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Backpacker Magazine – September 2009

Higher Education: Should 13-Year-Old Jordan Romero Climb Everest?

Romero climbed Denali at 11 and has bagged five of the Seven Summits. He hopes to climb Everest in 2010, but is mountain climbing good for a growing kid?

by: Berne Broudy, Photos by Kevin Zacher

13-year-old Jordan Romero (center) with two friends.
13-year-old Jordan Romero (center) with two friends.
Jordan, 11, on top of Aconcagua.
Jordan, 11, on top of Aconcagua.
Ice axes and an Everest poster adorn Jordan's bedroom.
Ice axes and an Everest poster adorn Jordan's bedroom.
A dirt road becomes a luge course.
A dirt road becomes a luge course.
Jordan, 10, on Russia's Mt. Elbrus.
Jordan, 10, on Russia's Mt. Elbrus.
Jordan spies on his dad at home in Big Bear, CA.
Jordan spies on his dad at home in Big Bear, CA.

On Aconcagua, the Romeros reunite with their team at Confluencia Camp, at 10,500 feet. On the eight-hour trek to the next camp, Plaza de Mulas, they can finally relax and just hike: The weather is balmy, burros carry the gear, and they've gone 24 hours without having Jordan's permit confiscated.

At this point, the climbers assess their physical state and start strategizing their ascent of the Normal Route, a nontechnical ascent on which the chief threats are usually severe weather and altitude sickness. Jordan feels fresh, his appetite is good, and the Romeros have been clear from the start that they'll move at his pace regardless of the rest of the team (which, except for the videographer Griber, consists of five friends from the adventure-racing community). The Romeros are better acclimatized than the others, so they decide to keep moving up the mountain while the rest climb and descend to sleep at a lower camp.

They make good progress to Camp Nido. It's Christmas Day, and they celebrate with a Yankee Swap. Jordan gets a mini Monopoly set and an oversize magnifying glass. He gives a mini Swiss Army knife.

Camp Nido is also the base for rangers who patrol Aconcagua's High Camps. "Is this the tent of Jordan Romero?" one of the rangers demands. He asks if the boy has been eating and drinking, and insists on checking Jordan's oxygen-saturation level. At home in Big Bear, it would be 100 percent. All climbers should have oxygen levels above 80 percent before going higher. Jordan's is 85. The ranger radios the results to basecamp, and the doctors below accuse him of lying. The Romeros respond by placing the oxygen sensor back on Jordan's finger and taking a photo of the gauge.

There are no medical studies of the effect of high altitude on a developing brain. Dr. Peter Hackett, director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado, and a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says, "There are plenty of studies that show MRI abnormalities as well as, to some extent, functional abnormalities in people who have come down from Everest and other high peaks. Climbers often show brain atrophy, a shrinking of the brain from cell death, and white spots on their brains that we think could be scarring. People do not come back from Everest babbling idiots. But things like fine motor skills can be off for up to two years. It could be that a kid is more resilient because his brain is still growing. Or it could be worse."

Which is not to say that Hackett opposes the idea of kids climbing big peaks. He's an Everest veteran himself, as well as a father. And he's taking his own son up Denali next year, when he's 15. But Hackett draws the line with Everest. "For me, it's riskier than all the other summits because of the extreme altitude. The danger is that you press on because you've raised expectations with friends, family, and the media."

That's true, of course, and Jordan readily admits as much. "When I am in the worst of it, I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this? What have we gotten into?' I think about the risk of dying, especially when I am in a tiring and boring part. Dad and Karen and I have talked many times about the worst case, the risks, and we try to anticipate and avoid the biggest mistakes. I always think about my family at home. But then there is my dad right behind me saying 'You can do it, little buddy.' I think about everyone supporting me, and I think I've got to climb this mountain for them."

That pressure will raise a red flag to many ears. But how different is it, really, from the expectations faced by kids immersed in more culturally acceptable sports? In 2008, at least 10 teenagers died while alpine skiing at U.S. resorts. Cameron Williams, a 13-year-old competitive skier and nationally ranked mountain-bike racer, comes over to Jordan's when I visit. He says, "A lot of kids these days, especially ski racers, are doing what they're doing because their parents want them to. Jordan is climbing mountains because it's something he wants to do. That's kind of cool."

"There are days when Jordan says he doesn't want to climb anymore," says Karen. "I tell him 'No problem, but you're not staying home to play video games, you're still going to train and be outside.' I think a lot about where the line is between pushing him and guiding him toward accomplishing a goal."

"It's a little Zen," says Paul, "but we constantly push the line. Then the line moves, and the next time we don't push Jordan to that point, and he pushes himself because he knows he can do it, so we help him push to the next level. We help him build new levels of tolerance and accomplishment for his mind and body; with it, his confidence and ability build at lightning speed."

When I ask Hackett to explain his unwillingness to let his own son climb Everest, he says, "He could probably do it, but I wouldn't take the risk at that age. No one is immune from hypoxia, avalanches, or crevasse falls." Still, Hackett refuses to criticize the Romeros. "They're not yahoos," he says, "and it's not a super-crazy thing to do when you [take the precautions] they do."



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Steve
Feb 20, 2014

He sure is somthing different

Star Star Star Star Star
alex
Feb 20, 2014

Great job you really took my breath away!!!!!! <3

Star Star Star Star Star
Alexandria
Feb 20, 2014

i think he did and awesome and i think alot of things could go wrong but i just think i loved the way he set his mind to something really encouraged others to do what they set their minds to.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Star Star Star Star Star
Annika
Feb 20, 2014

i know that you guys may not like what Jordans parents let him do but he set his mind oto what he whanted and he went for it and i know it was the wrong thing to do by letting a 13 year old bot do this but it was kind of herofic and he really encourage me to do set my mind to something and never let it go!!!!!! <3

Star
Kharmon
Feb 20, 2014

Star Star Star Star Star
Eric
Feb 20, 2014

That boy is amazing I wish he was my son.
He would have his friend with him all the time.

Star Star Star Star Star
Eric
Feb 20, 2014

How are they going to let a 13 year old climb mount everest.some thing wrong with their parents!!!!!!!

Star Star Star Star Star
Eric
Feb 20, 2014

How are they going to let a 13 year old climb mount everest.some thing wrong with their parents!!!!!!!

Star Star Star Star Star
Eric
Feb 20, 2014

How are they going to let a 13 year old climb mount everest.some thing wrong with their parents!!!!!!!

Star Star Star Star Star
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Gary
Feb 26, 2013

Sure he can do it ! So long as he is essentially Guided and fed along with an M.D. on the "Expedition". And... the weather and Mountain conditions are faultless ! Obviously he can't have the years of High Mountain experience one should have to even think about for even some of the "Lower" Himalayan peaks. A 13 yr. old doesn't have the psychological or physical maturity to be on an 8K Meter Peak to do anything SAFELY ! As far as the comment about "Dick Bass", also think about Beck Weathers, M.D. !
.

Ben
Jan 14, 2012

I'm curious as to how Jordan has been able to miss so much school.

EDward
Oct 18, 2011

hey ye guys

Adam Still
Sep 28, 2010

I read a comment by his father which noted he doesn't pay attention to the critics. It is obviously another way to not face the irresponsible choice he made towards his son. The planet is filled with an unspeakable amount of adventures that 7 lifetimes will not fill. Was taking his son on a definite roulette wheel outcome override those? Canyons, caves, the wild fields of Northern regions, Antarctica, the sea floor, ballooning Africa, kayaking miles of coast, sand dunes of the Gobi,etc, whatever.

Was such a strong risk that necessary so fast? I regret my offering the thought, but his son is what dreams are made of, but Paul's are what nightmares are brought forth from. He deserved to lose his son, and live through the greed of his decision.

For Jordan, thank the air we breath for his safe return. Mounatineer, adventure racer and high altitude medical specialist?? Can you tuck your son under your arm and fly from the death dealing situation like Superman? Your accomplishments don't mean anything compared to your job to be an outcome balancing parent.

You are lucky you made it and can gloat. You would have gone down in history as the worst parent on the globe if the scenario turned out like it has for so many more worthy and skilled than you.

Bizarre
Sep 28, 2010

Taking a chance on his son losing his life to uncontrollable conditions is what was shameful. The kid is rock solid, but even the best will not endure the worst the mountain may offer. It's like taking your child up in a plane that may become unable to control and crash, or may not. This based on a plane of that nature, which Everest is. It's not all skill that brings you home up there. A grand majority is luck.

I think it was awesome, but it was a specifically SELFISH parental risk. He could have done Everest as he grew and had a chance to see a bit more in this world. I guess the idea that "my son would be the first" was just a little to good to pass up. Hey what the F, roll the dice, I either lose him or I'm, oops, we're famous....

Bizarre
Sep 28, 2010

Taking a chance on his son losing his life to uncontrollable conditions is what was shameful. The kid is rock solid, but even the best will not endure the worst the mountain may offer. It's like taking your child up in a plane that may become unable to control and crash, or may not. This based on a plane of that nature, which Everest is. It's not all skill that brings you home up there. A grand majority is luck.

I think it was awesome, but it was a specifically SELFISH parental risk. He could have done Everest as he grew and had a chance to see a bit more in this world. I guess the idea that "my son would be the first" was just a little to good to pass up. Hey what the F, roll the dice, I either lose him or I'm, oops, we're famous....

Bizarre
Sep 28, 2010

Taking a chance on his son losing his life to uncontrollable conditions is what was shameful. The kid is rock solid, but even the best will not endure the worst the mountain may offer. It's like taking your child up in a plane that may become unable to control and crash, or may not. This based on a plane of that nature, which Everest is. It's not all skill that brings you home up there. A grand majority is luck.

I think it was awesome, but it was a specifically SELFISH parental risk. He could have done Everest as he grew and had a chance to see a bit more in this world. I guess the idea that "my son would be the first" was just a little to good to pass up. Hey what the F, roll the dice, I either lose him or I'm, oops, we're famous....

Gwen
Jun 19, 2010

I was lucky enough to read an advanced review copy of Jordan Romero's book, THE BOY WHO CONQUERED EVEREST, which comes out this month.
It's a surprisingly sweet story for younger kids. No boasting or bragging; just a nice story with lots of photos from Jordan's climbing journeys. And yes, it IS inspiring!

Sierra
May 27, 2010

also..how many 13 years olds have the will and attention and WANT to go through classes and training..he has guts

Sierra
May 27, 2010

let him do what he wants and loves..shit.i mean if i was his parents id b thrilled..i mean how many thirteen year olds do YOU know who can do that..slim to none..

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