The Everest Question

You may have seen the photo: A boy in a climbing helmet and harness with arms outstretched wraps himself in an American flag. The snowy ridgeline in the background helps make it clear that this is a summit photo, but you don’t really need it to get the point. The boy’s broad smile shines out even behind strands of shaggy curls that hang over his Oakleys. His grin says, “I made it!”

The boy in the photo, Jordan Romero, then 12, had just summited Carstensz Pyramid, at 16,023 feet the tallest mountain in Indonesia. A year earlier, as a sixth grader, he stood on the highest summits in the Americas, Denali and Aconcagua, presumably flashing the same adorable grin. He had to obtain a court order before he could climb Aconcagua because he was under 14, the minimum age limit set by the Argentine government. And before that, when he was 10, Jordan, his father, and his father’s girlfriend had ticked off the highest points in Europe, Africa, and Australia.

Why? Because Jordan had studied a mural of the Seven Summits in the hallway of his elementary school, in Big Bear Lake, California, and decided that he wanted to climb every one of them.

There’s a fair chance you have heard this story, or parts of it. The media swirl around Jordan Romero has filled magazine pages and airwaves for months. The 13-year-old is now on Everest, attempting to complete the goal he set for himself as a fourth-grader. On Thursday, he made it to Camp 2 on the technical Northeast Ridge of the world’s tallest mountain, climbing with his father, Paul Romero, who bills himself as a professional adventure racer, and three Sherpas. To get around an age limit of 16 on the Nepal side of the mountain, and also to keep their effort within a tight budget, Team Romero decided to go light, choosing a steeper route with exposed rock on the Chinese side, without guides. As I write this, the team is nearing Camp 3. The weather is supposed to hold through the weekend. The team hopes to summit on Saturday or Sunday.

And that’s why entering “Jordan Romero Everest” into a search engine will get you nearly 150,000 results; why People magazine spoke with Jordan on Thursday by satellite phone (his quote, “I’m more stoked than nervous,” is already in reruns on Twitter and headlining newspaper articles around the world). Because we like the goals, the effort, the sense that this impressive young man with the lovely smile is out there achieving his dreams. And isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it inspiring?

Is it?

I’ve been uncomfortable about publicizing Jordan Romero’s Everest attempt here. Plenty of voices have already chimed in, most of them breathless. But I have misgivings about what Jordan is doing, the misgivings of a parent and a former climber. There are serious implications about a 13-year-old attempting to summit a 29,000-foot Himalayan peak. Somewhere amidst the interviews and photo ops, we should engage them.

A sophisticated and thoughtful writer for Outside magazine, Bruce Barcott, apparently failed to ask the most basic question another parent might ask of Jordan’s parents: If Jordan were to die on Everest, how would you justify it? Instead, Barcott left it to Johnny Strange, the youngest person up to now to summit Everest (he did it age 17, a year ago), to articulate the thoughts that many older readers must have been having. Strange said he’d realized that real climbers don’t care about Seven Summits or age records. Maybe that’s easy to say when you’ve set your record. But Strange also said that when he was 13, he wanted to climb Everest: “There was a reason I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for it. At that age, I would’ve climbed K2 if you let me. And I would’ve died. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to remember that at 13 you’re still talking to a kid, no matter what his physical abilities. I’m 17 and I still think I know it all—and at the same time I realize I don’t. At 13, you just don’t have the ability to employ logic, complex reasoning, and weigh consequences in high-risk situations.”

Strange’s comments may be self-serving. But they also point to what neurologists, psychologists, teachers, and parents, many of them, anyway, know about the adolescent brain. It’s not fully formed. Researchers have determined that the brain’s frontal lobe, where reasoning, planning, and judgment occur, doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. Even then, it won’t reach its full capacity for high-level assessment for another decade — just in time to be a parent, and to serve, if necessary, as the frontal lobe for a gung-ho, excitable adolescent.

Let’s say that Jordan Romero accomplishes his goal this weekend. Let’s say he goes on to give motivational speeches, is written up as a role model and inspiration for others. Let’s say that a 12-year-old next tries for the record. Or a 10-year-old. Is that still inspirational? Is that still OK?

Not long ago, the Dutch authorities grounded a 13-year-old girl who wanted to sail around the world solo. Her parents supported her goal. In fact, they’re still fighting the government to let her set sail, while she’s still young enough to go for the record.

I bring all this up because the people who read this blog share an interest in great kids and the great outdoors. There’s so much to think about in this story — real issues for parents involving dreams and risk and responsibility and where we draw our lines, and why. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My biggest hope for Jordan Romero this weekend isn’t that he plants a flag on the summit of Everest. What I hope is that he and his father make it safely off the mountain. If he were suddenly my son I’d say, “Thank heavens you’re alive. Now you’re grounded.”

Learn more
- Bruce Barcott's article on Jordan Romero in Outside Online .
- A discussion with AMC author and whitewater paddler Bruce Lessels and other musings on teenagers and risk in this blog.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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