Son Conquers A Killer Mountain

John Harlin III conquered the same peak that killed his father.
CBS
In the spectacular Swiss Alps stands a 13,000-foot mountain called the Eiger. Its sheer north face, an irresistible challenge to elite climbers, has claimed more than 60 lives. It was there, one splendid September day in 2005, that John Harlin and two friends began to climb.

"Every climber wants to climb the Eiger and few do," John Harlin III told Sunday Morning correspondent Jerry Bowen . "But it's just this mythological mountain, and as a climber you really want to do it."

But John Harlin III needed to do it. The north face, known as the murder wall, had made his father John Harlin II a legend — and being the son of a legend is not easy.

"He was the first American to climb it in 1962," Harlin said. "And at that time he climbed it by the only route that was on the face, 6,000-foot base. And there's only one route which was quite remarkable. And he wanted to do the first direct, separate route that was much more straight up-and-down."

Harlin the father was a renaissance man. He was a U.S. Air Force pilot, artist, writer and teacher, and while just in his twenties, was already a celebrity — more in Europe than America — because of his mountain climbing achievements.

"John Harlin II was kind of a mytho-poetic character — he was larger than life," adventure writer Richard Bangs said. "He was what we call the original rock star."

Harlin was a brash, big-talking American who dominated the Europeans at their own game of climbing the toughest peaks and rock faces in the Alps.

"He was blessed with a talent," Bangs said. "He was gifted in his ability to climb. He had the will to succeed."

He was obsessed with the Eiger. So in 1966, after dozens of failed attempts, John Harlin II and two friends began the daring direct ascent of the north face.

"The north face of the Eiger is taller and harder than anything on Everest," Bangs said. "It is one of the most challenging pieces of rock in the world."

His wife, daughter, and nine-year-old son John waited below. No one doubted Harlin would succeed; he always did. So no one could quite believe it when he fell.

"And actually when he died, when I was nine-years-old, it was very important to me to find out that it wasn't his fault that he died," John Harlin III said. "That he didn't die as a result of a mistake he made."

Harlin's larger-than-life father fell 4,000 feet to his death when his climbing rope severed on a rocky ledge. Since that day 41 years ago, John has been haunted.

"Growing up in the shadow of your father in a way, and then coming to terms with his death and living with his legacy," he said. "I have the same name as he did and I ended up going into climbing myself, and so the name was really recognized. And so I was always living with him throughout my years."

Young Harlin idolized his father. He loved to ski with him and started climbing with him at age seven — hard climbs. Harlin the father was very difficult to please.

"That was something that he didn't accept, when people didn't perform at their full capacity, including myself," Harlin said. "Once I fell during a ski race and that was very disappointing to him. And that affected me when I saw how disappointed in me he was when I'd fallen in the race."

In death the John Harlin legend grew larger. In the movie "The Eiger Sanction," Clint Eastwood's character, art lover and climber Jonathan Hemlock, was based in part on John Harlin.

As John the son began his own distinguished climbing career, he kept running head-on into his father:

"Because I had the same name I kept encountering people I'd meet for the first time [who] would say, 'Ah, back from the dead I see,' joking, not realizing I was related," Harlin said. "Or the most common question was, 'Are you any relation to the real John Harlin?' And I'd just say 'Yes, that's my father.' But it always felt a little odd, of course. I was very proud of that legacy but at the same time I felt I had to live up to it. Not rationally, but just in my heart, I was always making that comparison and that wasn't always easy."

"It seemed like there was this cloud that has hung over John the son for most of his adult life," Bangs said. "It's something he needed to purge. He needed to prove himself to his dad, for himself."

What Harlin decided he needed was to climb the north face of the Eiger where his father had died — a story he tells in the book, "The Eiger Obsession," and the new Imax film, "The Alps."

"Eiger means ogres and it was that ogre that, I think, defined his existence," Bangs said.

So on that bright September day, Harlin began his own ascent of the Eiger with climbing partners Robert and Daniela Jasper.

Watching from below were Harlin's wife Astrid and his nine-year-old daughter Siena — the same age her father was when his father fell to his death. Harlin said while he climbed he thought about his father's final moments.

"I thought about it a lot as I was passing," he said. "But looking for the spots and what happened, where his rope broke and all that. And I thought, 'Well, I wonder what were his final thoughts as he was going down?' But I was climbing and I had to get up the mountain and I couldn't focus on death, especially my father's death."

Harlin conquered the mountain that killed his father, but the bigger story is what he found at the top.

"By going to the Eiger, I felt that I was connecting," Harlin said. "The mountains meant so much to him, and with him in a way, too. So it was two levels: as a climber and also as father/son."

He achieved every son's deepest wish: He did not disappoint.