“I do not for a moment say”, wrote the British alpinist Clinton Dent in 1885, “that it would be wise to climb Mt. Everest, but I most firmly believe it is humanly possible to do so; and, further, I feel sure that even in our own time, perhaps, these views will receive material corroboration.” Not even in his wildest fantasies could Dent have imagined just how much corroboration his assertion would receive. Last week, 13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest ever to reach Everest's 8,848-metre summit. In fact, the boy has summited the highest mountains in six of the world's seven continents; he scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro when he was just nine. There is little doubt that teenagers like Romero, or India's own Arjun Vajpayee who reached the summit this summer a month shy of his 17th birthday, have pushed the frontiers of what has been considered humanly possible. Even as their triumphs are applauded, they have sparked off a debate on just what risks ought be permitted for boys and girls so young that most governments do not see them as fit to vote, marry, or even drive motor vehicles.
Since Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay made history in 1953, many have given their lives in their attempts to reach the highest place on our planet. Data released in 2009 showed there were 216 deaths on the mountain; some 2,700 individuals have made successful ascents once or more. Better equipment has made mountain-climbing safer but even the best does not guarantee safety in the face of bad weather and lack of oxygen. Fifteen-year-old Temba Tseri, who held the record for the youngest Everest summiteer before Romero, lost five fingers during his climb. Adults have the right to take what risks they choose but can this apply to children? Last year, a court in the Netherlands barred Laura Dekker, born on September 20, 1995, from pursuing her dream of becoming the youngest to sail around the world solo (16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson now holds that record). After winning an appeal, Dekker plans to set sail in September — though, ironically, she won't be able to leave or return to a home port since Holland's laws do not allow individuals under 16 to captain boats longer than seven metres. Key to the debate is the question of how much risk is acceptable — and whether the decision to allow minors to take them should be governed by law or be left to parents. So while we marvel at the high-grade skills, the physical and mental courage, and the self-confidence of Romero and Vajpayee, we need to recognise that the ethical, social, and legal issues cannot be dodged: the lives of children, after all, ought not to be risked just for sport.