pushed to the limit, but one of the most challenging aspects of this event is dealing with the heat. Lapinski detailed, “We have to wear full firefighter gear plus breathing apparatus. Essentially you do the climb in heavy boots, snow pants, a parka, a 25-pound backpack, a 5-pound hat with a mask covering your face.” In total, the gear weighs approximately 50 pounds. He added, “For heat training I will do stairs in all the gear, running in sweats with a stocking cap on, and doing heat training in a steam room to build up my tolerance.”

As the climb drags on Lapinski confessed it’s after those first 40 stories, “It is a mental grind where you’re in the pain cave and your mind starts trying to talk you into slowing down. I just remember that what I’m going through is nothing compared to those who have to go through chemo and surgery for cancer and push through to the top.”

In his third time making the arduous scramble Lapinski is aiming to, “Not die…. in all seriousness my goal is to try to get below 15 minutes this year.”

His favorite part of the competition is the atmosphere surrounding the event. Lapinski conveyed, “Being around that many firefighters from around the country is a neat experience. We are united not only by our profession but our goal of finding cures for cancer. I have made friends through the event. After the race is over, we all go downtown and celebrate together. It is a great time to meet people and talk about the event. We all are thankful that it’s over and excited to do it all again the next year.”

In addition to making new friends and meeting fellow firefighters from all walks of life, Lapinski was especially proud to take part in the event with his brother Jake who is a resident at MRFD and has recently finished paramedic school. Nathan said, “He is racing with our team this year; he raced last year too, and got the fastest time on the team.”

Jake who is also a Superior graduate in 2020 is now actively applying to career fire departments in the Western United States. As an older brother and firefighter, himself, Nathan shared, “I am very proud of what he has accomplished. He has lost over 120 pounds since beginning his residency with us after high school and is now a paramedic and has an associate’s degree in paramedicine, a very rigorous and demanding course.”

Climb. Conquer. Cure; is the adage of the LLS Stairclimb. Together these two homegrown Superior firefighters did just that and made their town proud!

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