Teen Climber: Too Young to Scale Mt. Everest?

Was Jordan Romero too young to face the perils of the world's highest peak?

June 3, 2010, 2:02 PM

June 4, 2010— -- At 13, Jordan Romero has already scaled the world's highest peaks on six different continents. Last week, he became the youngest climber ever to make it to the top of Mount Everest. It's an astounding feat that has killed 220 climbers before him.

"I try not to let it get to my head. That was the key," he told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas about blocking out the possibility of death while summiting Everest.

Jordan's father, Paul Romero, who accompanied him on the record-breaking summit, said he talked to his son beforehand about the dangers of Everest -- a mountain that, in recent years, has claimed the life of one climber for every 80 who summit. "It's a well-known fact. If you die up on Mount Everest you stay there. That's your grave."

While many hailed Jordan's accomplishment, some asked who would send a 13-year-old up the world's highest peak, which is also among the most dangerous.

"I trust him completely. And I have from a young age. He's never been an adrenalin junkie that seems to take unnecessary risks," said his mother, Leigh Anne Drake. "He's very comfortable with what he can do and ...what is beyond his range of ability."

But where does the line end between fulfilling a child's dream and reckless parenting? Ken Kamler, who has climbed on Mt. Everest six times and penned "Surviving the Extremes" -- containing his account of the 1996 Everest storm in which eight climbers died -- said Jordan's climb was overly risky.

"I would not send my son up there at the age of 13," said Kamler. "I think the other doctor climbers that I know are in agreement...I don't think it needs to be done -- I think he can wait until he is older."

Jordan, from the ski town of Big Bear Lake, California, in the San Bernardino Mountains, set his sights on climbing the seven summits at age nine.

While his mother may have initially expressed passive concern at her son's dream to climb the seven summits, Jordan's father, an air rescue paramedic and adventurer, trained him, and encouraged him to become the youngest American at the time to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro at age 10. Then, they moved on to the tallest peaks in Australia, Russia, Argentina and Mt. McKinley -- also known as Denali -- all before he turned 12. Next on the list was Everest.

Mt. Everest: A Climber's Ultimate Challenge

Everest has been the ultimate challenge for climbers for a reason. Kamler said brutally cold temperatures and strong winds create a wind chill factor worse than on Mars.

"Climbers up there are really at their limit," he said. "Breathing at sea level requires only 5 percent of your energy, whereas... the summit of Everest, it would require 70 percent of your energy."

To prepare, Jordan had a vigorous training regimen. He pulled weighted tires up the hills near his home and spent nights in a reduced oxygen tent to prepare his lungs for the thin air at altitudes above 20,000 feet.

With six peaks already conquered, Team Jordan -- Jordan, his father and his father's girlfriend Karen Lundgren -- set out for Everest. At the base of the mountain, Jordan said as he stared up, he was not intimidated.

"The summit really looks so close like, you know, you think you could just pack a couple of water bottles and a fleece and just go," he said.

But the journey was arduous, and despite his training, Jordan said he had difficulty breathing.

"It feels like you have cinder blocks on your legs," Jordan said. "But we weren't gasping for air up there. You know we were not suffocating, but we were breathing heavy..taking five-minute breaks every twenty seconds."

As Team Jordan ascended Everest, some climbers questioned two critical and potentially dangerous decisions they made: first, climbing without a professional Western guide. At more than $25,000, guides are an insurance policy if trouble occurs, often making life-saving choices on whether to go on or turn back. Jordan's dad said the group's members were "not rookies."

"We've been widely scrutinized for not having a guide -- with us," said Paul Romero. "The fact of the matter is that we didn't hire a Western guide. We did, in fact, hire three -- extremely experienced, professional Sherpa guides from Nepal that combined had nine summits."

The second line of criticism has been on their route. Most groups ascend from the South Side in Nepal, but Team Jordan traversed up the more perilous north face on the Tibetan side since the Nepal government says they don't issue permits to anyone under age 16.

"North Side is more technical. It has about twice more fatalities than the South Side. It is a whole lot colder and a whole lot windier," Paul Romero said. "But there's less objective dangers... that you can't predict and have no control over."

A Near-Death Experience

Approaching Camp One, Team Jordan encountered a towering wall of ice -- which suddenly collapsed. "I remember the first thing my father had said was, 'Jordan, those things can fall any minute,'' he said.

Jordan and his father were dragged down the mountain, buried under ice, but able to get out. They might have died had they not been attached to a rope. Less than 100 feet away, a Hungarian climber was killed, buried under a sheet of ice.

"Me and Jordan stood right there and watched a man die right next to us," said Paul Romero, whose head and legs were punctured by the spikes on Jordan's boots during the ice fall. "It was a real punch in the chest, reminding you that you're at Mt. Everest. There's no screwing around here."

"We said 'hi' to that guy right before it all had happened," Jordan said.

After the ice fall, Team Jordan waited for their weather window. At 25,000 feet, they hit hurricane-force winds, which blew away their Sherpa's tents and forced the six members of Team Jordan to squeeze into a three-man tent. Battered by 100-mile-an-hour winds, they barely clung to the side of the great mountain.

"We had wind pounding on us...a whole day it was storming. Other tents were literally being blown off the mountain and down off one side and going 100 feet up in the air just twirling," Jordan said. "That was a little bit scary. ...It's crazy up there. You can't even believe it. It's ... you know, we're up on this ridge where you're totally exposed."

After five weeks on Everest, Jordan reached the summit -- an accomplishment of a lifetime. "It felt really good. You know, it wasn't so much for the record, but, you know, I was just so happy that our whole team had done it," he said.

For a boy who has yet to finish eighth grade, Jordan seems to understand the words of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, who once said, "It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves."

But when asked if other 13-year-olds should try Everest, Romero said he wouldn't recommend it.

"I wouldn't recommend it because it is a hard mountain and we prepared for it," he said. "To the kids out there, I just want to encourage them ... to dream big ...to find their own Everest."

Jordan Romero will become the youngest member of the Seven Summits club if he successfully climbs Mt. Vinson in Antarctica. That trip is planned for December.

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