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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.

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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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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