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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.

In the morning, with good weather, we started our summit bid. Cresting the rocky ridge that we’d follow all the way to the icy summit, we discovered a cluster of Dall sheep beds in the fine schist gravel. But Siena wasn’t much interested in wildlife; on the ridge we could see the dramatically steep slope on the other side, which startled her into a touch of vertigo.

It’s always easier looking up, and as we scrambled along the crumbling ridge we stayed preoccupied with finding passage through short cliff bands that broke up the boulderfields. After more than an hour of this scrambling, we stopped for lunch. For me, rest stops demand a view, so I led us back to the crest where an amazing ledge of ochre- and brick-colored shale jutted over a 1,000-foot plunge. On our left, the black scar of Chamberlin’s rocky north face revealed its 2,000-foot profile. And way, way down below, a barely discernible speck of yellow, our tent. Spectacular.

Siena ate with her back to the void and said, “You sure know how to pick ‘em.”

“Thanks,” I replied, before realizing it wasn’t a compliment.

That’s when I should have roped her up, right after lunch. But I was focused more on her physical abilities–I knew she wouldn’t fall off the ridge–than her psychological needs, and I shamefully missed her requests to tie in.

Her tense grumpiness eases as I attach the rope to her waist. Just being connected by a rope makes such a difference. It’s a bond of trust and of teamwork, in addition to a sense of security. We move together, 10 to 15 feet apart.

When our ridge finally merges into the main summit shoulder, I’m giddy about how close the top looks. This is the exact spot seen in my childhood Frisbee photo. So I’m surprised that Siena is again wearing her deeply pained look, her eyes wet with barely repressed tears. I don’t know what’s going on, so I hold her tight in a long hug. I assure her that she’s just tense from the recent scrambling. But again, I’m clueless. She’s looking at the summit ridge, and it scares the hell out of her.

“It’s so steep! I don’t know if I can do it.”

I remind her that we don’t have to climb it, that we can treat any point of the climb as our personal summit. That was our deal, and it still is. In a cracking voice, she replies, “But it will feel like such a waste to have come all this distance and not climb to the summit!”

So I tell her not to worry about the slope in front of us: “One of a mountain’s biggest tricks is to make you think it’s steeper than it really is.” Then I explain with my hands how something looks steep when you view it straight on, but from the side you see the true perspective. Things aren’t always as they seem, in mountains or in life.

Does she understand? I don’t know, but after we eat a snack and put on crampons, the tension eases. Our crampons crunch the ice as we move toward the summit. And then everything drops away on all sides and there’s no higher place to go.

A giant Yeeeehaaawww!!! rips from my throat as I turn around to pull the rope. “Can you believe it?” I yell. “This is it! The summit! This is incredible! We’re here! We’ve done it! Yeeehaaawww!” Now I really am the happiest man-child on earth. I grab her and dance. I can’t help it. Though she’s smiling and obviously relieved, Siena’s mouth still looks tense, her true reaction hard to gauge. But my joy knows no limit and it wants to be contagious. “You did it, you did it!” And I grab her again and hug tightly.

Then we break out the Frisbee. Siena and I toss it for a while as she indulges my nostalgia. She’s smiling, happy to have reached the top and amused at my antics, but I can tell that something’s on her mind. The descent.

“Do you want to go down now?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says.

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