Mountains more fun than Sky Tower stairs

Frankton and Queenstown volunteer firefighter Gabbie Ernst runs up mountains for fun.

However, it didn't make racing up 51 flights of stairs in the Firefighters Sky Tower Challenge any easier.

"It felt like I was breathing through a straw and my chest was about to explode," she said yesterday.

The 29-year-old, loaded up with 25kg of equipment and breathing apparatus, pushed through the pain to be the fastest female firefighter in the open women's category to reach the top of the famous Auckland landmark.

It took Ernst 14 minutes 29 seconds to climb 1103 individual steps. She finished second overall behind Sandra Hearn, of Melbourne, who competed in the Masters section.

Ernst was one of 700 firefighters - including several from Australia and the United States - who raced up the tower steps in full kit at the weekend to raise money for Leukaemia and Blood Cancer New Zealand.

After a top-five finish last year , Ernst, who is also a banker and endurance runner, was determined to finish on the podium.

"It feels great to finish in the top three and even better to finish on top," she said.

Ernst became a firefighter in Invercargill three years ago.

"I enjoy the outdoors, mountain running and being fit. I have an office job so volunteering as a firefighter sounded good," she said. "It is also a great way of being part of the community and a way to make a difference."

Running up and down the peaks surrounding Lake Wakatipu provided a head start but climbing the Sky Tower in full kit was "really different" and the challenge was as much mental as physical.

"When you are running, there is not an extra 25kg to carry, you have comfy shoes and air out. You are not breathing compressed air that feels like you are sucking through a mouth of drinking straws," she said.

Settled back behind her desk at BNZ in Queenstown, Ernst said she was still recovering and a little overwhelmed at her achievement, while her work colleagues were eager for a replay of her winning performance. "They are asking me to run up the stairs at work."

Next year she will take a break, instead taking part in a 100km race in Sydney, but plans to tackle the Sky Tower again.

"I will be back. I want to break the record."

Southern firefighters from Riverton, Te Anau, Wanaka, Alexandra and Cromwell also took part in the weekend's challenge.

Wanaka's Glen Thurston led a strong performance from his brigade (fifth team overall) finishing sixth in the open men's category with a time of 10:18.

It was the first Firefighters Sky Tower Challenge for the Te Anau volunteer fire brigade and team captain Max Masser said it was a great but tough experience. For Masser, the inspiration to take part was born from a dislocated knee.

"I needed to get fit again after my injury and targeting the Sky Tower Challenge provided an end goal," he said.

Masser and fellow Te Anau firefighter Doug Robbie both reached the top in just over 14 minutes.

Otara station's Josh Harrison triumphed in a time of 8:36.

The Southland Times