The combination of record setting and high altitude could make for a similarly tragic mix. Age records have a built-in deadline: Either you grab the ring by a certain age or you don't. That's precisely the wrong attitude to take into the Death Zone.
The Romeros have heard all this before. "It really doesn't matter what age you are," Jordan says. "I'm a very strong person. When I go into the mountains, I'm physically and mentally prepared."
His father agrees: "It's what's between the ears that matters."
Maybe so, but what is between teen ears? Society sets all sorts of developmental boundaries around kids. In most states, they can't have sex until they're 16. They can't join the Army until 17. At 18, they can vote, buy cigarettes, and be sent to adult prison. At 21, the gate opens to sins of the highest threshold: gambling and booze. Those aren't arbitrary numbers. They're set by a common understanding of psychological maturity. All 15-year-olds have the ability to smoke, drink, and roll in the hay. They just might not have the marbles to handle it.
Few studies have been done on kids at altitude, but what science can tell us is this: The teenage brain works differently. In the past decade, MRI technology has shown that the adolescent brain is only about 80 percent developed. The areas that control spatial, sensory, auditory, and language functions are mature, but the frontal lobe, which handles reasoning, planning, and judgment, isn't fully grown until a person's mid-twenties. "It's not a lack of worldly experience," says Dr. Lynn Ponton, a San Francisco based psychiatrist and the author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do. "It's the physical development of the brain. Some of these kids may have climbed ten mountains, but they still don't have the capacity to make sophisticated decisions or choices. And it fools people. Their parents will think, They've done this and that they're ready for the much bigger challenge. But the kid's brain is still developing.
The other issue is the effects of altitude on those maturing brains. "Thirteen-year-olds on Everest are guinea pigs," says R. Douglas Fields, chief of nervous-system development at the National Institutes of Health. "The combination of factors experienced in mountaineering hypoxia dehydration, exhaustion, cold, lack of sleep, and all the rest make it difficult to say how a child's brain would be affected."
One recent study by a Spanish researcher, Fields wrote in Outside last October, suggests that climbers at high altitude suffer more brain damage than previously assumed. But an earlier study indicated that young people were at decreased risk for some of that damage. For now, no one really knows, but Fields has agonized about high-altitude climbing with his own children. "I understand the reward and risk issues very well," he says. "But Everest is different."
SO WHERE DO WE draw the line? To help find out, I track down Johnny Strange and Johnny Collinson, the elders from whom Jordan is attempting to wrest the title of youngest Seven Summiteer.