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John Harlin III: Fear of a mountain, love for his family

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

March 14, 2007

John Harlin III, a longtime resident of Hood River who is currently living in Mexico, showed breathtaking slides and read from his new book, “The Eiger Obsession,” to a nearly full house at the Columbia Arts Center Sunday.

Harlin frequently became emotional while reading sections from the book, which chronicles his famous mountaineer father’s fixation on pioneering a direct ascent of the sheer north face of Switzerland’s Eiger in the 1960s — and his own obsession with finishing his father’s quest.

Harlin’s father, John Harlin II, was killed in 1966 while attempting that direct route when his rope broke and he plummeted 4,000 feet. Harlin III was 9 years old at the time, and the tragedy profoundly influenced his life.

In 2005, nearly 40 years after his father’s death, Harlin, an accomplished climber himself, returned to Switzerland to climb the mountain that, as he said Sunday, “shaped so much of my life.”

“When I was a kid it always bothered me that Dad hadn’t been able to survive most of his 4,000-foot fall …,” Harlin read from his book. “My mother made sure that the film in his movie camera was developed, because he would have filmed the whole thing if possible. That’s just how he was, and it would have been strange if he’d changed at the last minute. Or maybe he would have. Changed, that is. Another minute of life might have been enough time for him to reflect on his children, ages 8 and 9, and to realize how selfish it was to die when they needed him. Or maybe he would have learned that the opportunity to watch his children grow up, to participate in their lives, is a much greater adventure than dying. …”

Harlin had begun climbing with his father as a child, and by college he was on a path of serious mountain climbing himself. In 1979, he was training to climb his father’s route on the Eiger when his good friend and climbing partner Chuck Hospidales fell to his death while the two were climbing in Canada.

Besides his father’s death, it was “the other thing that really shaped my life,” Harlin said. “I realized that my mom would probably not survive my death.”

After that, he steered clear of serious climbing for 15 years. But in 1995, he climbed a new and difficult route on remote Mount Waddington, in British Columbia, and the suppressed desire to climb — and to climb the mountain that had killed his dad — bubbled to the surface.

“I realized how much this meant to me,” Harlin said. “It was roughly this time that I started thinking about the Eiger again.” But, aside from his mother, he also by then had a wife, Adele Hammond, to think about. And in April 1996, their daughter, Siena, was born.

In 1999 Harlin found himself in a train station in Switzerland, in tears, saying good-bye to his wife and daughter before heading off to attempt the Eiger.

“What really caught me off guard … was the sudden transition from doting parent to daring alpinist,” Harlin read. “The latter felt like a complete violation of the former. Instead of being excited about the climbing to come, I felt like a foot soldier handing off his child before heading to the front line where battle raged.

“It wasn’t so much guilt that I felt, but loss. I was saying good-bye to the most precious thing in my life, and my tears were less for the difficulties my death would cause Siena than they were for the possibility that I might not be able to watch her grow up. I just couldn’t bear that idea: to miss out on her life. Mine was a selfish misery caused by a selfish activity that could be called off at any time. And yet I felt I had to go.”

Conditions weren’t right and Harlin didn’t climb the Eiger that year. He had to forego it several more times over the next few years due to poor conditions. Each time, he felt both relief and disappointment; he was profoundly afraid of the mountain, yet he wanted to put behind him the demon that had loomed so large for nearly four decades.

In 2004, Harlin was asked if he wanted to climb the Eiger for an IMAX film. Although doing so would alter the private nature of his quest, after much thought and discussion with his family, he agreed. In September 2005, with two experienced partners — and with Adele and Siena waiting at the base and able to watch him through a telescope — Harlin climbed his father’s route to the summit of the Eiger.

“Walking along the summit ridge was absolutely the most spectacular thing,” Harlin said. “It was such a relief to be here. I was so afraid of it all this time.”

Harlin said his father had been making a film of his own ascent in 1966, on recently introduced Super 8 film.

“I saw this as a completion of his project,” he said. “The film also very much brought Adele and Siena into the picture, which meant infinitely more to me than it would have.

“This book and movie is a celebration of the mountains,” Harlin said. “But more important, it’s a celebration of family.”

*****

The IMAX film “The Alps” is currently showing at the Omnimax Dome Theater, located at OMSI in Portland. Call (503) 797-4640 for a schedule.

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