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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.

My plan for success: carefully pace each day. It helped that the heavy stuff went into my pack. And that ankle-high blueberry patches graced our route. We alternated talus and berries for 1,500 vertical feet, until we reached a green field: a carpet of moss, deep and soft as fresh snowfall, a living memory-foam mattress.

We pitched the tent and I left to scout the route ahead. I didn’t know the best way to reach the glacier from here, nor even which glacier to choose on our way to the now-hidden summit. I found the best route on a long lateral moraine on the far side of valley, where I hiked past flightless ptarmigan chicks and browsing Dall sheep.

Two hours after leaving camp, I was back in sight of it, yelling, waving my shirt, and hoping they’d see me. No response. But soon I saw Siena’s bright blue shirt not far below, scrambling toward me fast. She had a familiar, frightened look, her face tense and concentrated.

“Were you worried?” I asked when I reached her.

“Yeah.” By her expression, I could tell it had been a lot worse than mere worry.

I’d underestimated how much she depended on me up here. On the mountain, so far from home, I was her connection to everything she knew. I went to sleep wondering what else I might have misjudged.

The next morning we followed the moraine to the toe of the glacier, nearly 1,500 feet above Mossy Camp. Here, she strapped on crampons for the first time in her life, and tied into a rope. As she practiced walking in crampons along the glacier’s base, punching her feet down to make the points stick in the hard ice, she grinned and said, “I’m not feeling scared anymore, Daddy.” She flashed me a thumbs-up. My heart skipped a beat, I was so happy.

One of my most cherished memories is of the time I first crunched glacier ice in crampons. It was on the Mer de Glace in France while hiking up to the mountain hut where Dad was based during a drawn-out siege on a new route above. I was seven years old, but I swear that in the 46 years since, each time I crunch blue glacier ice underfoot the sound transports me straight back to that hike. There’s no place I’d rather be. I wondered what Siena will remember when she’s my age.

The basin below Chamberlin’s summit pyramid didn’t turn out to be as flat as I thought. What was white was slush, not snow. What was blue or black was ice, steep as a boat ramp. Eventually we found a place where we could chop a flat spot into the ice and fill it out with gravel. I twisted in ice screws to anchor our tent.

To my delight, Siena wanted to play, not hang around camp. “At this pace, I’m not tired,” she declared. So we hiked up the glacier in search of a place to slide. Finally, at the left edge of the rocky north face of Chamberlin, we found a patch of ice where we could safely slide a couple dozen feet using a piece of ensulite pad. Siena was clearly happy, enjoying her first day on crampons, looking forward to her first night on a glacier. She didn’t mention the climb.

On the way back down to camp she brought up a conversation she’d had earlier. Arlene had told Siena about the time when we went for a short hike near Hood River, where Siena was born. Siena was perhaps a year old, in a pack on my back, and we were exploring a canyon near Arlene’s house. As I reached onto the cliff and started climbing, still low to the ground, Arlene reminded me about Siena, implying that I might want to think about being more careful. Still, I traversed across easy rock above a deep pool of water. Because of the water, I felt completely safe. Then a new feeling hit me partway across: an instant, paralyzing realization that falling into the pool with Siena was a horrible option. While we’d make it out alive, the trauma and above all the loss of trust that she’d feel would be utterly inexcusable. I climbed out of there as if we had a 2,000-foot drop below.

On the glacier above camp, Siena reminded me of that conversation. “Until today, I never thought that you had to learn to be a dad,” she said, both amused and surprised. I told her there was a lot to learn. I’m still learning now.

She followed up, “Have you been surprised by how much I’ve changed from when I was a baby until now?”

I didn’t understand the question, so I dodged it. It seemed obvious that she’d changed enormously, standing here at the cusp of becoming a young woman. What surprised me is what hasn’t changed: her warmth with her family, her unflagging consideration toward others, her subtle humor, her sharp insight, her sparkling smile, her quiet introversion, her love for animals and good stories. Also, her need for security, her worries for the future, her competitiveness (usually handled with grace), her high self-expectations (and frustration when thwarted). These traits have been there since before she could speak. Adele and I can only nudge the course of their braiding strands, trying to tame the ones that don’t help her, nurturing those that do.

That evening in the tent, while we were reading, she unzipped the door and exclaimed, “It’s kind of wild to be in this enclosed little space–and then open the door and it’s, ‘Wow!’”

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