It’s time to climb the Stratosphere tower again. All 108 flights and 1,455 steps.
On Sunday, about 1,000 people will test their lungs and their willpower as they climb their way to the top of the Las Vegas skyline as part of the American Lung Association’s Scale the Strat: Fight for Air Climb.
Debbie Wiechecki will be there. The 58-year-old North Las Vegas resident is making the climb for the fourth time, this year in memory of her husband, Clem, who died in July at the age of 75 from complications related to pulmonary fibrosis.
“The night Clem died, the last thing he said was he loved me,” Wiechecki said during her daily walk Monday at Craig Ranch Regional Park. “And I said that I loved him. Then he put his (oxygen) mask on and his heart stopped.”
The two met in San Antonio in 1996 while working for the U.S. Postal Service. They quickly fell in love and married in June, working side by side until his retirement in 2004. The two enjoyed traveling together, visiting 42 states along with their cat, Babe, and three dogs, Beazlee, Wylie and Bogie.
Then, in 2011, after living in Rhode Island for two years, Clem Wiechecki began coughing. Bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis soon followed. After several visits to the doctor, the couple received the news. He had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
They had no idea what that was.
Pulmonary fibrosis is a chronic, progressive disease that forms scar tissue over the lungs, thickening over time. The scarring builds and eventually interferes with a person’s ability to breathe.
The average life expectancy after diagnosis is three to five years with an early diagnosis. The cause is unknown.
“I was one of the fortunate ones,” Clem Wiechecki told the Review-Journal at last year’s climb. He lived for almost six years after his own diagnosis.
He even climbed in 2016, finishing in just under two hours. He wasn’t able to climb last year because of a lung infection, but he surprised his wife by taking an elevator to the top to meet her there when she finished.
This year, his bib number, 579, has been retired.
Since the climb’s inception 10 years ago, nearly $1.5 million has been raised to support those living with lung disease. Last year, more than 30,000 people participated in 52 climb events across the country put on by the American Lung Association, raising $8.3 million.
Debbie Wiechecki raised more than $2,000 this year and will climb with “Team Clem vs Pulmonary Fibrosis.”
As of Thursday afternoon, participants had raised more than $240,000 with 1,050 registered climbers for the 10th anniversary event, well exceeding last year’s 800 registrants.
Some will race to the top to see who can get there the fastest. Last year, 27-year-old Shaun Stephens-Whale, of Roberts Creek, Canada, made his way to the top in 7 minutes and 3 seconds, according to www.raceresults.com.
Debbie Wiechecki said she doesn’t care how fast she goes, as long as she finishes.
After her walk, she pulled out a stack of pictures and paper from the clear pocket hanging from her lanyard.
She looked at a photo of her husband during the climb in 2016. A whimsical font scrawled across the bottom read “WINNERS are not people who never fail but people who NEVER QUIT!”
Behind the photo were several Post-it Notes with a list of names. Debbie Wiechecki has met countless others diagnosed with lung diseases including pulmonary fibrosis at climbs and through the Team Clem Facebook page. She writes the names of those she connects with on the note.
“I look at them when I need to, and they inspire me to do what I do,” she said. “I carry this on every long walk and every climb.”
In her pouch there’s also a picture of Joseph FireCrow Jr., a Northern Cheyenne flute player from the Crow Reservation. He died from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis a week after Clem.
Then there’s David Brayton. Alan Deuel. On the note, more names: Marty, Joe, Erin, Karen, Katie, Dee, T.J., Alanna, Marianne, Bobby, Marcia, Lisa, David, Bob.
The list gets longer every year.
“I climb for them,” she said. “They stay right here.”
She tucked the pouch back into her jacket and held it against her heart.
Scale the Strat Information
When: 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Stratosphere Las Vegas, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Registration: Walk-in registration is available from 7 to 11 a.m. Sunday at the event.
Fun fact: This is the first time firefighters will be able to climb in full bunker gear, which can weigh up to 70 pounds.
2000 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV, 89104