Two Kenai firefighters set off across Cook Inlet today with two goals in mind: to summit an unclimbed mountain and to further commemorate a monument the Kenai Firefighters Association dedicated to firefighters lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
John Harris and Sam Satathite left Kenai early this morning to begin their ascent of Mount St. Florian, the mountain named in honor of the firefighters who were killed.
The mountain is 4,070 feet and is about 37 miles west of Kenai across Cook Inlet in the Chigmik Mountains. It is about 8 miles east of Mount Redoubt and is visible from Erik Hansen Memorial Park in Old Town Kenai.
After Sept. 11, people across the country began looking for ways to commemorate the heroic efforts and the lives lost of the firefighters in the World Trade Towers bombings. In October, the KFA came up with an idea for a permanent monument to their fallen comrades. They petitioned the city of Kenai, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Alaska Historical Commission and the U.S. Board on Geography Names to name a mountain after St. Florian -- the patron saint of firefighters.
"I think it's very cool," Satathite said. "A lot of people around the nation are trying to make some sort of a tribute to fallen firefighters and Sept. 11, and that's what our purpose was. We wanted something uniquely Alaska and something to be an everlasting statement. There's not much that's more everlasting in Alaska than a mountain."
The firefighters' request was approved, and in February the KFA received word that Mount St. Florian had been entered in the nation's official geographic names repository. The name will appear in the next printing of maps of the area.
Harris and Satathite will summit the mountain to further dedicate it. Harris is an experienced climber who has summited Mount McKinley. He started planning the climb in October. His co-worker, Satathite, has not done much climbing, but was interested in joining Harris, so the two began training together.
"I haven't done any technical climbing, but I do anything I can run up and down in a day myself," Satathite said. "I've been here all my life and stuff like that I really enjoy. I've wanted to get into it all my life, so this is an opportunity of a lifetime."
The two plan to climb McKinley this summer and were looking forward to the Florian climb.
"I'm very excited," Satathite said. "My wife is making fun of me because I keep putting on my gear at the house getting ready to go. She's happy for me, she knows I love this kind of stuff."
Harris is excited about the climb because of the potential of a first ascent.
"It's going to be a fun climb over there," he said. "I don't think this mountain has been climbed. Among climbers, the first ascent is a pretty highly coveted thing. In Alaska there's a lot of potential for that."
The two have been training together and trying to find sponsorships so Satathite could afford the gear he would need. Harris did a first fly-by of Mount St. Florian in February to see what kind of climbing conditions he would face and to see if an ascent would even be possible. The two did another fly-by about three weeks ago with Satathite's father, Will Satathite, who owns Clearwater Air.
"It's at the foot of Redoubt, so it doesn't look like much on its own, but when you get out to it you see it's a real mountain on it's own," Satathite said.
Harris determined the mountain is climbable and didn't foresee any major dangers in doing so. The biggest challenge will be the approach to the summit, Harris said. They will have to begin the climb basically at sea level because, unlike Mount Iliamna or Mount Spur, there are no glaciers or safe areas to land on farther up. Much of the terrain leading up to the summit is rugged and covered in alders, which can make the going tough.
But that's nothing new to Harris, who is familiar with experienced Alaska climbing conditions.
"Alaska terrain is almost like an adventure in itself," he said.
The actual summit is small, with about enough room for one man to stand there at a time.
"There's a technical aspect up to the top," Harris said. "Basically the summit is actually a narrow corniced ridge.
Because of the time of year, going up to the summit will most likely be punchy and sloppy, since the snow is still deep but is beginning to melt. The climbers wanted to arrive at the mountain early this morning, begin their initial approach, set up camp, then get some sleep and wait until midnight to head up to the summit, Satathite said.
They would like to reach the summit first thing in the morning so they can head back down before the sun comes out and the temperature rises too much. If the weather gets too warm and sunny the danger of an avalanche increases, so the climbers would like to make their ascent while it is cold and icy.
Weather conditions obviously play a part in whether Harris and Satathite will be able to complete the climb. If it's too warm, overcast or windy, the climbers will stay in camp until conditions become more conducive, Satathite said.
Harris said he hoped the climb would take two days but has made plans to stay on the mountain for up to four days if conditions aren't right when they arrive.
Satathite said he was hoping to take a cell phone with him so he and Harris could call their wives about an hour before they reach the summit. That way his father could fly their wives to the mountain so they could take pictures of the climbers on the summit -- if it works out, he said.
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