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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.

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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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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