Heart of Treasure Valley

Boise firefighter honors best friend with motto: ‘Climb. Conquer. Cure.’

He’s pretty clear: It’s not any fun. And none of it is easy.

Exactly 1,356 steps, if you’re counting, which he’s not. He’s climbing them one after the other until there aren’t any more to climb.

He says: “It’s a bear. It is so stinking hard. ... Up, up, up, up.”

There are 69 flights of stairs, and he notes them because each one is one less till it’s over. And he notes them, too, because plastered on the walls of every landing are photos of people, loved ones, family and friends — who remind him of why he’s doing this.

“The pain we deal with is in no way the same as people with blood cancer have to deal with.”

The first time Boise firefighter Rich Brown raced up those steps seven years ago, his best buddy was in remission. But by the time he was thinking about the next stair climb, his best buddy’s blood cancer had returned.

By the second time Rich climbed those 69 flights of stairs, it was in memory of his best friend.

“When he passed away, it maybe turned on the light switch in me. ... I thought, I can do better.

“I can raise more money toward the hope (that) others will not have to endure these bold cancers.”

The Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, at Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia Center, is one of the largest firefighting competitions in the world. It also happens to be one of the biggest fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society — having raised more than $12 million in its 25 years.

The 1,900 firefighter competitors have one main goal: To raise funds for the LLS, which in turn has a goal of curing blood cancers and ensuring access to treatment for blood cancer patients.

That first year, Rich ranked 23rd in fundraising dollars. The second year, the light-switch year, and the next, he was first. Just a few weeks ago, he topped $100,000 from his seven years of fundraising.

“You think about the ramifications of all the money we raise. ... ”

And it’s not just Rich; the team of 29 firefighters from Boise is committed to fundraising, too. Since 2012, they’ve ranked first, second or third — competing against much bigger teams like Seattle — and have a goal of $45,000 this year.

“You’ve got to be able to do something to give back. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

• • • 

Rich learned first-hand about blood cancers when his father-in-law, Gabe Recla of Meridian, was diagnosed in 2002.

“That was another one of those game-changers in life.”

His father-in-law had a successful stem cell transplant and is today alive and well, so when Rich’s best friend, Jason Werst, was diagnosed, Rich knew the rough road ahead — but he was pretty optimistic.

So was Jason. Eschewing the limelight, he was, truth be told, a little embarrassed that Rich did that first stair climb in his honor. He was in remission and assumed his cancer was gone for good.

“He was like, ‘So I have cancer. So what? A million people have it. ...’”

But Jason’s cancer was different. Two times, Jason underwent treatment that put the cancer at bay, but in September 2011, Jason called to say it was back. He died Oct. 30. He was 40 years old and a spectacular athlete.

“My dog in the fight is my buddy passed away and my father-in-law fought a blood cancer for a number of years. ...

“Deep in my heart, I know that some of the money that we raised is going to help that next person — that next generation of folks like me who is going to have a father-in-law or brother, sister, mother, wife, whoever — and that the LLS is going to use some of this money to go try to figure something out to battle this stuff and kill it.”

As part of the Stairclimb, firefighters submit photos of loved ones that are made into posters, and every year, Rich sends in a photo of his father-in-law and Jason.

“Every time we turn at a landing — every landing, every half-landing — they are filled with posters of people who we’re climbing in memory of. … So Jason’s on one of the floors. I never know what floor I’m going to run into him on.

“It’s pretty cool because you’re climbing along — and there he is.”

• • • 

At Fire Station No. 2, Rich’s locker is plastered with Stairclimb memorabilia and his climb numbers. There’s 2011, 2012. He’s missing 2013 for some reason, but the rest are all there, alongside photos of Jason and others who are his motivation.

One of the early firefighters to get the Boise team involved in the Stairclimb, team captain Kyle Rajsich, has a sister with a blood cancer. She’s now an emergency room nurse, and every year she writes a note to the Boise team members, tucked in a plastic bag with a homemade energy bite. (“They’re awesome, by the way.”) Each of those notes is taped to Rich’s door: a reminder.

In 2016, Audra Rajsich-Coil writes, “In the midst of cancer, God taught me that I mattered in this world.

“He used people like you; people who spend their free time raising money and speaking out for those who can’t speak for themselves, people who are willing to endure great physical and mental anguish to get to the top of the Columbia Tower so that the anguish of cancer is extinguished, to show me my life was meaningful. …

“I would never wish cancer on anyone, but I do wish that everyone felt as loved as I have by you. ... ”

As the fundraising tempo heats up this year, teams of firefighters recently stood outside an Albertsons grocery store on a drizzly cold weekend, holding out cans and boots for donations. They went to a Steelheads game — all to raise money for LLS.

“The light-switch moment when Jason died really pushed me to do a better job (fundraising). ... I thought, I really need to dig deep and push the envelope: I’m going to ask people to give money to the LLS.

“That’s uncomfortable for me to do.

“But so is climbing the stairs; it’s really uncomfortable for me physically. ...

“I don’t know how uncomfortable it is to go through cancer, but I bet every single person who survived it can tell you how bad it is. And none of them say it was fun or it was a cakewalk.

“So I had to get outside my comfort zone.”

Furthermore, Boiseans have a dog in this fight, too, so to speak, for over just one weekend, they contributed $9,000 in quarters and dollar bills. And counting.

“If you help people, I think it’s good for your heart and soul.”

• • • 

Actually, besides fundraising, there’s another lesser — but worthy — goal at the stair climb, firefighters being as competitive as they are. The fastest time is an honorable accomplishment, and a repeat winner from Missoula can beat 11 minutes. Rich’s personal best is under 17 minutes, which put him 160th out of 1,600 that year.

“It is what it is. I’m happy that I do OK. ...

“(I would love) to be done suffering in under 12 minutes. It would be amazing. There’s no way.”

Instead, Rich’s personal race goal is to beat a fellow firefighter from Nampa each year. But even that friendly competition benefits LLS: The loser makes a $500 donation in the winner’s name.

“(There’s this young kid on the Seattle team), his whole goal is to beat me at fundraising. I’m like, hey, you kill me on the climb, so stop trying to beat me. But I’m also like, you know what? You can beat me? That’s just more money into the climb’s coffers.”

On March 12, firefighters will gather at the doors of the Columbia Center to put their mettle to the test. They’re wearing their “turn out” gear — what they wear to a fire, including helmet, face mask and their air turned on. Fifty or 55 pounds of gear.

“It sounds like a bunch of Darth Vaders winding up the stairs.”

The fastest and the top fundraisers go first.

“Every 10 seconds you put a firefighter into the stairwell — it’s timed — until it’s done at 5 o'clock at night. Every 10 seconds they’re shoving one more of us and our gear into the stairwell.

“That part is really cool and it’s awesome and it’s sort of a big spectacle. While I love — somewhat love — that part of it, the fundraising part of it — that’s my primary mission.”

Last year, Rich’s buddy Jason was named as one of the honorees for the entire Stairclimb. Both Jason’s and Rich’s families came, and Jason’s wife, Jessica Werst-Hobson, spoke.

“That was powerful, amazing — somewhat heartbreaking.”

Only special invitees can be inside the Tower, and they were all at the top when Rich finished.

“They were able to take the elevator and meet me as I stumbled out. ... I knew they were going to be there, but it wasn’t anything I could prepare for. ...

“I’m not a very speechless guy, but I didn’t have very much to say.”

His father-in-law was there, alive and well. But Jason was not. And so this is Rich’s promise:

“I will do this Stairclimb until I retire.”

Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, @IDS_Photography

Jason’s wife speaks to Stairclimb firefighters in 2016

Last year, Jason Werst was a Scott Firefighter Stairclimb honoree. His wife, Jessica Werst-Hobson, addressed the firefighters in Seattle:

“First, I want to thank all of you wonderful men and women who have signed up for this challenge. My husband, Jason Werst, was a man who lived his life with passion. His whole life, he enjoyed the pain and suffering of accomplishing a great physical feat.

“He ran cross-country from junior high school through college. He completed both the Marine Corp Marathon and Boston Marathon. In college, he earned three All-Americans and was inducted into Eastern Oregon University’s athletic hall of fame.

“In 2007, when he was diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia), he approached his battle just like he did his training. He compared each round of chemo to a hard interval training, getting through each round by mentally preparing and marking every gain as a step closer to his goal of living.

“I have to share a short story about him that I think captures who he was. He set a goal of finishing a 100-mile charity bike ride about 30 days after he completed his last round of chemo in 2007. He enlisted the help of some of his cycling buddies, including Mr. Rich Brown, who is here today climbing with you all, and he did it. He set his mind to it and he did it, though I think Rich might have had to help push him a few miles of that ride — but he did it.

“Jason lost his battle with AML on Oct. 30, 2011, and he has left a legacy that life is worth living only with passion, love and humor. I know he is here today with you all as you climb those 69 floors, smiling and enjoying the challenge along with you.”

A $45,000 goal

10 a.m.-about 3 p.m. Monday, Feb. 20, Dillards, Boise. Firefighters will be climbing a stair treadmill.

About 6:30 a.m.-10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24, Dutch Brothers, 1191 N. Milwaukee St. and 8649 W. Overland Road.

11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, Piper Pub & Grill, 8th and Main, Boise. Firefighters in gear will wait tables. All tips, a portion of food sold and some specialty items go directly toward the goal.

U.S. blood cancer statistics

More than 171,000 people were expected to be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma in 2016. That’s about 10 percent of the new cancer cases (1.6 million people) in 2016.

One person is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes.

About every nine minutes, someone dies from a blood cancer.

— www.lls.org