11-year-old mountaineer Tyler Armstrong is no doubt an exceptional young man. On August 12, he announced via press release he had completed a mountaineering expedition to the summit of Russia’s Mt. Elbrus, which at 18,510 feet in height is the tallest peak in Europe. It was a third victory in his effort to become the youngest person to climb the “seven summits,” the tallest peaks of every continent.
The Seven Summits include Puncak Jaya of Oceania (16,024′), Vinson Massif of Antarctica (16,067′), Mount Elbrus of Europe (18,510′), Kilimanjaro of Africa (19,340′), Mt. McKinley of North America (20,320′), Aconcagua of South America (22,841′) and finally Mount Everest of Asia (29,035′).
Young Tyler Armstrong now hopes to climb Mt. Everest in 2016 as part of a campaign to raise $1 million for a Muscular Dystrophy charity. While this goal is commendable, sending an 12-year-old boy to the tallest peak in the world reeks of irresponsibility.
The truth is we don’t know what prolonged hypoxia does to a developing brain. In addition, the toll of Mount Everest is as staggering as it is well documented–just this year, 19 people died and 61 were injured in an avalanche set off by the Nepalese earthquake. And though this doesn’t speak to Tyler’s immediate safety, the undue risks (and frequent death) faced by Sherpa guides and porters are now widely condemned.
Children can become injured or die chasing records just as easily as grownups. In 2000, previous Mt. Everest youngest climber record-holder Temba Tsheri lost five fingers to frostbite while climbing the southern route. British Mountaineering Council medical adviser David Hillebrandt called Jordan Romaro’s record-setting 2010 climb of the peak (at age 13) “…totally against the spirit of true mountaineering… about mass marketing, money and it’s verging on child abuse.” When taking a direct question from Tyler Armstrong on HuffPost Live, legendary outdoor author and Everest veteran Jon Krakauer told the boy to “think twice,” and that his own Everest climb was the “biggest mistake” of his life.
The history on young aspiring record-setters is clear. In 1996, 7-year-old Jessica Whitney Dubroff died in an air crash 24-hours into her attempt to become the youngest person to fly across the United States. In 2014, 17-year-old Haris Suleman crashed his plane into the Pacific Ocean while attempting to set an around-the-world flying record for charity. The World Sailing Speed Council (WSSRC) no longer ratifies claims of the record-setting youngest sailors after a series of increasingly young contenders; unrecognized attempts continued and included Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old Californian who was dismasted and left adrift in a remote part of the Indian Ocean for days before her eventual rescue. For these boys and girls, it was too much too soon; inexperience combined with the bad fortune that inevitably plagues dangerous pursuits.
This opinion may come across as hypocritical to some. At 19 years old I became the youngest person to dive aboard a manned submersible to a depth of 16,700 feet below the surface of the ocean. (As an aside, I’ve been waiting for the awkward conversation when someone tells me this record has been broken or was never mine to begin with for the past fourteen years.) But 19 is very different than 11 or 12; not only did I know the risks, the risks were minor compared to the yearly toll of Mt. Everest and other extreme peaks.
It’s time for the mountaineering community to draw an ethical line in the sand. A 12-year-old has no business on Everest, and no credible guiding agency should take on such a young client, no matter how exceptional the person or circumstances. Further, national Muscular Dystrophy nonprofit CureDuchenne must pull support from this irresponsible, foolhardy campaign. (Tweet to them here! Facebook to them here!) No amount of fundraising dollars is worth such grave risk to a young persons’ life. Tyler Armstrong should have a lifetime of pursuing adventure and good causes, and not risk it all at such a tender age.