The Canary reported on 24 March 2010 that the Province of British Columbia was considering laws or regulations governing snowmobile use in the backcountry. Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, confirmed last month that the government is indeed intent on doing just that -
In the aftermath of the avalanche which killed two during the Big Iron Shootout on Boulder Mountain near Revelstoke, BC and which had minors spectating the highmarking contest whilst positioned in an open and obvious avalanche trap, it was decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal negligence or child endangerment charges to those who took kids to the Shootout.
Just last week, 13 year old Jordan Romero of Big Bear, California became the youngest person to climb 8848 m Mt. Everest. He has become a cause célèbre while also earning the enmity of some who believe the risks of climbing such a peak are too great for a child to take on.
To wit, Nepal does not issue permits to climbers under the age of 16 years and at least one reputable guiding outfit, International Mountain Guides, does not allow climbers less than 18 years of age to go on Everest expeditions.
Jordan had never climbed any of the 14 8000 m peaks.
Jordan was guided up Mt. Everest by his father and three Sherpa guides from the Tibetan side where no such regulations or restrictions exist for children climbing the peak.
Some conveniently forget that – as of 2006 – 212 climbers have died on Mt. Everest. It is a statistical fact that 8 climbers die for every 100 who summit Mt. Everest. Those celebrating Jordan’s conquest of the mountain would likely be whistling a different tune if he had died in an avalanche, in a fall, of exposure, or a high altitude related illness.
This raises some interesting ethical and legal questions about minors and extreme sport. To what extent is a minor capable to make an informed decision and an uncoerced choice to either sled in potentially hazardous avalanche conditions in the backcountry – in the instance of the Big Iron Shootout – or climb the world’s highest mountain? What role do parents play in encouraging or discouraging their child in such circumstances? Are these instances of parents living vicariously (and dangerously) through their children? Should kids even be allowed to pursue such extreme adventures in the first place?
Jean-Pierre Herry, a medical doctor from Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme (ENSA: the French National Ski and Mountaineering School) states it is not advisable for children under the age of 16 to ascend Mont Blanc which stands 4810 m above sea level. David Hillebrandt, medical adviser to the British Mountaineering Council, believes that 13 is too young to be exposed to such high altitude and that guiding someone of that age up Mt. Everest borders on child abuse.
Canadian and American courts have not yet had to confront the issue of child endangerment and extreme adventure. It is fortunate that no minors died in the Boulder Mountain snowmobiling avalanche and that Jordan did not perish on Mt. Everest. The role luck plays in extreme sport should not be underestimated and we should not kid ourselves that skill alone can prevent death or injury in such circumstances.
It is noteworthy that a Dutch court last year placed 13 year old Laura Dekker into state care to stop her attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world and held that it would have been irresponsible to permit her to undertake such a venture into extreme circumstances.
These events ought to give us pause about children who feel impelled – or are coerced – to take on extreme risk and our society’s celebration of these kids who somehow succeed in the face of such danger.