Fighting leukemia, one step at a time

Students climb skyscraper for charity


The Mirror

Looking out over the city of Seattle on Sunday, eighth-grader Heidi McKenna said she was closer to heaven.

“It’s amazing,” McKenna said, gasping for air and gulping a bottle of water. “I just feel like I’m on top of the world right here.”

McKenna was one of 200 Illahee Middle School students to climb the Columbia Tower on Sunday as part of the Big Climb fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. More than 5,000 people climbed the tower in all, raising nearly $700,000.

Illahee students have participated in the climb for 20 years. Many of those who participate in the fundraiser as students at Illahee go on to climb again years later, often organizing their own teams.

This year, Illahee students formed the second largest team of climbers.

Several schools from Federal Way participated in the event this year, including Illahee and Saghalie middle schools as well as Federal Way and Todd Beamer high schools.

Students and teachers at Illahee take the event seriously, training hard in the months leading up to the climb by running up a nearby hill.

“We try to train them to be mentally tough so when they get in there they’re prepared for it,” said coach Tom Eilertson.

Even months of training still can’t fully prepare most people for the grueling ascent up 1,311 stairs.

The Columbia Tower is the tallest building in Seattle and the second tallest on the West Coast. The elevator ride to the top can make a person’s ears pop with the sudden change in elevation.

Stair climbers started at the fourth floor and continued on to the 73rd floor.

Paramedics were stationed throughout the building in case of emergency. Although there weren’t any serious emergencies Sunday, there were a few cases of mild dehydration and overexertion.

Some people gave up before reaching the top.

As for the Illahee students, all 200 made it to the top. When they did, they were greeted with a great view, a bottle of water, the song “We are the Champions” by Queen and enthusiastic applause from their coach Tom Eilertson and their team.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said seventh-grader Brendan Harrelson as he gazed at the skyline from the observatory at the top.

His muscles burned, said Harrelson, who was sweaty and flushed — and beaming with pride.

Contact Margo Horner: or (253) 925-5565.