As I’ve mentioned before, “Outside” magazine shows up in my mail unbidden. I’m not a big fan of it, but the April issue had an article I found interesting about a thirteen-year-old named Jordan Romero who hopes to be the youngest person ever to climb Mount Everest. (Jordan flew to Nepal yesterday and will attempt the climb within the next two months.)
I have all kinds of reasons to think this is a completely dumb idea. First of course is the prospect of a kid needlessly dying in the wilderness. As a parent, I’m irked by the irresponsibility of the kid’s dad, who will lead the effort (instead of a professional guide); the difference between glory and tragedy is largely up to nature, and luck. And as a person who was a teenage boy once, I fear for the kid’s ego; if he succeeds, and gets an SUV named after him, his own line of clothing, and endless adoration, he’ll probably become the most insufferably egotistical teenager on the planet. I mean, who wouldn’t? Meanwhile, having this distinction would beg the question, “Now what?” What does he follow this up with—being the youngest teen ever to climb Everest without a chaperone? Without supplemental oxygen? Without a shirt?
The writer of the “Outside” article does a good job of not weighing in too heavily on whether or not this is a good idea (he can’t afford to burn bridges, after all, if he wants to write the follow-up story). He does cite the perspectives of various climbers, guides, a medical researcher, and a climbing historian, all of whom think this is a bad plan. I know nothing about mountain climbing, but I believe I have another useful perspective to add here: as an irresponsible teenager I undertook a vision quest of my own, a 130-mile bike ride featuring Trail Ridge Road, a mountain pass in Colorado which—peaking at over 12,000 feet—is the highest continuous highway in the U.S. Now, I’m not trying to compare my feat to this kid’s goal; obviously climbing Everest is a much huger deal. But I got in enough trouble on Trail Ridge to shed some valuable perspective on the problem of teenagers with mountainous ambitions. In this post I will tell my tale, comparing it to Jordan Romero’s aspiration as I deem appropriate.
How it started
The idea of riding up Trail Ridge was born in the summer of 1983 when my mom drove my brother Max, my friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps, and me up it and down the other side on the way to Steamboat Springs for a bike race. It was cold, foggy, and raining on the pass, and as we rode along in the car Max and Aaron were arguing about whether Max’s professed bike handling skill meant he didn’t need a helmet. They abruptly stopped talking when we saw a lone cyclist making his miserable way up the mountain. We took in the guy’s suffering for a good while, and then Aaron said, “I want to do that.”
It seemed like an abominable idea to me, but also intriguing. That was the summer I turned fourteen, and I was doing a lot of cycling. A favorite ride was up to Estes Park, an eighty mile round-trip from our hometown of Boulder, with a couple thousand feet of elevation gain. That ride had almost come to seem routine, and having done a number of centuries (organized, supported rides of at least 100 miles), I was ready for a bigger challenge. Some weeks later, Aaron announced to our bike club, during the Saturday ride, that the next week we’d tackle Trail Ridge.
Here’s what I looked like back then. It was my third year of racing. My helmet was as hot and heavy as it looks. I was years away from needing to shave my legs, much less my face.
The route would take us from Boulder, via Highway 36, through Lyons to Estes Park, where we’d enter Rocky Mountain National Park, take the Park Entrance Road to Highway 34 (Trail Ridge Road), and climb some twenty more miles to the summit. Then we’d come right back to Boulder via the same route. For a map of our route, click here.
Purity of motive
I want to emphasize that our motive with this ride was simply to have an adventure. We couldn’t do this for bragging rights, because nobody we knew had even heard of Trail Ridge Road. Besides, we had no idea what the elevation was, and that it was the highest pass in the country; we just knew it looked like a really hard ride. Moreover, in 1983—even in Boulder—cycling was not a sport you talked about to other teenagers. Being a cyclist was almost a stigma.
We also didn’t have any pressure from our parents; at least, I didn’t. Quite the contrary, in fact: I made sure not to mention the idea to them. Why? Well, on the morning of one of my Estes Park rides, I was heading out Highway 36 towards Lyons with my friend Nico, and suddenly my dad showed up in his car and stopped just ahead of us on the shoulder. He’d been oblivious when I’d done this ride before, but somehow on this day had caught wind of it, and now gave me a stern lecture about the frequency of thunderstorms at higher elevations. He handed me a backpack with a space blanket in it and ordered me to take it with me. I was embarrassed, of course, and then I had to schlep that backpack for the next seventy miles. I learned my lesson and thereafter kept my plans to myself. No way was I going to carry a backpack all the way up Trail Ridge.
Contrast this to Jordan Romero’s case. His dad has set up a fund-raising engine to raise the $150,000 it will cost to make the Everest journey; is coaching his son through the preparation; has borrowed hypoxic tents to simulate the high altitude; and is home-schooling Jordan so he’ll have more time to train during the day. That puts a lot of external pressure on the kid, of course. His dad unconvincingly claims otherwise, saying, “If Jordan comes home tomorrow and says he’s done with mountain climbing and he wants to play basketball, we’ll shut this whole thing down.” Yeah, right. There’s also the matter of the article in “Outside” and all the other publicity the kid has already gotten. You don’t just walk away from that without feeling some disgrace.
So why does the motive matter? Well, the way I figure it, nobody can tell how that thirteen-year-old is really holding up on Everest except for the thirteen-year-old himself. So when his dad says, “Can you keep going?” that kid will need all the judgment, maturity, and humility in the world to admit it if he’s had enough and needs to turn back. External pressure will interfere with all of these traits, which in my experience teenagers don’t have a lot of to begin with.
On the appointed day, Aaron and I met up at the bike shop (the High Wheeler, or Thigh Feeler as we called it), and to our great surprise not a single other rider showed up. There were normally at least a dozen guys on the 9:30 ride; looking back, I’m guessing that—being adults—they didn’t want to admit that the ambitions of a couple of kids were too much for them. In other words, they chickened out. I was frankly relieved; I figured Aaron and I wouldn’t attempt the ride without a couple of adults along. But Aaron was undeterred, and being a natural-born follower I went right along with him.
According to tradition, we stopped for provisions in Lyons, about twenty miles into the ride. I cannot remember what I bought, but it can’t have been much because I remember really envying Aaron, who had enough cash for a large bar of Tangy Taffy. I was saving my last few bucks for the entrance fee into Rocky Mountain National Park. We made our way up the gradual twenty-mile climb up to Estes Park, entered the Park, and then the real climbing began.
As long ago as this was, I well remember well some steep sections and sharp switchbacks at the beginning of the climb. Right away, Aaron dropped me. Why? Because he could. Because thirteen-year-olds don’t differentiate between the hardest physical endeavor of their lives and a run-of-the-mill opportunity to show up another guy. I don’t fault Aaron whatsoever for leaving me behind; if I’d been stronger, I’d surely have dropped him instead. That “never leave a man behind” ethos just doesn’t occur to a teenager. You don’t believe me? Go ask one.
Soon after that, that the sun went away and the afternoon got kind of dark. As I climbed, it started to get cold. Then wet. As of around 9,000 feet in elevation, I was inside a cloud. I’d never been in a cloud before. White and puffy it was not. Despite my exertion I was getting cold and damp. I didn’t have a jacket, or arm warmers, or leg warmers; in those days I owned exactly one jersey (purple, wool) and one pair of shorts (Shaversport, Lycra, which was a pretty new thing at the time). I washed this outfit about once a week. I don’t even think I had socks, or gloves.
Out of gas
I ate through my food—all I remember was a little bag of gorp I’d brought from home. At some point I bonked, but didn’t realize it at the time. I tended to bonk a lot in those days, but I didn’t know the term bonk and didn’t really grasp that a sudden loss of energy could be food-related. My bike had just one water bottle cage, and I never had energy drink. There was nothing methodical about my preparation for a long ride; I simply brought whatever food I could scrounge up. So whenever I bonked, it just seemed like a spontaneous failure of my musculature. My body was to me utterly unpredictable, even unreliable; I envied the older teenagers and the adults who could go hard for a long time without spontaneously blowing up.
The immaturity of my body in those days made me think of a chicken wing I’d had once at Red Barn. The bone was a reddish-pink color and oddly rubbery. My dad explained that the chicken it had come from was so young it hadn’t even fully developed. That was how I thought of myself. It seemed a shame to have to wait for several years until I would magically grow up and be robust and resilient. Until then I just did my best.
At perhaps around 10,000 feet I came upon an elderly couple whose car—a big old American station wagon—had overheated. They were making the most of it, having a picnic on the tailgate. They asked if I’d like something to eat, and I spent the next ten minutes stuffing my face on everything they had, washing it down with Coke. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate how that had saved me. It was just free food from nice folks.
This isn’t to say I felt good after the picnic. I was still completely blown, and just churned away in my lowest gear, endlessly. Incidentally, my Campy-equipped Pro-Miyata had a 42-tooth inner chainring, and the Suntour New Winner freewheel had a 22-tooth large cog. This wasn’t a particularly steep grade, but that’s not very low gearing by any measure, and it dictated my pace as much as anything. At least as long as I kept pedaling I wouldn’t get too cold.
Two hours into the climb I had become a total zombie, , my body locked in position as if from rigor mortis. Perhaps I figured I’d be warmer if I didn’t move, like a fragile film of warmth might build up if I didn’t tremble and knock it off. Still, I managed to notice that the terrain started to get really weird. The tree line here was at about 11,000 feet; beyond this point, conditions were too harsh for most vegetation to thrive. I knew none of this at the time, of course; I merely wondered at the sudden lack of trees.
In fact, it was tundra. There was a thin, scabby layer of vegetation over everything, like varicolored Astroturf, with pale rocks poking out there and there. Though it was still only afternoon, it was pretty dark, so the effect was like being on the moon or something. There must have been stunning vistas, but I don’t remember seeing any. Probably my neck wouldn’t turn far enough.
For some reason, cars started backing up all along the road. Something must have blocked the way far up ahead; I never found out what. All I knew is it was stop-and-go for the cars. I compared notes with Aaron recently, and he remembers seeing the same cars and passengers over and over again—they’d pass by and wave, and then he’d come rolling by again and, their windows being down, he’d hear them say, “Here he comes again!” A few people cheered me on, but mostly the line of cars was just another obstruction to my progress.
Suddenly I saw Aaron coming back down the hill; he’d reached the summit. I don’t think I even waved to him; I was in a daze and my attention was completely absorbed by one thing: he had a jacket. My entire response to seeing him was to think, “Luck-y!” I didn’t ponder the foolishness of not bringing a jacket (I didn’t own one); I didn’t consider cutting my ride short and joining him; I didn’t wonder how far I might be from the top, knowing he’d been there already; I just thought about how nice it would be to have a jacket. I don’t believe Aaron waved at me, either—probably too busy working the brakes in the wet conditions.
At no point did I consider turning around. This wasn’t an internal battle between my will and my desire to be off the mountain; I was just mindlessly resigned to continuing my struggle until it was over. You could say I was tenacious, but I think it’s more correct to say I have a talent for resignation. The loss of face I’d suffer by quitting never entered the equation, because I was simply climbing the mountain as if I had no choice.
This isn’t to say Jordan Romero might find himself similarly resolved in his effort. I have to hope he’s acutely aware between an endeavor that’s unpleasant and one that could be fatal or at least life-altering. (The current record-holder for the youngest to climb Everest, a sixteen-year-old, lost five fingers in the process. I wonder if he feels it was worth it—he must really miss those fingers, every day of his life.) The other big difference with a Trail Ridge attempt is that giving up is a simple process: you can just turn around, whenever you want, and literally coast all the way back to Estes Park. If the weather turns on Everest, giving up doesn’t necessarily buy you anything—you still have to fight to survive.
I reached the summit without realizing it. There was no celebration, no glory, and no sense of relief, because I was so disoriented I didn’t even notice the climb had ended. By this point, there was no vegetation of any kind—just heaps and heaps of broken-up stone, like the whole place had been bombed. It is no exaggeration to say I was in a trance, just turning the pedals like an automaton. I had descended for quite a ways before I realized, wait—something has changed! I’m not climbing anymore! (It is a pity I didn’t realize this a minute or two later, actually; I’d have reached the visitor’s station at Fall River Pass, and could have warmed up.)
I turned around and started pedaling up the backside of the pass, and this time I was paying more attention when I reached the summit at 12,183 feet. I didn’t have a camera, though I’m not sure I’d have bothered to take any photos. Here are some I took six years later when I repeated the ride with my brothers Geoff and Bryan and our friend Bill. Needless to say we had much better weather that day. (I also had much longer hair.)
I still wasn’t celebrating, though: I was dreading the descent. If I wasn’t drenched yet, I would be soon, as I heard thunder and presently it started to hammer down rain. Within minutes I was caught in a major thunderstorm and was completely drenched.
Even at fourteen, I was very competent at descending. Flagstaff Road in Boulder had been washed out and thus closed to cars the year before, and my friends and I practiced until we could carve through the curves perfectly, taking the optimal lines. So now, to get my suffering over with as soon as possible, I absolutely bombed the descent. I was running the Modolo Professional brakes, which had pretty good pads for riding in rain. The black rubber dissolved against the rim, causing my wheels to fling black water all over me, but I did have pretty good braking control. Perhaps halfway down the mountain I passed Aaron. He had those Suntour Superbe Pro brakes, with these shellacky orange-ish pads that really suck in the rain. He was having to ride the brakes the whole time to keep his speed down, so there was no way he was staying with me. I don’t think we said anything to each other as I passed.
I was so cold I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering, and my body from shaking. I had absolutely no sensation in my hands or feet. I couldn’t even feel the brake levers against my fingers; the only way I know I was gripping them at all is that I could feel the bike slowing down. The rain just wouldn’t let up. As fast as I was going, the descent nonetheless seemed to last forever. I carried on in quiet desperation. I made up my mind I would head into the first building I could find to try to warm up, and hoped they wouldn’t throw me out for not buying anything; I had no money left.
Finally I made it to the bottom. As it turned out, the first building I encountered was the visitor’s center at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. I left my bike outside and went into the lobby. I collapsed on a bench and tried to stop shaking. I closed my eyes. I just couldn’t get warm. I was a skinny teenager, even skinnier than I am now; I imagine I looked a bit like this photo, only even paler and of course twenty years younger (this is from the end of La Marmotte in 2003):
After some time—five minutes? ten? twenty?—I was too messed up to tell—I heard some women talking in concerned, maternal tones, and it dawned on my they were talking about me. They summoned a park employee, who brought me back to a little office and wrapped me in a shiny silver space blanket. She disappeared and I sat dazed for a spell before she returned with a giant thermos of hot cocoa. This she administered to me over the next half hour or so. I must have drunk a gallon of it, and felt my body gradually returning to service, like a flattened inner tube being slowly reinflated.
I became increasingly aware of my surroundings and started to appreciate the care I was getting. Eventually I could actually fathom the thought of getting back on my bike. “How are you feeling?” asked the park employee. I said I felt much better. “Great!” she said. “Now, when you get home today, be sure to tell your parents you were treated for hypothermia at the visitor’s center at Rocky Mountain National Park!” I promised to relay the message, thanked her again for the space blanket and cocoa, and left. The rain had stopped, and other than my squishy, soaked saddle, being back on the bike wasn’t so bad.
As I dropped down from Estes Park to Lyons, the sun came back out and it got nice and warm again. (I miss that about Colorado.) The ride from Lyons back to Boulder on Highway 36 is kind of infamous based on how many guys have suffered inordinately on it. It’s not such a bad stretch other than some rolling hills, but it’s often the last bit you have to contend with after an epic mountain ride, and really dreaded it. But oddly, I didn’t feel so bad (probably because of all the cocoa) and even got into a rotating paceline with a couple of grown-ups and made pretty good time. I got home just before dinner. I’d covered more than 130 miles, and more than half of them solo.
I wasn’t sure whether to mention my exploit during dinner. On the one hand, it was a pretty cool way to have spent the day. On the other hand, I remember the lecture from my dad about thunderstorms at higher elevations, and that was on the occasion of a mere Estes Park ride. Moreover, our dinner table discussions, though lively, didn’t generally center on the doings of us kids; the general format was for the oldest boys, Geoff and Bryan, to ask some really good question about science so our dad could give us a fascinating lecture. It wasn’t easy to hold the floor.
Ultimately I decided to mention my ride, because of the promise I’d made to the woman at the visitor’s center. At a lull in the conversation I said, rather casually, “I rode up Trail Ridge Road today and got caught in a thunderstorm. I was treated for hypothermia at the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor’s center.” What happened next I cannot recall, other than to assert with confidence that it was no outpouring of praise or astonishment. My best guess is that my dad gave a short response, something like “Good” or “Good show.” (This would have been consistent with my dad’s background as a naval officer; I’m told that onboard ship, such brief responses are typical of those given by a senior to the report of a junior.) My brother Max, when I asked him recently, said it was more likely that our dad said something dismissive or even hostile, such as “You’re not very bright, are you?” I really doubt he said that. The brevity of his response, whatever it was, may have been the result of his being conflicted about how to respond. On the one hand, I'd achieved something pretty cool; on the other, I'd ignored his warning about thunderstorms at higher elevations, with exactly the consequences he'd feared. I think I came away simply relieved that I didn’t get in trouble.
What does it mean?
What is the point of such a journey? Certainly I had a memorable adventure, and I don’t doubt it was character-building, but the better answer is that it doesn’t need to have a point. After all, what had the venture cost me? Less than five dollars and a day of my summer. It was simply a grand day out—certainly not in the context of Everest, of course, but scaled to the proper ambitions of a fourteen-year-old.
Contrast this to Jordan Romero’s enterprise. “I just focus on the goal I set when I was nine,” he tells the “Outside” writer, “which is to climb the Seven Summits.” I see a bit of a disconnect here. Climbing the seven summits, especially (perhaps) Everest, is largely a matter of serious logistics—planning, research, preparation, a lot of checklist-type stuff. Is this the stuff nine-year-olds’ dreams are really made of? I have an eight-year-old and I’m trying to picture her saying, “You know what would be really cool? Borrowing a couple of hypoxic tents to simulate oxygen deprivation.” Uh-huh.
My dad clearly wasn’t a champion of my athletic exploits, but at least I never had to worry about the point where his ambitions ended and mine began. Aaron and my Trail Ridge experience wasn’t the stuff of legend, but it was our experience—nobody else’s. One thing that struck me about the “Outside” article was how lopsided it was: I got a very clear impression of Jordan’s father, his ideas, and his ethos, but Jordan himself was barely quoted. The father describes the Everest team of himself, his son, and his partner as “Team Romero.” Why not “Team Jordan”? I couldn’t help but wonder if Jordan was just part of the human payload being dragged along on his father’s ego trip.
Of course, a kid climbing Everest isn’t just an adventure, it’s a symbol—and Jordan says he wants to use this effort to inspire American kids to put away their video games and go outside. But I don’t really buy this. A journey that costs $150,000 and requires you to be home-schooled and have a professional adventure racer and life-flight medic for a father isn’t really within the reach of most kids’ dreams. It’s kind of like a supermodel saying her career goal is to inspire young women to have more beautiful skin and better chins. Frankly, I can think of a lot of ways that $150,000 could do more good than shaving three years off the Everest age record.
As you’ve gathered from the photos, that wasn’t the last time I rode up Trail Ridge Road. When I rode it with Geoff, Bryan, and Bill in 1989, it was part of a larger ride that totaled 200 miles. In 2001 my friend Peter and I rode it again, and instead of turning around at the top we descended through Grand Lake and came back over the divide via Berthoud Pass, making for an even harder 200-miler. I was much better prepared for these later ventures, and of course bigger and stronger, but this was a mixed blessing in that it made the effort a bit less epic. That original journey, precisely because it lacked that space-blanket sensibility, was much truer to the spirit of being a carefree teenager than the later trips. Trail Ridge Road in 1983 was the perfect adventure for a youth who, though a bit reckless, was intent on getting home alive, with all his fingers and toes intact, and without anyone knowing where he’s been. dana albert blog