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Backpacker Magazine – March 2010

Higher Love: Father & Daughter Climb Mt. Chamberlin

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

by: John Harlin III

The author's daughter leads the way on Summit Ridge.
The author's daughter leads the way on Summit Ridge.
Caribou lope past Lake Peters.
Caribou lope past Lake Peters.
Siena jumps a crevasse.
Siena jumps a crevasse.
The Harlin's start the tough 40-mile exit hike.
The Harlin's start the tough 40-mile exit hike.
A game of summit frisbee.
A game of summit frisbee.
A moment of low anxiety.
A moment of low anxiety.
Siena lands a whopper.
Siena lands a whopper.

  See Harlin's photo journal of the trip in this gallery.

Three days ago our bush plane bounced down onto the tundra. When the propeller sputtered to a halt, the adults unloaded the plane while Siena loped across the tundra in her sky-blue outfit, like a colorful caribou unleashed. Watching her sweep across the land, Kirk Sweetsir, our pilot, exclaimed that in all of his years of Arctic flying he'd never seen anything like it. My heart swelled with joy at Siena's apparent happiness. And then Kirk spun his plane and gunned the engine hard. In minutes even the sound had vanished, leaving us–Siena, me, and friend and photographer Arlene Burns–utterly alone.

Not long afterward the clouds parted, revealing a white-crusted summit 6,000 feet above us. Its point jutted up from behind a long, rocky ridge.

"There it is!" I yelled, delighted. "Mt. Chamberlin! Look!"

Siena didn't gasp audibly, but the smile that had been on her face vanished instantly.

"Are you serious?" she finally asked, visibly stressed. "That thing is HUGE!"

Watching her smile disappear sent a jolt of fear through me. Not fear of the mountain, but fear of the adventure we'd just launched–fear that my idea of a father-daughter bonding trip would overwhelm her, fear that my dream of passing on my love for the Arctic–even for wilderness adventure itself–would fall on deaf ears, might even be turned against me. The plane had gone and here we were with two weeks of food, a mountain towering over us, 40 cross-country miles to our only pick-up option, and no contact with the outside world. We were stuck with the plans I'd concocted in safety back home, far from this wilderness outpost in the far north–itself the very definition of remote.

The Brooks Range sprawls 700 miles across the top of Alaska, from Canada to the Bering Sea. In the northeast corner, where Chamberlin rises above it all, the rounded peaks consist of loose shale broken occasionally by bands of limestone. There's not a tree anywhere. Sparse willow bushes grow a few feet tall in streambeds; in summer, wide valleys radiate green as tundra grasses soak up sunshine 24 hours a day. Peaks like Chamberlin jump thousands of vertical feet above the bare landscape, culminating in glacier-crusted summits. But mostly it's the light that I love up here. An evening's golden hour can last all night; the hills glow as if illuminated from within. The buckled landscape extends as far as you could hike in a summer–and chances are you'd never see another human in all of your travels.

When I first proposed the idea of climbing Mt. Chamberlin, Siena fired back enthusiastically, "I don't know what I'm getting myself into, but sure!" Later, when details of the trip sank in and friends and family half gasped as they asked what she thought of the adventure, Siena dropped her eyes and answered, "I'm nervous." She wasn't the only one. There was also her mother, Adele. And my mother–Siena's sole living grandparent. I grew tired of them constantly pounding into me the need for safety and for adjusting the trip to Siena's pace. These things were obvious, even to me.

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Reader Rating: -


Apr 13, 2010

fantastic story of an honest, patient father. good job dude

Apr 01, 2010

Wonderful Read!

Mar 28, 2010

Isnt this the same thing as parents wanting their kids to be doctors and lawyers just because either they themselves are or couldnt be?
Just because your idea of adventure is standing on a high peak does not mean that the child or your child enjoys that as much or should be pushed in that direction unless it is on a slow pace. I find this sense of always looking for an "adventure" a very Western concept. Children can find that same sense of adventure in undertaking projects that they show interest in-volunteering, growing an organic gardner, helping with environment projects etc

Mar 28, 2010

Its not about hiking. I believe we should first open them to the beauty of nature and then slowly get them to participate in finding that beauty around them in hikes, kayaking, climbing etc. This is so rewarding then as they discover the world around them.

Mar 28, 2010

I have a 3 year-old daughter that loves camping, mountains and just got introduced to skiing. I cherish that but also realize that she is very cautious, mildly introverted and liked sitting close to me on the chairlift as much as skiing. Thank you for this article, it's a bluntly honest assessment of the reality of parenthood and how it changes your priorities. But also thank you for showing the way to those of us that dream of big adventures with our kids but fear how they will receive them.

Mar 26, 2010

I know some will nay-say but, I have a close friend that permanently soured his son on hiking by taking him out and pushing him too soon. He only grudgingly goes on long walks now, let alone share his fathers love of hiking.
Be very careful about pushing your love of the sport on loved ones that are not ready.

Jim D
Mar 25, 2010

As a single father of 3 girls I have to admit this article choked me up quite a bit. I am an avid backpacker and want desparately to share the outdoor experience with my daughters (the ex hated camping so no support there). There are things you learn about yourself and your place in the world that only mother nature can teach you. But I constantly fight that battle expressed by the author "Is it for me or them I do this? Is the right thing to lead, hope they follow, or push?" We all want our kids to have experiences that make them stronger and create cherished memories. As parents, we just hope we can be a part of the making of them.

Mar 25, 2010

I have six adult children. From age ten on We started climbing the High Peaks in the Adirondacks We have climbed most of the 46 and several high points in some of the western states. This has been a great strength for my family. Our family is scattered all over the US persuing lives and careers. We still manage to get together, we enjoy remembering our time together in the wilderness and plan new trips. Last year we had a family reunion in the Adirondacks with all our children their spouses and our grandchildren we rented two houses. Some of my sons and I are planning a canoe trip to the Boundry Waters as a family we are stil creating these out door memories and they are sweet.

Jason Kuehn
Mar 09, 2010

I just finished reading this article in the magazine. What a wonderful story! I have an 18 month old boy who already shows lots of adventure spirit and I can't wait until we can go backpacking together. This great article made me look forward to it even more!


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