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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.

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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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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