Started from the couch now we’re here: WWF’s fastest CN Tower climber shares his tips for reaching the top

This blog was updated on March 6, 2023.

After three years off, WWF’s CN Tower Climb for Nature is making its comeback on April 15 and 16 — and so is Shaun Stephens-Whale, the event’s fastest climber.

He set the pace at the 2017 CN Tower Climb for Nature, tackling the 1,776 steps in 9 minutes and 54.9 seconds. With records also set at buildings in Las Vegas, Seattle and Vancouver, it’s hard to believe Stephens-Whale wasn’t always so fast. He is here to tell you that anyone can make it to the top of the tower with some preparation.

Shaun Stephens-Whale is the first to the top of the CN Tower's stairwell, climbing in under 10 minutes.
© James Carpenter/WWF-Canada

Were you always so fast?
My first ever climb was at the Climb the Wall event at the Sheraton Wall Centre in 2003. Being competitive in nature, I took off in a flat-out sprint and got to the half-way mark absolutely spent. I still ended up finishing in the top 10; it was a humbling and character-building experience.

How does your current training regime compare to when you first started?
I lived in an isolated community on the Sunshine Coast and could only access tall buildings by taking the ferry into Vancouver. So, I improvised. With my dad lounging on the couch with stop watch in hand, I would sprint up and down the single flight of stairs 50 times as quickly as possible. As time went by, running up one flight turned into sprinting up a 30-storey high rise to interval training up 60 to 70 floor skyscrapers. One thing hasn’t changed, of all the different types of training I do, nothing prepares me better than stairs.

What advice would you give a novice climber?
Success is defined by your effort and not by your time. The most important thing to remember is not to start out too fast, maintain a comfortable pace and take rests when you need to – the finish line isn’t going anywhere.

What is your strategy once you are inside the tower?
I take the steps two at a time – it cuts the number of steps in half to reach the top quicker. By incorporating the handrails, you can engage the core, biceps, triceps and back muscles and it saves a lot on the legs.

Do you have a favourite place to train in nature?
I was raised running on the gnarly, undulating, single-track trails of British Columbia. Anytime I’m outside exploring new trails I’m happy.

When training last spring, you had a close encounter with a bear. Tell us about that.
I was running a single-track trail and saw an adolescent black bear sauntering towards me. Encountering bears is not a rare event, and having been in similar circumstances before, knew that black bears are usually docile creatures. Quickly, I slipped into the woods to get out of its way only to realize it was now crashing through the thick brush towards me, eventually getting right behind me and swatting me on the thigh.

I realized my best shot was to fight back. I turned around to face the bear and immediately tripped on a root. Sprawled on my back, I desperately grabbed a stick and swatted it on the nose. It backed off, giving me enough time to get up and make my way back to the trail. The battle wasn’t over though. I yelled and made myself as big as possible, brandishing my stick and throwing rocks every time it got close. After about 15 minutes, the bear abated and I made it to safety with a bloody nose and a few broken ribs.

Below is video from a slightly less harrowing encounter Shaun had with bear on a B.C. trail. Watch closely to see the bear at 3:11, before Shaun takes off.


What are you most afraid of in the urban environment?
Fortunately for us, stairwells make poor environments for large predatory creatures.

You’ve climbed some of the tallest buildings in the world including the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and Etihad Towers. How does the CN Tower compare?

The CN tower is certainly a long stairwell but it isn’t as strenuous as some buildings. Each flight of stairs is relatively short – around ten steps – and the height of each step isn’t that steep. This reduces the load on the quadriceps and allows for moments of respite on the landings.

How would you describe the feeling once you reach the top?

The euphoria and rush of endorphins along with the sense of accomplishment and stunning views always bring me back for more.

CN Tower Climb team holdings signs that say "Crushed it" and :I can't feel my legs."
© WWF-Canada

Register today to get a head start on your climb training (see Shaun’s 10-week program) and fundraising.

If you want to compete with Shaun for first up the tower, register for our Elite Climb Challenge on Sunday, April 16.