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Teen Climber Stirs Controversy with Everest Summit

A 13-year-old American made history on 22 May by becoming the youngest person to summit Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. Jordan Romero tackled the dangerous peak in his quest to conquer the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on all seven continents. But his climb has attracted as much criticism as it has praise, with some observers saying he was too young to take on the challenge.

American Jordan Romero says he got the idea to scale the world's highest mountains when he was just nine years old. The boy with long, curly hair was inspired by a painting on the wall of his California elementary school.

"It was a mural in my school hallway, which was labeled the highest point on every continent, and it just fascinated me so much for some reason. So, I did some research, then my father picked me up from school one day, and I said, 'Dad, I want to climb the seven summits.'"

Romero's father immediately started training him and, a year later, he climbed his first major peak - Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Romero says his father and step-mother, who are both competitive outdoor athletes, have been key supporters of his goal to inspire young people to get fit and aim high.

Safety First

But some critics say Romero's parents may be doing more pushing than supporting.

"There's nothing wrong with it until somebody gets killed doing it," says mountaineer Todd Burleson, founder of the guide service Alpine Ascent International. "And I got to tell you, the risks are there. Things can go bad on a big mountain, especially when people start being cavalier and taking it as though it's just another simple mountain."

Mount Everest
Mount Everest

Burleson said he believes Romero is too young to assess the risks associated with tackling Mt. Everest.

Romero and his family hired three Sherpas to guide them instead of hiring an expensive expedition crew like Alpine Ascents International. They also evaded the age limits Nepal imposes on Everest climbers by accessing the mountain from the Chinese side.

Burleson says even if a climber makes it safely up the nearly nine-thousand-meter peak, he or she still faces the risk of stroke or a build-up of water in the lungs and brain. The effects of severe altitude on a child's brain development are still unknown.

"You know, at sea level, our blood saturation with oxygen is 100 percent. At those altitudes, it can be as low as 65 percent, so you're walking around for two months with 65 to 70 percent of what you would usually have for oxygen going to the brain," said Burleson.

Romero has been resting in Katmandu, Nepal since the climb.

"I'm a little bit sore like on my calves and stuff like that. I got a big sunburn the day before yesterday," said Romero. "But that's pretty much it, not much."

Cashing In

Next on Romero's agenda are publicity stops in Hong Kong, London and New York. He says he has lots of meetings planned for potential business deals.

"I think Jordan's very marketable," says Drew Simmons, owner of Pale Morning Media, a public relations agency that advises outdoor recreation businesses. Romero, he says, is an attractive, popular teenager with a huge potential to cash in on his adventures.

"He's young. He's fresh. As far as the outdoor industry's concerned, he's really hit the nail on the head with this active youth message that his ostensible goal is to convince other kids to get off the couch and set their own goals," said Simmons.

Child and teen development expert Dr. Robyn Silverman warns that while Romero's message is positive, its impact on other kids carries some risks.

"What tends to happen when people break records is that more people challenge themselves to break records," Silverman said. "So in other words, Jordan's achievement can inadvertently give permission to other kids his age to climb Mt. Everest or any other peak that he is going to claim."

Silverman adds that not everyone has the natural ability or parental support that made Romero successful. And the Internet, she says, can prompt young people to take on very dangerous challenges.

"The culture is now world culture. It's not just what's going on in your society, in your local community. But now, everybody who puts anything up on YouTube or in any of the other Internet portals," points out Silverman. "So when we see those, especially when teenagers are seeing those, the idea is then, how can I top that."

The Age Limit

Romero's father, Paul, a paramedic, has dismissed the critics, saying there was nothing irresponsible about the Everest expedition. But Jordan Romero doesn't recommend anyone younger than him attempt the climb.

"I just don't know if anybody under my age should do it. It just took so much preparation. It was a difficult mountain. I just don't know if I would encourage them," Romero said.

Romero's accomplishment leaves him just one climb away from achieving his dream of becoming the youngest person to scale the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. In December, he's planning an expedition to Antarctica to climb the Vinson Massive (4,892 m).

Romero's previous climbs were:

  • 22 July, 2006 Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa) 5,895 m
  • 16 April, 2007 Mt. Kosciuszko (Australia) 2,228 m
  • 11 July, 2007 Mt. Elbrus (Europe) 5,642 m
  • 30 Dec., 2007 Mt. Aconcagua (South America) 6,960 m
  • 18 June, 2008 Mt. Denali (North American) 6,194 m
  • 1 Sept., 2009 Carstensz Pyramid (Oceana) 5040 m
  • 22 May, 2010 Mt. Everest (Asia) 8848 m

Note: Because there are disputes about the extent of the Australian continent, Romero scaled both Mt. Kosciuszko on the Australian mainland and the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia.