The glory associated with the highest peak on earth is pushing some parents to take their children, as young as five, up to base camp
On November 3, six-year old Advait Bhar tia reached the south base camp of Everest in Ne pal. The Pune boy trekked up 17, 598 feet over 12 days in cold weather, with oxygen levels 50% of what they are at sea level -and the risk of an avalanche.
Clearly, a risky outdoor activity for a six-year-old. But for his mother Payal the decision to take him up a mountain was in keeping with her parenting style. “I don't believe in saying `no' to my children. I was planning to go on this trek and Advait happened to hear about it. He said he wanted to come along and I thought, `okay let me train him and see if he'll be fit to go',“ says Payal, 40, an avid trekker and athlete. She says Advait wants to scale Mt Kilimanjaro next.
Baby steps, big mountain
Not just Advait, the icy mountains have witnessed a steady march of kids -some even younger than him -from India in the past few years. Last year, siblings Ritwika and Kandarp Sharma (then 8 and 5) from Gwalior reached Everest Base Camp (EBC) along with parents Bhupinder and Mamta. In 2014, Harshit Saumitra from Delhi achieved this feat at the age of five. The same year a 13-year-old from Telengana Poorna Malavath became the youngest female climber in the world to ascend Everest.
But should pre-teens be attempting the climb up, even though most of them aim for the Everest Base Camp rather than the peak?
The altitude at EBC is high (5,380 m), the trek long (15 km a day for around 12 days), and the terrain rocky, steep and slow-going with the added risk of gales and avalanches. In April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and avalanche and resulted in 19 fatalities at base camp, leading to the cancellation of the climbing season. This year, three climbers have died of altitude sickness already. What's more, children rarely have any formal training in mountaineering. Advait climbed 100 floors every day with his mother for three months before the trek. Bhupinder Sharma's children practised rock climbing, swimming and rappelling to build their endurance. The only preparation Rajeev Saumitra did was take his son to Rohtang Pass to test if he would withstand the low levels of oxygen. Bhar tia and Saumitra also booked emergency helicopter rescues in Kathmandu for the duration of the trek. Ankur Bahl, 55, a seasoned mountaineer, points out that despite these efforts, the risk remains. “Death happens very quickly there, even before the helicopter can reach you,“ says Bahl who survived the deadly avalanche set off by the 2015 quake.
Apart from bad weather, high-altitude sickness is a high-altitude sickness is a real danger at such heights. “And very young children may not be able to articulate their discomfort properly, or may feel scared to do so,“ says Bahl, adding that ideally such demanding treks should be undertaken only as an adult.
So why are parents willing to take the risk? Sharma says he wants his children to be hardy, and outdoors-oriented. “These days children stay indoors, attached to gadgets. I don't want my children to be like that,“ says Sharma, a mountaineer himself, and a lawyer. On the phone from Gwalior, his daughter Ritwika recalls how scary it was to see the quake-damaged landscape, and face extreme cold winds. “When I reached the base camp I said `Jai Hind' and hoisted the tricolour,“ adds Ritiwika in a somewhat practised Both Rajeev Saumitra and Sharma claim their children set records with their feat. Although a quick search on the website of Guinness World Records and Limca Book of Records didn't yield any such record.
Col H S Chauhan, president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, says today adventure has become a sign of status.“Scaling a certain peak is par ents' ambition, not the child's. In my opinion, taking children on such risky treks is neither ethically nor technically right,“ says Col Chauhan.
The IMF mandates that each expedition team member st a basic course in should have done at least a basic course in mountaineering, which children aged 12 and older are allowed to undergo. In fact, in Poorna's case, she did a mountaineering course in Darjeeling and trained extensively for eight months. Still, many would question the wisdom of allowing a young teenager to summit.
However, the permission from Nepal authorities comes easy. “It's commercial there.If you have the money you get to climb,“ adds Col Chauhan.
The craze to scale Everest young exists outside India too. In April, 12-year-old Californian boy Tyler Armstrong wanted to become the youngest to summit Everest but his permit was rejected by the Tibetan side. The China Tibet Mountaineering Association had announced an age cut-off for attempting a climb to Everest after 13-year-old Jordan Romero from California scaled it in May 2010 and caused an uproar in the climbing community. Now, individuals younger than 18 and older than 75 cannot ascend the world's highest peak. In 2014, Patrick Sweeney, a US climber, was widely criticised for filming his two children, aged 9 and 11, being knocked off their feet in a mini avalanche as they tried to scale Mont Blanc.
Conservationist John Muir famously said “mountains are calling and I must go.“ While it may be true for children as well, they may do well to heed 17-year-old Colorado mountaineer Matt Moniz's advice to Armstrong: “Everest isn't going anywhere... (You'll) enjoy it even more with more experience.“