Jordan Romero recently finished his algebra homework in a tent located 6,500 metres above sea level.
The 13-year-old's social studies lessons on Mount Everest have been even more unorthodox - ranging from meeting Nepalese girls to real-world applications of communications technology. "Hi mom," he said, during a recent CNN interview broadcast from his tent.
In a month or so, the floppy-haired California teen plans to be the youngest person to climb the world's highest peak. His father, Paul Romero, and stepmother, Karen Lundgren, will guide him up another 2,300 metres from his current location at advanced base camp. "I think it's pretty responsible parenting," Mr. Romero said recently. "I'm taking my son around the world, trying to give him the best education, the best life experiences."
But what Jordan calls a dream come true is raising serious concerns within the climbing community. His case has already sparked debate in mountaineering blogs and publications about how young is too young to climb. Some worry whether a 13-year-old can fully comprehending the risks he faces on a peak that has already claimed about 200 lives.
"He's got his whole life to climb Everest," said Todd Burleson, leader of led eight Everest expeditions and founder of a Seattle-based guide company and mountaineering school, Alpine Ascents International. "Being the youngest boy to climb is a fashionable, celebrity-oriented sort of thing. But it's not about [loving]the mountains. It's like trying to get your PhD at 10."
Jordan's father, a flight paramedic, and stepmother, a personal trainer, have no previous experience on Everest. Both are adventure racers, however. The trio has climbed several major peaks, including Kilimanjaro when Jordan was 9. The highest was Aconcagua in Argentina, which stands at about 7,000 metres.
For Everest, they have trained with hypoxic altitude tents and hired sherpas to accompany them to the 8,848-metre high peak on the border of China and Nepal. Mr. Romero has said he's confident in his decision to avoid the $65,000 (U.S.) fee for a professional guide. "We know when to step back, we know when to turn around," he told CNN.
But Mr. Burleson warns that Everest is unpredictable. Extreme heights and quickly changing weather can leave climbers vulnerable to frostbite, altitude sickness and death. "Let me tell you: The Himalayas are a whole other world," he said.
The Romeros have also made the unusual decision to take the northern route on the Chinese side of the mountain, he said. While the north side has cheaper permit fees and offers more challenges, it is also has fewer supports, such as the medical tent on the southern Nepalese side, where Mr. Burleson and other long-term guide companies operate. Generally, the north side attracts budget outfitters with less experience, he said.
Comparing the two routes is like comparing "New York City to some wilderness area in Alaska," he said.
Even if he makes it up and down the mountain safely, leading experts say Jordan risks long-term brain damage.
Recent Spanish research found that extreme expeditions left climbers with permanent damage to the frontal lobe, an area that helps people plan, focus and make complex decisions.
That part of the brain is still developing in 13-year-olds, said Doug Fields, a developmental neurobiologist and senior researcher with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who wrote about this topic in Outside Magazine last year.
"These were MRIs showing structural damage and it was permanent," Dr. Fields said. "Many high-altitude climbers come back impaired. They get spacey, have trouble focusing."
Mr. Romero has pointed out that there's no scientific proof that growing brains are harmed by extreme elevations. That's true, Dr. Fields says, but adds that scientists haven't yet studied young climbers. Only a handful of teens have reached Everest's summit in recent years - including two 17-year-old American boys and a 15-year-old Nepalese girl.
There are two competing theories about the effects of Everest-related hypoxia on growing brains, says Peter Hackett, an emergency physician in Colorado and one of the leading authorities on altitude sickness. "One school of thought is that the not-fully mature brain is more resilient and thus better able to cope with hypoxic stress," he said in an e-mail from Nepal. "Another is that the immature brain is more vulnerable because all connections are not yet formed."
Despite the criticisms they face, the Romeros say they're happy with their decision to facilitate their son's dream. At 9, Jordan saw a picture of the seven peaks at his school in Big Bear, Calif., and decided he wanted to climb them all. After Everest, the only peak he has left to climb is Vinson Massif in Antarctica; a trip is planned for December.
"Yes, I do feel a bit overwhelmed," he told a reporter earlier this week. "I do respect the boundaries and dangers of the mountain. But we're taking all the precautions. We're being as safe as we can. I think we're doing it for all the right reasons."