For six years Spokane Valley firefighter/engineer Paul Kimball has put on about 50 pounds of equipment, including a full breathing mask and air tank, and run up 69 flights of stairs – that’s 1,311 of them - as part of the annual Scott Firefighter Stair Climb competition in Seattle.
He has always been within tantalizing reach of taking first place and this year was no different. He took third in a field of 1,338 with a time of 11 minutes, 51 seconds, leading Spokane Valley Fire Department to first place in the team competition. It works out to a blistering pace of one flight of stairs about every 10 seconds. It’s a punishing climb that requires months of training. So why does he keep going back? “Trying to get first,” he laughed.
But Kimball, 27, said the real attention should be on teammate Mark Knokey, who came in 16th this year overall and third in his age group. Knokey has been doing the stair climb for 16 years and often does the full climb as a warm up before the competition begins. “Some years he would go over in gear and do it three times,” Kimball said. “If you added all his times together, he would have won first place as a team.”
In the team competition the times of the fastest three firefighters from each organization are added together. This year the Spokane Valley Fire Department took first place in the team competition, edging out the team from Missoula Rural Fire by less than a second. The Spokane Fire Department team came in ninth.
Firefighter Marc Lange competed for the Spokane Valley Fire Department for the first time this year. He participated in the competition three previous times in the late 1990s and in 2000 when he was a resident firefighter at Washington State University. “It was way easier 10 years ago,” he said. “You’re tired when you get to the top, definitely tired.”
Firefighter Cameron Smith is a first-time competitor and managed to climb into 32nd place. “Getting that time in his first year is phenomenal,” Kimball said. “We’re making him come back next year.”
Kimball said that breathing through a mask during the climb isn’t that difficult. “It gives you cool air, as opposed to hot, humid stairway air,” he said.
Both Kimball and Lange say that they like to go to the annual event to touch base with firefighters they know from other departments. The competition draws participants from throughout the United States, Canada and New Zealand. “It is fun seeing guys you might have gone to school with,” Kimball said. The event also gives him motivation to keep in shape during the winter when he can’t run or bike outside, Kimball said.
Kimball likes it so much, he plans to head back in two weeks with his wife for the civilian version of the stair climb competition. At least this time he can wear shorts and sneakers.