I Climbed Seattle's Space Needle. Here's What I Learned Along the Way

Every year, the Space Needle Foundation in Seattle offers the public an opportunity to climb to the top via an outdoor staircase. It’s a charity event that raises money both for Space Needle itself and for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a local research hospital that pioneered immunotherapy and other innovative cancer treatments. This year, for the first time, I signed up for the climb.

Could I actually walk up the stairs of the Space Needle, all the way to the top? Truthfully, I wasn’t completely sure. I’ve walked up Notre Dame in Paris, but the Space Needle, at 520 feet to the observation deck, is more than twice as high. But, oddly, the height was the first thing that made me think I might be able to do it. I’d done hikes with much more than 520 feet of elevation gain, even though I never had to climb all the elevation gain at once.

I told my friend Cindy, an avid hiker, biker, and runner who climbs both the (taller) Columbia Tower and the Space Needle every year that I would do Base2Space this year. But then I held off for months before signing up. I was too busy. I had an early September family trip to plan first. Then while I was on that trip, I was too busy traveling and would wait till we got home before signing up. Then we got home and–as always after a vacation–I was swamped with work.

I suspect I was secretly hoping that delaying would make the decision for me–I would miss the deadline for signups, or else all the climbing spots would be taken. But no, a week before the event, I went on the Base2Space website and found it was still open. So I held my breath and clicked the button to register.

Base2Space climbs go in “waves” that depart every half hour beginning at 7:30 am. Early times are for elite climbers who sprint swiftly up the stairs. The slower “open to all fitness levels” waves were sponsored by various iconic Seattle businesses: Pearl Jam, Top Pot Doughnut, Dick’s Drive-In, and (of course) Starbucks. I picked Dick’s Drive-In, hoping for a later start time and it worked–I got a 1:30 pm start. My husband and I would have plenty of time to drive down from north of the city, find parking, and pick up my packet before the climb.

But could I do it–really? Feeling nervous the Wednesday before the climb, I decided to test myself by doing a smaller climb several times. Base2Space is, famously, 832 steps, so I figured I would count the steps as I went and see how I was feeling around 400 or so. My plan was to climb the D wing of Providence Hospital in Everett, the tallest building in town and also where we lost a dear friend to cancer two years ago. But when I finally found a doorway to the D wing stairs, I discovered they were locked away from the elevators–my plan to climb, ride down, and resume climbing at the bottom wouldn’t work. So I climbed the four stories of the parking garage instead, over and over, riding the elevator down and counting steps as I went. At 400 I felt OK so I thought I’d keep climbing to 500, then 600, then 700, then I figured I might as well go for the whole thing. I wound up stopping at 833 steps, which happened to be exactly what was needed to get from the ground floor on my final climb to the level where I was parked. I sat in my car, sweaty and out of breath, but considerably more confident that I really could make it up the Space Needle.

On the day of the climb, I started out counting steps too, but quickly realized there were too many distractions in the stairway for me to keep count and anyhow it wasn’t necessary. The climb consists of 98 short flights of stairs (about 52 stories) with their numbers marked in yellow paint. You’re climbing outdoors, with views as you climb, with a grating around the stairs so you can’t fall or drop anything from on high. For the first 15 stories or so, I climbed away energetically, buoyed in part by the music blaring from the stage on the ground. Around flight 20, I began reflecting that climbing nonstop was a bit different from stopping every four floors to take an elevator back down, even if it didn’t take long. And that I was less than a quarter of the way and already beginning to feel winded. 

But of course, I could stop and catch my breath for a few moments–had planned to stop frequently when I set out on this climb. So I did stop, and looked down on the plaza below the Space Needle, spotting my husband Bill by his large black leather hat. “Look up!” I texted, but he didn’t immediately see it. I climbed on.

I had decided I would stop every ten flights, but as I got higher and more tired, I stopped more and more often. Bill eventually texted me back, so the next time I found myself facing the right direction, I looked down and found him sitting on the edge of a fountain below. “Look up!” I texted again. I waved as hard as I could but he couldn’t make me out among the other climbers behind the grating. It didn’t occur to me until later to try turning on my smartphone flashlight. He asked how high up I was. I was at flight 45, so I texted back, “Little less than halfway.”  

Kids climbed past me. So did a woman with a baseball cap that said “Wellfleet, Massachusetts.” Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, is a tiny town about as far away from Seattle as you can get without leaving the Continental U.S., but I spent many of my childhood summers there. It was odd to be reminded of it, thousands of miles away. A few flights higher, I paused for a moment to catch my breath and wait for the crowd to clear, when I suddenly realized there was something very different about the young man also waiting a few steps above me–his right leg was prosthetic. It was very well camouflaged, wearing the same shoe and sock as his other leg, and the skin tone matched his real skin tone precisely. If he hadn’t been higher than me on the steps so that the leg was right in my field of vision, I would never have noticed.

“Oh my God,” I said in surprise. I might have said more but he gave me a look and the look unmistakably meant: “Please do not call attention to this.” So instead, I gave him a low-key but very enthusiastic thumbs up. He squared his shoulders with visible pride and climbed on, much faster than me.

It was getting colder now, the wind and rain whipping through the grating, so that I looked for places to stop behind the tower’s more sheltering solid pillars. Fortunately, I had known that even on a sweltering day, the top of the Space Needle is quite cold, so I had a warm fleece with me for the climb. Bill texted that he was going under an overhang to get out of the rain. I said that I was two thirds of the way up. “Go, go go!” he texted back. Indeed, I was feeling motivated–the higher I climbed, the colder it got, and I knew the observation deck was indoors. 

“Over the hump!” I declared at flight number 70 to a climber from the next wave who was pretty much pacing me. At 90, we’d been told, we would move indoors and lose the numbers on flights. Ninety through 98 went around and up through a corridor, and I stopped counting. Then suddenly I found myself stepping through a door into the observation deck. Volunteers standing on either side cheered. One handed me a Space Needle-shaped medal, another gave me a bottle of water and a Dick’s Drive-In coupon. I wandered around the observation deck for a while, then went down the stairs to the renovated Space Needle’s newest feature, redundantly billed as “the world’s first and only revolving glass floor.” 

It was, in fact, pretty amazing. The innermost section was covered with carpeting, and I loved watching people stand at the edge, hesitant to step onto the thick glass floor. They were already standing on it, of course, but the carpet provided a visual effect of safety. Not being afraid of heights myself, I lay down and took a downward selfie with the Chihuly Museum garden below. I’d have hung around longer, but Bill was waiting for me down at the base.

So what did I learn from my climb? First, that preparation is always worthwhile. I was nervous, but not half as nervous as I would have been if I hadn’t had that dry run at the hospital and proved to myself I really could climb 832 steps. Second, Warren Buffett was right when he observed that we tend to behave like the people we spend most time with. If it hadn’t been for my friend Cindy doing it and encouraging me to as well, I never would have considered climbing the Space Needle. In fact, it was Cindy who got me out on more serious hikes so that I knew I could get to 520 feet.

Speaking of Cindy, she and her boyfriend raced up the Space Needle in less than 12 minutes. That’s truly impressive, but I really enjoyed my own 32-minute climb, admiring the view, texting my progress to Bill, chatting with the people around me, attempting a selfie that turned out hopelessly backlit, and resting whenever I felt like it. I spend too much of my life hurrying from Point A to Point B. I need to remember: The journey is the destination.

The other thing I learned is that it’s silly to procrastinate about doing the things you want just because they frighten you. That medal at the top of the climb came with a great sense of accomplishment, but the climb itself was also lots of fun. These days, when I drive down I-5 toward the city and see the Space Needle towering over the Sound, I think to myself, “Damn! I climbed that thing!” Hesitating the way I did, I not only lost the chance to do as much fundraising as I might have, I easily could have missed the whole experience. Next year, I’m signing up early.

Stella Densmore