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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.

I assured her that she doesn’t have to follow my footsteps. But I also told her that these are the things that mattered to me when I was growing up; they still do. I want her to know them. Like all parents, I struggle with boundaries. When should I just open doors and let her choose which ones to enter? When should I nudge–or even push–her through one? When she was younger we learned the “10 times rule”: keep putting a new food item on the plate, and eventually it will seem familiar enough to try. With hiking Adele and I have nudged her a little harder than we did with food. With skiing I even pushed a little, then gave up. Now I wondered if this trip was more like a shove, given that she had so little idea of what Chamberlin would entail. Yes, I’d asked her if she wanted to come, but it really wasn’t a fair question.

My own father had no concerns about pushing. I remember coming back from my first big ski race, held in Italy when I was eight years old. When Dad found out that I’d fallen–twice–he was furious. Another time he discovered me getting pummeled by the playground bully; Dad made clear what he thought of my weakness. These are not the memories of him that I cherish, and yet they dominate. With my sister he was different. She wasn’t expected to be strong, like him. I often wonder how different I’d be as the father of a son. With Siena I manage to back off, taming my disappointment when she doesn’t want to go bicycling, or climbing, or even to help build her own tree house. “Ah, well,” I say to myself, “she has her own interests.” But would my son get off so easily? Would I expect to see myself in him? I can imagine telling a son to stop whining, start climbing. But when Siena is afraid it squeezes my heart; I want to provide comfort, not lessons in toughness.

At breakfast Siena said she felt, “Kind of lousy. Restless and nervous and homesick. And missing Mama.” She pointed to her upper stomach area. “It all kind of settles right here, like a knot. The only time I feel good is when we’re reading Never Cry Wolf.”
Later, when I checked on her in the tent, she wasn’t sleeping. I decided that this was the time to remind both of us about our deal: The summit is entirely optional. The thing that matters is the journey, the experience of being here. If Chamberlin frightens her this much, maybe we should instead concentrate on the hike out.

Then she asked, “How much time do we have for the mountain?”

“I’ve allowed a week–four days plus three for weather. But if we decide not to, that leaves more time for the hike out.”
She pointed her finger upward.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I’m going to hike up the mountain.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“I don’t want to disappoint my dad.”

“I won’t be disappointed. This is about the journey.”

“You wouldn’t be even a little bit disappointed? Come on. I know my dad.”

“OK, just a little bit. But really, it’s fine. This trip is as much a growth experience for me as it is for you.”
At that moment, Arlene called out, “Look! Caribou!”

A herd of at least 50 trotted alongside the lake; they hadn’t detected us because we were downwind. They stopped for a while as we watched their scatterbrained antics, dashing here then there, splitting and merging, no attention span at all. Eventually they resumed trotting along the lakeshore.

Siena beamed. “Remember when I said how cool it would be to see caribou out the tent door?”

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