McKinley expedition thwarted by bad weather at 17,200 feet

Firefighter ends summit quest

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

Three weeks after setting out for the summit of North America's highest peak, a Kenai firefighter and his climbing team have called it quits.

Firefighter John Harris, climbing with a team from the news department of Anchorage television station KIMO, saw his Mount McKinley dream end in a frigid whiteout Monday. After being stranded for six days in subzero temperatures in high camp at 17,200 feet, the team was forced to turn around just 3,120 vertical feet from the summit.

Harris, the son of Nikiski Fire Chief Billy Harris, was climbing in memory of fallen firefighters. His focus caught the attention of firefighters across the United States and raised $7,000 from fire organizations in Alaska for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emittsburg, Md.

"We're all really proud of what John's done," said Kenai Assistant Fire Chief Scott Walden. "The guys (here) are pretty disappointed, but we understand."

Harris set out on June 1 for what was hoped to be a two-week expedition, but a series of storms delayed upward progress. After attaining its camp at 14,200 feet on June 9, the team was stranded by snow and wind until June 14. The climbers made it to 17,200 feet the next day, but already supplies were running out.

"They took plenty of supplies up, but they got snowed in," Walden said. "They estimated four days (at 17,200 feet) and they were there for six."

Joy Bunde, executive director at KIMO news, said the climbers were simply out of options.

"They ran out of food," she said.

She said the team descended in the same storm that claimed the lives of four people in a plane crash Monday (See related story, this page), including pilot Don Bowers, who coincidentally had flown the team into base camp three weeks ago. Bunde said Harris and his cohorts learned of the plane's disappearance when they reached base camp Monday night.

"It put everything in perspective for them," Bunde said. "It made it all a lot clearer about why they had to come down."

Walden said he doubted if Harris would let the disappointment of this trip keep him down for long.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he tries again."

Harris will travel to the national fallen firefighters memorial in October, where he will speak about teamwork to the children of fallen firefighters and be a guest at a foundation banquet.

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