Last Sunday, 16-year-old Arjun Vajpai became the youngest Indian to climb Mount Everest. He would have also been the world’s youngest had a 13-year-old American, Jordan Romero, not summited immediately after, on the same day. (In comparison, Edmund Hillary, who only embarked on his first major climb at the age of 20, seems almost unremarkable.) While the courage and strength of the two boys is laudable, we need to ask: how responsible was it for their families and advisors to let them undertake a perilous mission at a young age?
Mountaineering is dangerous. Luck and experience play decisive roles. It is telling that all routes to Mount Everest are littered with carcasses, the by-products of tragedies and human errors. Vajpai and Romero may have been fit and determined, but it is impossible for them to have had the required experience and knowledge, making them dependent on the wisdom of their guides. If a 13-year-old isn’t allowed to drive, how is he allowed to climb the world’s highest mountains? In fact, Romero climbed Everest from the more difficult northern route, with a base camp on the Chinese side, which unlike Nepal, has no age limitations on climbers.
At the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, all mountaineering courses are open to students above 16. For those in the 14-16 age group, the courses are designed to initiate them into adventure. Colonel Neeraj Rana, the principal of the institute, says, “Seventeen is a good age to start on the basics. You are fit enough for mountaineering and mature enough to learn about subjective and objective hazards, like hidden crevasses and acclimatisation. Otherwise, you are dependent on the knowledge and assistance of your guide.” He says that by highlighting the accomplishments of under-age climbers, we send out the wrong message and encourage inadequately trained, inexperienced climbers.
Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest adventurer, and the first to climb Everest alone and without oxygen, lost his younger brother on the first Himalayan expedition of his career, the Nanga Parbat. While the world saluted their valour, the guilt of surviving alone destroyed Messner. He recalls the schizophrenia he suffered after the incident, and the life-long vacuum he carries inside.
Jon Krakauer, in Into Thin Air, a gripping account of tragic expeditions to Everest in 1996, warns about the risks of Everest tourism, where those who have money can hire help and attempt the climb even when they are not trained enough to do so. Krakauer says this puts that climber and even other qualified mountaineers at risk, because every minute matters on the mountain.
Jordan Romero is old enough to dream of climbing all the world’s eight thousanders. But he is too young to embark upon that dream.