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Higher Love: Father & Daughter Climb Mt. Chamberlin

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

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The author’s daughter leads the way on Summit Ridge.

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Caribou lope past Lake Peters.

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Siena jumps a crevasse.

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The Harlin’s start the tough 40-mile exit hike.

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A game of summit frisbee.

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A moment of low anxiety.

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Siena lands a whopper.

One of my favorite childhood pictures shows me holding a Frisbee at age 13. There’s a rope tied to my waist. Behind me, the ice-encrusted summit of Mt. Chamberlin–at 9,020 feet the highest peak in the Brooks Range on Alaska’s North Slope–rises through the clouds. A huge grin spreads across my face. I appear to be the happiest kid on earth.

But, to be honest, I remember the peak as a grinding climb. At the spot where the picture was taken, I recall having the impression that the summit was still a long ways away. I’m sure the smile in the photo was genuine, but it is far from my happiest memory of this trip. No, that came when we found my leather ski glove a few days later. Not because I particularly missed the glove, but because now it had two fresh holes in it, spaced just right to be the fang marks of a wolf pup. The glove still hangs on my wall as one of my most cherished possessions. Mountains I could (and did) climb back home in Washington. What I really wanted in the Arctic was to see wolves, and these fang marks meant they were close.

So why, 40 years later, am I so intent on taking my own 13-year-old–my daughter, Siena–to the summit of Mt. Chamberlin? She’s always been afraid of heights, and yet here we are on an exposed ridge, moving together without a rope. I look back and notice a pinched expression on her face. I toss out casually, “Anytime you’d like the rope, just let me know.”

“Didn’t you hear me earlier?” she responds, her eyes moist daggers. “I asked twice about the rope. This is freaking me out.”
I hadn’t heard a word. A chemical wash of shame flows over me. As a former guide, I’m supposed to be attuned to my charges. Yes, I know that in the end most people remember and cherish the moments when they felt pushed–just enough but not too much. A little fear sharpens the experience. But as a dad, I know that Siena needs no more anxiety than she’s already feeling. This is her first mountain. Her first long backpacking trip. Her first big adventure away from Mama. She didn’t ask to be pushed so hard. She’s here living out my dream, not hers. And now I’ve brought her to tears. Again.

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.

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?

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?”

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!'”

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.

The next day, down at the lake, I ask Siena what’s wrong. Aside from the weather–we experienced a powerful lightning storm in our glacier camp and a drizzly hike down–the descent went smoothly and we arrived safely at basecamp.

“I’m feeling rotten,” she says. “I’m dirty. My clothes are dirty. Everything is wet. This gray gloom. I’m cold. I haven’t slept well. I miss Mama. And everything feels hard. Everything is hard!”

I feel that hollowness that you get when your loved one hurts and there’s nothing you can do to help. I can only try for words of comfort.

“Yes, I miss Mama too. But isn’t it beautiful here? Do you feel that glow of satisfaction from the amazing climb you just did?”

“Some. But this trip is sooo long. A backpacking trip would be good if it were a weekend or three or four days. We have so much more to go.”

That’s true. I’ve actually worried a lot more about the second half of our two-week trip than the first half. We could have turned around at any point on the mountain. We can’t turn around on the hike out. But what she just accomplished on Chamberlin looms huge in my mind, if not in hers.

“You’re right,” I tell her. “It is a long time. But it takes time to feel comfortable on a trip like this. After a while you just start to feel like this is home, like you’re a part of the land. I think that as soon as we get some sunshine you’ll feel a lot better.”

“If we ever get sunshine. It might rain the whole time.”

Siena sleeps 11 hours, finally waking to a few rays of sun as they break through thinning clouds. We can see far beyond the lake, all the way to the Sadlerochit Mountains. After an inspection of the old cabins a mile away (built in the 1950s to house scientists), I ask Siena if she wouldn’t mind a rest day. We’ll make pancakes on cast-iron skillets, sleep on mattresses, fish, and recharge. Duh. Siena and I move down the lakeshore, one cast at a time. Suddenly her rod doubles over and the reel starts screaming. She carefully protects her lightweight line, and eventually I can reach into the water and shove a 34-inch lake trout onto the tundra. I work the lure from its teeth, and then we slip the gorgeous creature back into the water. I doubt I’ve ever seen Siena smile so broadly. This is what she loves. Not high summits or long hikes, but cool huts and beautiful fish.

I’m so happy to give her this moment, this free day at the lake, this wolf-bitten glove. It’s obvious that if our two weeks were spent here, like this, she’d be happier, more eager to return, perhaps even in love with the Arctic. I don’t yet know if I did the right thing by basing the trip on a mountain, rather than a lake. From my perspective, the challenge is the thing: It forces you to grow as you overcome it. I want this for Siena. And yet, it’s only down here at the lake that she sees the Arctic as I do: the vastness of its horizons, the delicacy of its textures, the richness of its details–all framed by these magnificent mountains. It’s like your soul expands to match the vastness.

When I told Siena that this trip would be as much a growing experience for me as for her, I had only a vague idea of what that really meant. I’m still not sure. Will my life lesson be to indulge her or to push her? To accept or to challenge?

After our pancakes-and-fishing layover, we need to average seven miles per day–no trivial distance considering that Arctic tundra changes its stripes every few hundred yards, from smooth and dry to wet and boggy to ankle-deep moss or ankle-spraining talus. Whenever possible we hike caribou paths, which appear and vanish intermittently. Where side valleys enter we cross fast-moving streams. The creekside ritual is always the same: After changing into rubber wading slippers, I first carry my pack across, then go back to carry Siena and hers.

On the second night we camp on a pass that must be a thoroughfare for caribou. Bands of bulls gather around the tent, wondering what the strange yellow object might be. When the wind shifts and they smell us, they toss their heads skyward and lope off, ankles clicking in that distinctive caribou style. From the pass we drop into the Franklin Creek drainage, which we’ll follow for three days before turning up the Canning River to reach our airstrip.

Barely 200 yards below the pass, Siena becomes grumpy because her pack keeps bumping her lower back. I offer to help, but she gives me an exasperated shrug, dismissing the possibility of improvement. I react with equal exasperation. By now she’s proven herself and knows the score. Enough with the princess syndrome.

“We can try to adjust the pack,” I tell her, “but we know your attitude can be adjusted. That part is up to you.”

After a brief standoff, she lets me tackle the problem. I cut one of our ensulite pads to add cushion, and the bumping abates.
A few miles later, we spot a mother grizzly and two cubs–fortunately, on the other side of the valley. Just specks, really, but binoculars reveal what they’re doing: digging up roots and ground squirrels, stripping currant berries from bushes. We’ve been filling baggies with huckleberries ourselves.

At the end of the day, as we’re going to bed, Siena tells me, “Daddy, I thought this was going to be a bad day, but it turned out to be a good one.” She seems at last to be submerging into the journey, accepting and maybe even welcoming it. She’s hiking strong and sure, easily managing campsite rituals. We’re reaching our daily mileage goals, which lowers the stress, as does the prospect of nearing Mama and home. But I see more. In the little details of the long trek out, I see her confidence rising daily, and with it her appreciation for our surroundings.

“I have a question for you,” she continues. She likes to bedevil me with “choose this or that” questions.

“Would you rather carry the food or carry me?”

This one is easy. “I’d rather carry the food,” I tell her, “and know you can walk on your own.”

In the morning, while the ladies are still sleeping, I steal out of the tent to visit the tundra. I lie on my belly to explore its miniature intricacy, the layered little worlds that you can only see if you get down at nose level and look closely. Lichens three inches tall form an understory to heather only two inches taller. Six-inch blueberry “bushes” tower over moss so thick and lush that my elbows disappear in its folds. You can see as much in a square yard of such tundra as in an acre anywhere else. Across the valley a band of little puff clouds breaks off from the Canning and streams up Franklin Creek at caribou speed. The cloud formation flows up the valley, all the way to the pass that we crossed, hangs out for a while, then slides back to the Canning and disappears. They look alive, these clouds. I remember them from past Arctic trips, like old friends.

Siena wakes up in a great mood. Our bluff-top campsite is glorious. Her pack feels light. After only a couple of miles of hiking, she declares, “Let’s cover some distance today!” And we do.

At our daily fast-water stream crossing, I’m packing my camera into its waterproof bag and rigging my shoelaces to suspend boots around my neck, so I can cross before I attend to Siena. When I look up, I’m startled to see that she’s halfway across the stream, trekking poles braced against the rushing current. Then the water washes up to her knees, causing her to wobble; my stomach clenches and I nearly jump into the creek. Suddenly I’m angry that she didn’t wait for me to help.

But she steadies herself, finding her balance. A few more steps and she’s across. As she turns to face me, I see the expression on her face–not tense anymore, but interested, expectant, assured. She smiles and waits patiently for me to follow.

Contributing editor John Harlin’s latest book, The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father (The Lyons Press), explores his family’s mountain roots.

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