Expedition to be broadcast on TV, Web

Firefighter to climb McKinley for cause

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

John Harris is an expert on teamwork.

As a Kenai firefighter, his life depends on it.

"Teamwork is one of the things that attracted me to firefighting," said Harris, who has been with the Kenai Fire Department less than a year. "It's an integral part of fire fighting. The communication -- the trusting.

"It's a lot like (mountain) climbing."

On May 31, Harris, the son of Nikiski Fire Chief Billy Harris, will be part of a six-man team of climbers heading for the 20,320-foot peak of Mount McKinley, known in Alaska as Denali. Other members of the team include:

n Ty Hardt, news director for KIMO TV Channel 13;

n Marty and Miles Raney, father and son climbers from Talkeetna, who are the only team members to have already ascended Denali;

n Patrick McIntyre, freelance cameraman; and

n Ron Solstad, KIMO cameraman.

Harris and Hardt aren't new to climbing, having already successfully scaled Washington's 14,441-foot Mount Rainier. But the ascent of Denali means other firsts. This will be the first climb on North America's highest peak for both Harris and Hardt. The climb also will provide a broadcasting first.

"I don't think a story has ever been done by a reporter that is the day in and day out of training and climbing (Denali)," Hardt said. "I've tried to do this at other stations I was at but couldn't convince management. When I came (to KIMO) as management, I was finally able to tell myself, 'Yes,'"

The plan is to do daily updates to three Web sites and a live cybercast when they reach the summit sometime between June 13 and 19.

The level of interest and amount of support has surprised both Harris and Hardt.

"I must admit, I had no idea people would be this interested in it," Harris said. "I've been climbing for years and no one was this interested. But you mention Denali and there's a lot of interest."

"It's just grown. There are so many different angles," Hardt said.

COMPAQ has provided the team with a laptop computer, AT&T is providing communication support, Arc Teryx of Canada will supply shells for the climbers to wear over their jackets, Dana Design of Montana is picking up the backpacks and tents, and North Face is helping with parkas, bibs and gloves. And, of course, there's the support of Hardt's employer.

"Alaska Statewide News is underwriting a major part of it," Hardt said.

"The goal is just to get back and hopefully provide daily updates," Hardt said.

Another goal has sparked additional interest across Alaska and the nation. Harris and the team will be climbing in honor of firefighters that have given their lives in the line of duty.

"We came up with the idea of recognizing fallen firefighters from the United States," said Scott Walden, Kenai's assistant fire chief. "The Fallen Firefighters Memorial brings to mind the idea of prevention."

It also brought increased interest.

"The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation put out information to each state hoping to raise (support)," Walden said. Alaska State Firefighters donated $2,500 and the Kenai Peninsula Fire Chiefs gave $1,000, according to Walden.

Hardt said he was amazed by the amount of support for Harris locally. Harris' co-workers have taken up the cause, coordinating distribution of information on the climb to other firefighters and fire chiefs throughout Alaska.

"It's pretty impressive that they'd let a rookie that doesn't even have a year of tenure do this," Hardt said.

Kenai Fire Chief Jason Elson said Harris has earned that support.

"(Harris) is an exemplary employee," Elson said. "He sets a standard for all of us in the fire service. He's a credit to the community, and we're looking forward to a successful and safe journey for him."

Harris will be using accumulated vacation time to make the climb. What time he lacked, he made up for by working extra and trading shifts. And when not working, he has been training.

"The best way you can prepare for this is to put lots of weight in your pack and go up a lot of hills," said Harris, who trained on Skyline Trail during the winter. Other training routes include Matanuska Peak and Anchorage's Flattop.

As a result of his involvement in the climb, Harris will travel to the national memorial in Emittsburg, Md., in October, where he'll spend one day in the park with the children of fallen comrades, talking about teamwork. He also will be part of a candle-lighting ceremony at the memorial and a guest at a foundation banquet.

Progress of the Denali climb can be monitored beginning June 1 on aksupersite.com and through links to Web sites for ABC and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Several Alaska firefighters have given their lives in order to save lives, according to Elson. The most recent was David Liston, of Girdwood. He died April 29 in a parachuting accident while training for smoke-jumping at Ft. Wainwright.

"If we can raise awareness on fire prevention, (the climb) is a win-win," Hardt said.

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