Eleven year-old Tyler Armstrong claims he will summit Mount Everest before his thirteenth birthday, making him the youngest ever to do so. But do his altruistic intentions and a chance for glory outweigh the risks?
At seven years old, he summited Mount Whitney (14,495 ft.) in North America. He is believed to be the youngest to summit from base camp in a single day.
Seven Summits #1: At eight years old, he summited Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft.) in Africa, after obtaining a special permit due to Kilimanjaro’s minimum climbing age of ten. He is the second youngest to summit.
Seven Summits #2: At nine years old, he summited Mount Aconcagua (22,837 ft.) in South America, again after obtaining a special permit due to Aconcagua’s minimum climbing age of fourteen. He is the youngest to summit.
Seven Summits #3: Most recently on August 9, 2015, at eleven years old, he summited Mount Elbrus (18,510 ft.) in Europe.
Seven Summits #4: Mount Everest in Asia. Scheduled for April, 2016. At 12 years, 4 months, he would be the youngest to ever summit the largest peak on Earth. This is already listed as a future record on his website.
There’s no doubt Tyler Armstrong is a tenacious young man. After seeing a documentary about hiking at age six, he became enthralled with what it would take to scale peaks around the world. After befriending some boys living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive, degenerative muscle disease that often has early onset, he now dedicates his climbing goals to raising money for those affected with Duchenne.
Armstrong works out multiple times a day, is supported on summit attempts by his father and a team of professional climbers, and has a goal of raising over $1 million for Duchenne research and awareness by climbing all Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on each continent. An inspiration to so many not only with Duchenne, but also to those who have a dream and are willing to pursue it.
But here’s where the story becomes concerning. Imagine you are eleven. You have successfully climbed several difficult peaks, experiencing below freezing temperatures, altitude sickness, and difficult terrain. You have established multiple climbing age records, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a debilitating disease, served as an inspiration for countless young men and women, and have been featured in magazines and on major network news stations around the country.
Next, throw into the mix statements from the press and on your website worded as “When Tyler summits Mount Everest”, not “If Tyler summits Mount Everest.” Then, add in the potential glory of being the youngest to scale what is considered by the climbing community as one of the deadliest, most unpredictable, and most difficult peaks in the world.
Finally, add the reality of only one opportunity to break that age record, and there’s quite a bit of pressure on a young man who hasn’t even reached middle school age. Pressure that will grow ever more difficult to manage over 8,000 meters above sea level. It makes you wonder, are the risks worth the reward?
Towering at 29,029 feet, Mount Everest in the Himalayas has been the subject of reverie, mystery, and controversy for decades. Over 6,000 feet higher than its closest Seven Summits competitor, Mount Aconcagua, it has been the site of incredible accomplishments since the first certified summit in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. It has also been the site of over 250 deaths, most recently the single most deadly day on the mountain on April 18, 2014 when a massive avalanche killed 16 Sherpas.
The death tolls are nothing compared to the numbers of lost digits, appendages, limbs, and brain cells due to hypothermia, exposure, hypoxia, and cerebral edema (just to name a few) that result from climbing at such high altitudes. Even with the latest climbing gear and various outfitters operating exclusively in Nepal or China, the Everest summit remains a technically challenging, bodily taxing, and psychologically arduous feat.
Race for the Ages
While it may not be every year that a teenager or child attempts to summit Mount Everest, there has been a rather rapid progression in recent years that has inched the age record younger and younger. In 2003, fifteen year-old Ming Kipa of Nepal engraved her name in the record books with a successful summit of Everest. Fast forward seven years late but two years younger to 2010, when Jordan Romero of the United States, at age thirteen, summited Everest. Only four years later, in May, 2014, Malavath Poorna, an Indian schoolgirl, became the youngest woman to summit Everest at 13 years, 11 months.
With Romero holding the men’s record for youngest summit at 13, Armstrong has only one chance to make reality what so many have already considered a foregone conclusion. Will his efforts fade from the spotlight if he is not the youngest to summit? And is it a foregone conclusion when only around 4,100 climbers have summited Everest since Hillary and Norgay’s 1953 expedition, and, moreover, in light of recent Everest events?
Krakauer, the Everest Circus, and Angry Gods
Among the tragedies that have befallen Everest climbers and guides, few are more vividly articulated than the deadly 1996 season on Everest chronicled by author Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air. During an expedition of which Krakauer was a part, eight individuals, including renowned expert Scott Fischer, lost their lives in a blizzard atop the mountain.
This month, Krakauer disclosed during a HuffPost Live interview that he regrets ever attempting the Everest summit, as he continues to suffer from PTSD. This comment came as a result of Tyler Armstrong seeking advice about his own future Everest summit attempt. Krakauer went on to say to Armstrong,
It’s a serious, serious choice. If you do it, if you go for it, you’ll be making really important decisions where your brain isn’t functioning because of hypoxia or you haven’t had enough to eat. Meru is a much harder mountain to climb, but in some ways Everest is much more dangerous. The dangers are more insidious. They’re not as obvious.
Krakauer’s comments mirror concerns by many, including Sir Edmund Hillary himself until he died in 2008, that Everest is turning into a climbing circus with more and more unexperienced or weekend warrior climbers, believing they can purchase a certainty of summit pass with enough funds, clogging the mountain passes. The amount of human detritus and dead bodies strewn along the way have many who revere the mountain believing all climbing should be cut off for several years to allow the mountain to heal.
No greater reverence for Everest can be found, though, than with the Sherpas who risk their lives as guides on these summit attempts. For these individuals, Everest is a deity. And recent deaths on the mountain are seen as a sign that the gods are angry at how the mountain has been desecrated.
These Sherpas, who carve the paths, establish high camps, doctor the ice, and lug precious supplies for foreign climbers with less than equitable financial compensation, would also likely be the individuals dispatched to save members of Tyler Armstrong’s expedition, should it go south.
Which brings us back to the question at hand. Do the benefits of Tyler Armstrong’s proposed 2016 Everest summit outweigh the risks?
I’m not pooh-poohing Armstrong’s attempt or trying to crush a child’s dream. But I do wonder about the collateral damage a tragic summit attempt (whether death or serious injury) could incur for Armstrong’s family, for the Duchenne foundation, for the Sherpa people, and for the future climbers of Everest. I also wonder if this entire venture has gotten larger than the 11 year-old brain, which is in the infancy of developing the ability to fully understand long term consequences. Because unlike Armstrong’s previous climbs, even if he and his team play by the rules, Everest may not honor those rules. Would it be worth it to lose a good boy who could one day grow to be a good man?
Image credit: theglobalpanorama/flickr