The Outside Prognosticator: Babes in Crampons

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Outside magazine, January 1996

The Outside Prognosticator: Babes in Crampons

“I’d stack my son’s psychological and physical strengths against 90 percent of the mountaineers that I meet,” brags Michael Stewart, proud father of 13-year-old Joshua, who is five summits away from his dream of being the youngest to climb the highest peak on each continent. “If anyone can do it,” he continues, getting worked up, “Joshua can.”

Look out below. For better or worse, a growing number of climbers too young to work a stick shift are strapping on crampons and shinnying up the world’s mightiest mountains. Last May, 15-year-old Mark Pfetzer reached the 24,000-foot mark on Everest’s North Face before turning back after breaking two ribs while gasping for air. And at press time Stewart, the second-youngest
person to climb Mount McKinley (a 12-year-old girl named Merrick Johnson beat him by two weeks), was planning a December attempt on 22,834-foot Aconcagua in Argentina.

What does all this mean? To some, child abuse. “I don’t want to be the one to tell these kids’ parents they’ve fallen into a crevasse,” says J.D. Swed, head of rescue in Denali National Park. “It’s different when it’s an adult who is making a conscious decision to risk his or her life.” Some parents, of course, will disagree. “Who would you rather be roped in with on Everest?”
asks the elder Stewart, who makes a living as a mountain guide. “One hundred and 20 pounds of pure muscle, like my son? Or some business type having a mid-life crisis?”