WAIT. THIRTEEN? On Everest?
Actually, yeah. A new phenomenon has emerged in the adventure world: kids posting monster feats. On water, the record smashing has turned into an age relay, with ever-younger sailors leaving port as the previous record setter ties up at the dock. In 1968, 29-year-old British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston completed the first nonstop solo circumnavigation of the globe. Last year, two 17-year-olds, American Zac Sunderland and Brit Mike Perham, each repeated the journey. Australian Jessica Watson, 16, is midway through her own solo sail, and Zac Sunderland's 16-year-old sister, Abby, shoved off in January, intent on beating her brother's mark.
Something similar is happening in the mountains. For years after ski-resort impresario Dick Bass created the continental-tick-list craze in 1985, the roster of climbers who completed it read like an alpinist all-star team, from the incomparable Reinhold Messner to legendary New Zealand guide Rob Hall. Today there are climbers who can include the Seven Summits on their college applications. Three years ago, 18-year-old American Samantha Larson stood on the summit of Mount Everest. She didn't beat the age record held by Ming Kipa Sherpa, the Nepalese girl who summited at 15, in 2003, but she did wrest the "youngest Seven Summits climber" title from Rhys Miles Jones, a Brit who'd bagged his final peak at 20.
So many teenagers showed up at Everest's south-side Base Camp last spring that they were dubbed the Brat Pack. There was Johnny Strange, an intense 17-year-old from Southern California; Johnny Collinson, a 17-year-old ski rat from Utah; and Erica Dohring, a 17-year-old climber from a Phoenix suburb. Dohring turned back during her summit push, but the two Johnnys leapfrogged each other on separate expeditions, topping out within 24 hours of one another. A few weeks later, Strange tagged Australia's Kosciusko as the final peak in his Seven Summits bid, stealing the "youngest" title from Samantha Larson. Collinson went on to climb his own seventh summit in January. Though he wasn't the youngest, he added a twist: He climbed all seven in a year. (Well, 367 days.)
All this kid stuff is raising eyebrows in the adventure community and sometimes the legal community as well. Polling a number of well-known Everest climbers and guides, I couldn't find one who thought that leading a 13-year-old up the world's highest mountain was a particularly good idea. Though a climber that young might possess the necessary stamina, most had serious reservations about a teen's emotional strength, psychological awareness, and plain old know-how."I do not see how young people under the age of 18 can gain enough experience about mountaineering or themselves to undertake such a project safely," said Russell Brice, one of Everest's most successful guides.
Elizabeth Hawley, the Kathmandu-based climbing historian, isn't in favor of age limits. But she said of last year's 17-year-olds, "This is too young an age to be climbing huge mountains." Teenagers' physiques aren't fully formed, she told me, "and equally if not more importantly, their judgment and reflexes based on experience have not had time to be well developed."
Last year, similar concerns led Dutch authorities to ground Laura Dekker, a 13-year-old who wanted to sail around the world solo. Dekker's desire, and her father's willingness to let her go, touched off an international ruckus over the boundary separating bold adventure from child endangerment. In the Netherlands, at least, the legal line was drawn. In October, a Dutch court put the girl under temporary guardianship. (She still lives at home but must get permission to set sail.) The Dekkers have appealed, hoping that Laura can still beat the age record.
American courts have shown no inclination to go this far, and Jordan's mother, Leigh Anne Drake, a teacher and ski patroller who shares custody with his father, supports her son's ambition. "When I think about Jordan on Everest, it cuts my heart in half," she says. "I can hardly breathe when I think about the risks. On the other hand, I'm overwhelmed with excitement about the opportunities his climbing has brought him. He's been exposed to the world, and he's grown so much as a mature young person because of it."