Mount Redoubt rises behind Sam Satathite and John Harris as they pose Saturday, Feb. 5, 2005, on the bluff in Kenai, Alaska. The two Kenai Fire Department firefighters climbed Mount St. Florian, a peak that sits in front and to the right of Redoubt as viewed from Kenai.
AP Photo/Peninsula Clarion, M. S
Four years ago, the idea of naming a nearby mountain peak, climbing it and returning safely to Kenai, all as a way to pay tribute to fallen firefighters, was just a dream for Kenai's Sam Satathite and John Harris. Today, the two Kenai Fire Department members have fulfilled their mission of going where no one had ever gone before.
Harris and Satathite along with Harris' longtime climbing partner and KIMO-TV news anchor Ty Hardt reached the summit of Mount St. Florian in the Chigmit Mountains on Monday.
As members of an elite fraternity of lifesavers, Satathite and Harris are used to going into places few people would dare to tread, so it's little surprise they would choose to set foot atop a previously unclimbed mountain as a way to honor those who give their lives standing up for others.
"Mount St. Florian is a mountain our firefighters association named (in 2002) in recognition of all fallen firefighters around the nation," Satathite explained in an interview after returning to Kenai last week.
He said that following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the firefighters decided naming a mountain peak across Cook Inlet from Kenai would be the perfect way to remember all the firefighters who died in the tragedy.
Harris said the idea to name an unnamed Chigmit peak as a memorial came from Kenai Fire Chief Scott Walden's father, Ron. Once the idea was formed, the name was easy to pick St. Florian is the patron saint of firefighters.
Going through the proper channels to get the mountain named also proved fairly easy. Since there are numerous unnamed peaks in the Chigmits a sawtooth series of mountain tops defined by the imposing, cone-shaped peak of the Mound Redoubt volcano the process of getting official recognition didn't take long.
What did take a while, however, was getting Satathite and Harris to the top.
The first year they tried to make the summit, warm weather and sticky conditions at the base turned them back almost immediately.
"It was brutal," Satathite said. "We found out it was a winter mountain."
"In the summer it's just a jungle," Harris said.
A second trip followed, in which the duo was turned back by wintry conditions that made climbing impossible during the short window they had to make their attempt. After that, Satathite said, it was apparent the mountain wasn't going to give up so easily.
"It's a small mountain, but it climbs like an expedition," Satathite said.
This year (with Hardt along to film the trip for a two-part news story set to air Monday and Tuesday on KIMO), Satathite and Harris were determined to reach their goal.
"It was unfinished business for Sam and I," Harris said.
Despite their desire to finally summit the mountain, this year's expedition didn't get off to a good start. After getting dropped near the base of the mountain by Sam's dad, Clearwater Air owner Will Satathite, the trio had to endure three days of flat light and windy conditions that made a push to the summit impossible.
"You just couldn't see any features at all," Satathite said.
With time running out (now the fourth day of their five-day trip), the situation didn't look good. Weather forecasts were for high winds in the Chigmits on Monday, but the three got up early that morning and prepared to attack the summit anyway. This time, things worked perfectly.
"We just had the one good weather day," Harris said.
With sunny skies, little wind and cold temperatures, the day was perfect for climbing and the group wasted little time getting after it.
"We just started chugging along," Satathite said.
By 1:30 that afternoon, the three mountaineers were taking turns standing atop the approximately 4,500-foot peak, staring out across Cook Inlet toward the Kenai Peninsula.
For Satathite, the moment was special for many reasons. First, it was his first expedition-style summit. Second, climbing the mountain meant he'd finally reached his goal of doing something to honor his fellow firefighters. And finally, he said, it was neat because his dad actually had a chance to watch as the climb unfolded.
Will Satathite had decided to bring a flightseeing customer over the mountain for a quick fly-by. As he did, the customer got a bird's-eye view as Harris, Hardt and Satathite basked in their accomplishment.
"My dad told the guy, 'I've got something to show you,'" Sam said. "The guy thought it was just great."
Now that their goal has been realized, the firefighters said they hope to return to Mount St. Florian. Harris runs a mountain guide business and the idea of bringing other firefighters up the mountain in the future has come up, as has the idea of affixing a permanent memorial marker atop the mountain.
For now, though, the two are happy to have finished what started as a simple act of respect toward those who came before them.
"Because we had that reason to do it, and because of all the work, it really was a cool thing," Satathite said.
And, in addition to paying their respects, Harris and Satathite have earned plenty of respect from their fellow firefighters at the department.
"We'd been taking four years of ribbing from the guys at the station," Satathite said. "I'm glad we finally made it."
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