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Higher Love: Father & Daughter Climb Mt. Chamberlin

On a remote Arctic peak, a father and his teenager encounter the hardest of all human challenges.

One of my favorite childhood pictures shows me holding a Frisbee at age 13. There’s a rope tied to my waist. Behind me, the ice-encrusted summit of Mt. Chamberlin–at 9,020 feet the highest peak in the Brooks Range on Alaska’s North Slope–rises through the clouds. A huge grin spreads across my face. I appear to be the happiest kid on earth.

But, to be honest, I remember the peak as a grinding climb. At the spot where the picture was taken, I recall having the impression that the summit was still a long ways away. I’m sure the smile in the photo was genuine, but it is far from my happiest memory of this trip. No, that came when we found my leather ski glove a few days later. Not because I particularly missed the glove, but because now it had two fresh holes in it, spaced just right to be the fang marks of a wolf pup. The glove still hangs on my wall as one of my most cherished possessions. Mountains I could (and did) climb back home in Washington. What I really wanted in the Arctic was to see wolves, and these fang marks meant they were close.

So why, 40 years later, am I so intent on taking my own 13-year-old–my daughter, Siena–to the summit of Mt. Chamberlin? She’s always been afraid of heights, and yet here we are on an exposed ridge, moving together without a rope. I look back and notice a pinched expression on her face. I toss out casually, “Anytime you’d like the rope, just let me know.”

“Didn’t you hear me earlier?” she responds, her eyes moist daggers. “I asked twice about the rope. This is freaking me out.”
I hadn’t heard a word. A chemical wash of shame flows over me. As a former guide, I’m supposed to be attuned to my charges. Yes, I know that in the end most people remember and cherish the moments when they felt pushed–just enough but not too much. A little fear sharpens the experience. But as a dad, I know that Siena needs no more anxiety than she’s already feeling. This is her first mountain. Her first long backpacking trip. Her first big adventure away from Mama. She didn’t ask to be pushed so hard. She’s here living out my dream, not hers. And now I’ve brought her to tears. Again.

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