10-Year Champions: Chris and Derek

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If you ask Chris Chyka what he loves most about the Firefighter Stairclimb Challenge, he’s quick to reference the finish line.

“I like the feeling of being at the top and knowing I did it – it’s done,” said Chris with a laugh. “Early morning training from late November to June can get to be a bit of a grind. So, what can I say, I’m pretty glad when it’s over for another year!”

That said, the Cochrane-based firefighter and his tenacious racemate Derek Orr, are among the revered long haulers of Wellspring Alberta’s Firefighter Stairclimb Challenge. They have been pushing themselves to train and compete since the dawn of the event a decade ago. And, ironically, their training typically takes place before dawn.

“We both have to leave our houses at like 5am to train in the tower before our shifts start at 6am,” said Derek, explaining that he drives to work from Canmore while Chris comes from Bragg Creek, and together they run the four and a half stories of their firehouse hose tower 20 times in preparation for the 57-story climb at Brookfield Place in June.

Chris makes no bones about the fact that mornings are not his thing – but having a buddy on board makes all the difference.

“Just like it takes a team to help someone through their cancer journey, it takes kinship and comradery to get fit for this event. For me, having Derek there is the reason I can get up at that awful hour and go to the hall. Some mornings we run it without even really talking – just a few grunts and a lot of sweat – but I know he’s there,” said Chris.

Derek and his sister were caregivers for their mother during her final days with cancer, so he is well aware of the support needed on that difficult path. Two years ago, when Derek turned 50, he and Chris thought they might use that milestone to end their stairclimbing pursuits; but here they are, still sweating it out and now hitting their 10-year mark.

“It started out mostly as a fitness challenge and teambuilding thing for us, but I found I really enjoyed it and I’ve loved taking part every year since then,” said Derek, mentioning that the volunteers lend notable spirit to the event.

Why Wellspring

Chris and Derek learned about Wellspring and the stairclimb fundraiser around the time one of their co-workers had a daughter who was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. The family joined Wellspring and spoke highly of the support and resources they received. This was the spark that ignited wide spread interest in the Cochrane station.

“Our captain was also diagnosed at one point, and he went away for awhile, but he made it back. Wellspring was a big part of his recovery. He’s back to work now and fully recovered,” said Derek.

Since then, there have been several others in their work and life circles who have faced cancer and turned to Wellspring for support.

“Support organizations like Wellspring are the unsung heroes in the cancer world. Going through treatment is one thing, but the psychological toll of having cancer is totally different. The fact that Wellspring understands this, and provides a place for people to get those needs met is so vitally important to us both,” said Chris.

Driving that point home, the pair have rallied many other firefighters in their platoon to participate – not to mention their CAO, and the mayor of their vibrant southern Alberta town!

“The smallest team we’ve entered was a team of four, and we’ve had as many as 10 of us participate – which is like a quarter of us at our Cochrane firehouse!” said Derek. “This year we are really trying to capitalize on it being our 10-year and get lots of people out – rope in a bunch of our rookies!”

In fact, the pair have ‘roped in’ so many that some days the training space is crowded.

“Running the tower in our hall has become quite contagious in our town; some days there’s a whole pack of us there at 6am,” said Chris.

If a gruelling training regime offers these passionate participants even a fleeting glimpse of the challenging journey through cancer, they show their compassion in sweat.

“Some days you’re flying; some days the tower owns you,” said Chris.

Indeed, and as with cancer, the goal is to keep climbing.

“How has it touched us? We both know people who have had cancer and lots of them have used Wellspring services. I expect that’s what kept them going. When someone in our department gets cancer and they go get treatment and they come back, that’s a moral victory for all of us all.”

– Chris Chyka.