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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.

The great unknown was how Siena would take to the Arctic and climbing. While she and I had read some Arctic books out loud together, including Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens–one of my childhood favorites–she never identified with young survivalists happy to eat what they kill before wearing its pelt. In Siena’s books, the protagonists ride dragons to battle against evil princes in faraway kingdoms. I knew she loved nature and camping–but heights, backpacks, and breaking a sweat? That was another story.

But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced–and overcome–real challenge. We moved to Mexico when she was nine. As an adult, it’s easy to see the benefits of learning a new language and adapting to a foreign culture. Of course, Siena didn’t understand that. Besides not knowing the language, she was the only blonde in her school, the only kid not born in Oaxaca. It was hard, but in a year she studied her way to the top of her class, aced all of her tests, and made new friends. After four years, even she agrees that moving to Mexico was a grand adventure. My dream for our Chamberlin climb was for her to conclude the same thing about the Arctic–after two weeks.

To take her mind off the mountain’s height, we went fishing. It was July and there was no ice on the lake, but I remember ice well from a June arrival in 1970, the year after my ascent of Chamberlin. We’d just hiked in from the Arctic Ocean in an epic walk under crushing packs. I remember being hungry, and standing on the lake ice, watching a 38-inch, 20-pound lake trout swim toward my silver spoon before engulfing it. Now it was Siena’s turn. Wham, her thin rod with its six-pound-test line bent double. Soon I was standing in the shallow water, and tossed the 28-inch fish onto shore with my hands so that the line wouldn’t break. She carried it back to camp for a feast. All would have been well if it weren’t for the mountain, still looming above.

It was hard to reconcile Siena’s anxiety with my own memories of this spot. I’ve always taken pride in my youthful adventures. The ascent of Chamberlin joined a list that began with rock climbs with my father in the Alps when I was six, seven, eight, nine. Then Dad’s rope broke as he attempted to put up a new route on the Eiger, in Switzerland where we lived at the time, and he fell 4,000 feet to his death. Losing him ripped a giant hole in our family. Mom moved us to Washington, where she entered graduate school. And I continued to climb and ski, now with Mom’s fellow graduate students. But a sense of real purpose came when, at 12, I discovered the Arctic in the pages of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. At once, I knew I’d become a wolf biologist. Soon after a high school teacher invited me on a Seattle Mountaineers outing to climb Mt. Chamberlin. But it wasn’t until 1974, during my fourth trip to the Arctic, that we finally saw a wolf: a whole den full of puppies playing alongside the Kongakut River. As it happens, I didn’t become a wolf biologist. But I never lost my love for the Arctic. Or mountains.

After dinner, as I was digging for enthusiasm, Siena spilled her heart.

“If we could just hang around and fish and see things it would be great,” she said. “But I’m pretty nervous. That mountain is big. If we didn’t have to climb the mountain then hike out 40 miles I wouldn’t be so nervous.”

She paused, faint moisture gleaming in her eyes, and then she finally let the rest out: “Why do I have to follow in my dad’s footprints so much? Living in a foreign country. Watching you on the Eiger [I climbed it a few years back]. Climbing the mountain you climbed as a kid.”

Her questions stung. Am I really like that?

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