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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.

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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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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