Peter Shelton

Fear of Falling

Posted in At the Movies, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on May 19, 2011

Years ago, I had a great volunteer job over the Mountainfilm weekend: I would get up before the sun and lead anyone who wanted to go on a ski tour from Ophir to Telluride via East Bear Creek. The festival was smaller then. Just one theater – the Sheridan Opera House. And films were programed only in the evenings, so festivalgoers could get out and climb or ski during the day.

One crunchy, blue-snow morning in 1988, I found myself hiking with a solo festival guest, a powerfully built but shy seeming, somehow reticent young man named John Harlin III. We had actually met via U.S. Mail the year before when John was the editor of Backpacker and I contributed a story to an anthology on raising children in the wilderness. (The title theme was a little overblown in my case; Ridgway was hardly the wilderness. But we did take our girls as often as possible to a cabin in the Trout Lake backcountry, and I had some great snapshots of them skiing in, and feeding camp robbers leftover flapjacks.)

Harlin told me he had asthma, but that going up in altitude always seemed to help. He said he’d spent quite a lot of time in the Alps; he was an experienced mountaineer. And sure enough, as we cramponed up the Ophir side of the ridge, his breathing got freer, and he said he felt better and better.

I was watching him closely, as much for the fact that Backpacker’s offices were on the East Coast, at low elevation, as for his volunteering the fact of his asthma. He seemed to be fine as we approached the high point at 13,400 feet.

We had plenty of time. Overnight temps up high had cemented the surface crust, and even in the sun the snow remained hard. We had time to wait for the corn to soften.

As we sat on our packs, Harlin grew quiet. Eventually, he noticed my noticing and said, simply: “I was just thinking that today I’m older than my father was when he died.” John Harlin II was 30 when he was killed, in Switzerland, in 1966. His son and namesake was nine years old.

I suppose I should have known the story; the name was vaguely familiar. But I was young myself and not well versed, but for a few iconic tales, in the lore of Alpine climbing.

John Harlin the father was a rock star, a larger-than-life American in the Alps in the 1960s. A former Air Force pilot, artist, writer and teacher (he founded the International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, Switzerland), he put up a number of very hard new routes with a group of Scots and Yanks known as the “wild ones.” He was the first American to climb the infamous north face of the Eiger, in 1962. Clint Eastwood’s character in The Eiger Sanction, the artist and climber Jonathan Hemlock, was based in part on John Harlin.

By 1966 Harlin was convinced he could climb the Eiger north face by a bold new route, “directissima.” He enlisted Dougal Haston as his partner, and they started up in late March of that year. Harlin’s wife, daughter and nine-year-old son, in lederhosen, were at the base watching.

Two-thirds of the way up the dark-shadowed “Ogre” Harlin was ascending a fixed rope that had frayed against the sharp rocks. The rope broke, and he fell 4,000 vertical feet.

John Harlin the son told me none of these details up there at the head of Bear Creek. He just said how strange it felt to be older than his famous father ever was.

I gather from what I’ve heard since that John Harlin III was haunted by his father’s death, almost debilitatingly so, until in 2007 he climbed the Eiger himself and wrote about it in The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father.

That day on the relatively gentle pitches of Telluride’s iconic spring tour, Harlin the son skied with a kind of fierce bravado. Down the open, whaleback ridges. Through snaking, white-walled creek bottoms. Slashing down the Waterfall Chute. And out finally to the Big Rock below the roaring falls themselves.

Back down to the horizontal, to civilization, to a return of the asthma, I suppose. But also into the arms of the Mountainfilm community, one of the few in the world that would truly understand.

One Response

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  1. kellie day said, on May 30, 2011 at 3:23 am

    hey peter, i really enjoyed reading this story in the paper…

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