Blackfalds firefighters climb for cancer awareness

Kurtis Kenway, Chris Madsen, Aaron Way and Kristian Madsen pictured during the 2019 Stairclimb challenge. (Photo supplied)

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A team of Blackfalds firefighters once again pushed their endurance to new heights – literally – on May 5 as part of the fifth annual Firefighters Stairclimb Challenge in Calgary.

Kurtis Kenway, Chris Madsen – alongside his Danish cousin Kristian Madsen – Aaron Way, as well as Shiloh Fischer and Allyssa Benum, were among hundreds of firefighters who took part, making the 1,204-step trek to the top of The Bow building – over 775 feet high – in full firefighting gear.

“The weather definitely wasn’t particularly grand that day, but overall we climbed well. We were within a minute of our times from previous years,” said Madsen. “We were a little bit slower but we talked to a number of teams and they also indicated they were a little slower – not sure why, but that’s just how it goes.”

It was the fourth year the Blackfalds Fire Dept. participated in the event. While there’s the obvious fitness aspect of the challenge, the main aim is raising funds for Wellspring Calgary, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and support for those diagnosed with cancer, particularly firefighters susceptible to the disease given their work.

Like many of nearly 600 first responders who took part in the challenge, cancer has impacted Blackfalds crew personally.

Madsen’s sister is a breast cancer survivor, as is his mother-in-law. His aunt died following her battle with the same form of the disease. A father-in-law died of a brain tumour, and just in March of this year, his own mother died after a four-year battle with bone marrow cancer. His cousin, Kristian – a firefighter in Denmark – is a cancer survivor who now joins the Blackfalds Fire Dept. every year in their climb.

Two years ago, however, the climb became even more personal for the entire department as one of their own, Dave Sutherland, was diagnosed with the terminal brain cancer known as glioblastoma.

“He’s still with us – he’s holding in there,” said Madsen. “He’s had to have surgery a number of times. The tumour keeps coming back and he’s got other health problems because of the tumour.

“That’s what motivates us to keep going back.  We’re a pretty tight group…It’s not just about helping the community as volunteers, it’s also about supporting each other.”

In preparation, the team trained two to three times a week using the Abbey Centre stairwell in attempt to try and condition themselves, but he says it’s hard when there’s no building in central Alberta tall enough to even get a good feel for what their times might be like, so they rely on pushing their fellow firefighters.

As for the actual climb, the only solace of doing it is the cause behind it, because as Madsen describes it in a piece he wrote for the company he works for, Cenovus Energy – which used to be located in The Bow – it isn’t exactly fun.

It’s about 15 floors into the climb when he starts to feel the extra 60 lbs. of gear he’s carrying. Five floors later it’s the heat from the stairwell, his gear and the exertion that starts to get to him, and by the 25th floor, he wonders what he’s doing and makes a conscience effort not to grab a volunteer and cry for help.

The next 20 floors are all about continuing on, reminding himself to keep breathing, to not hurl on a volunteer taking a photo. By floor 50, his vision is spotty, but as he reaches the final floor, it’s all replaced with determination, pride (and perhaps relief at being able to take off the coat and gear, too) for what he and his fellow firefighters have accomplished.

As of Tuesday, Blackfalds had raised a total of $3,230 for the cause as per the Wellspring website. Overall, the event raised more than $440,000.

The hope is their efforts will help them work towards a future where cancer ultimately doesn’t claim the lives of their fellow firefighters, family and community members.

“The awareness over the last six to eight years has grown exponentially with regards to the things we inhale or are around,” he said.  “With this awareness, we’re going forward. Any time you see a structure fire, a vehicle fire, fire departments wear air packs all the time, whereas 20 years ago that was not the case.”

The same goes for decontaminating their gear and clothing after battling a blaze in order to decrease the amount of carcinogens and chemicals that can negatively impact their health.

Firefighters in Bentley and Alix also took part, however, for the first time since the Stairclimb Challenge began, the Lacombe Fire Dept. did not have attendees.

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Race results
Place, time, name, city/town)

  • 53 0:15:06 Colbin Cabelka Bentley, Alta.
  • 145 0:17:24 Kurtis Kenway Blackfalds, Alta.
    Last year: Finished 136, 17:06
  • 215 0:18:57 Kristian Moelgaar Madsen, Denmark (Blackfalds)
    Last year: Finished 171 18:16
  • 318 0:22:50 Christopher Madsen, Westerose, Alta.(Blackfalds)
    Last year: Finished 240, 20:42
  • 369 0:25:04 Shiloh Fischer, Blackfalds, Alta.
  • 437 0:29:33 Scott Stadnyk, Alix, Alta.
  • 438 0:29:35 Jill Stadnyk, Alix, Alta.
  • 497 0:34:37 Aaron Way, Blackfalds, Alta.
    Last year: Finished 368, 27:40
  • 514 0:36:04 Allyssa Benum Blackfalds, Alta.
  • 564 1:21:04 Natasha Pitcher, Bentley, Alta.