Everest for kids
In 1923 George Mallory took part in his 3rd Everest expedition, and never returned. As a father of three himself, I wonder if he would have allowed his children at the age of 13 to attempt the peak?
I suspect not, as Everest 90 years ago was considered one of the greatest and most extreme challenges known to man. To climb it was not only proving impossible, but fatal too.
Obviously climbing Everest today is a different story. Hundreds of people climb the peak every year, and while many still perish, a huge amount of support and infrastructure allows for many of these summiteers to not be of ‘Mallory mountain stock’. Mallory was arguably the best mountaineer of his time, and a man possessed with the ambition of reaching the top of the world.
These days, put simply, if you have the bucks to pay for a team of guides, Sherpas, cooks and other specialists, they will help you to the top of the world. So why not bring your kids along too?
As an adventure mountain guide myself, I feel the pressure when taking young persons into the wilderness. At thirteen they tend to destroy things, pull at each other’s hair and most of the time, fail to hear instructions and act on them.
Sure not all kids are the same, and Jordan Romero sounds like someone both exceptional and talented. Beyond his years one could say. At thirteen he has climbed all six other seven summits, the highest mountains on each of the continents. This includes Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside the Himalayas and Denali, a 6000 metre plus peak in Alaska.
Climbing with his father and stepmother, he appears to be informed and rational about attempting the world’s highest mountain. He notes:
"This may be the first of many attempts," he said. "It could take a couple of years, but I am determined to do it. If I don't reach the summit this time, I will try next time."
"I do feel ready," he said. "I feel very prepared emotionally, and definitely physically."
Can we believe Jordan? Is he in touch with his body and emotions as he professes?
This month’s Superclimb vote poll asks if allowing minors to climb big mountains is acceptable. Let’s look at some of the factors for and against:
The argument against is often that minors have not the life experience to make informed decisions. They cannot understand the risks involved in doing such sort of extreme activities.
The present record holder for the youngest summiteers of Everest, Temba Tsheri of Nepal, who reached the peak at age 16, lost fingers during the climb due to frostbite.
This also raises questions around the ability of young people’s bodies to deal with high altitudes and the Death Zone (altitudes above 7500 metres where the human body cannot survive). It has long been felt that younger bodies with higher metabolisms deteriorate faster at altitude and are at more risk.
This applies to persons in their twenties, let alone their early teens, the old saying of ‘mountaineers coming into their own in their mid thirties and forties’ being well known.
But our bodies aside, the other reason for this saying holding water is experience. Older climbers have more years of climbing to draw on when doing big mountains and expeditions. This need not be age related, as so clearly recorded in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, where, high on the slopes of Everest in 1996, inexperienced climbers perished or were seriously injured in difficult storm conditions, after making poor decisions on their summit day.
Will young Jordan be able to make the right decisions and understand the needs of his body at altitude?
One could argue to date he has climbed all six of the other Seven Summits, including the 6971 metre high Aconcagua in Argentina. With his parents to guide him, who is to say this 13-year-old is not the exception to the rule, and destined to change the record books of mountaineering, and human ability.
Mountaineering has always been about pushing the limits of human ability. Mallory was indeed attempting something no man had ever achieved before him. He and many others perished trying before Tenzing and Hillary realized the summit in 1953. Perhaps loosing fingers or even lives of minors is an acceptable risk, if the children involved are aware and of and accept the dangers with the challenge.
Jordan claims he was inspired by a picture of the Seven Summits in the school corridor. His parents could argue it was not their doing, but his dream they are supporting. Starting with Kilimanjaro at the age of ten, the child is without a doubt, talented. By supporting him on each climb, perhaps attempting Everest is something that will come naturally after the other six peaks.
Jordan thinks so, he states:
"I just wanted to do something big, and this was something I wanted to do for myself. It was all about the experience and I just happen to be 13 at this time."
Do we believe him? Can we believe him? Can he really know what he wants at 13? Can he really understand what ‘big’ means? Parents can be support their children to great heights, but is this fair and responsible? The Jackson family, the Williams twins of tennis fame; there are many examples of this.
We live in an era when teens are trying to climb Everest. Lets say Jordan does make it, and suffers no frostbite or injuries. Does that mean more 13-year-olds will/could/should follow? And when one does get injured or perishes, (statistically 1 in 6 adults who climb Everest perish, so its only a matter of time before a teen will perish trying if they are continually allowed to attempt Everest) will we as a community be okay with that?
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Will we have failed our children? Or will we have advanced as the human race in what we perceive as possible and within human capability?
And should he succeed, will we allow a 12-year-old, or a 9-year-old in the future to have a go? Will some mountaineer decide to carry back pack his or her toddler to the summit?
This May, Jordan Romero and his parents will be climbing with Sherpa support up the northern side of Mount Everest, the same route Mallory perished trying to climb almost a century ago. How the world has changed since then.
Place your view by voting on our present poll on the Superclimb page.