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Climbing Into the Record Book

August 26, 2000

Ten-year-old Cheviot Hills resident Eli Stein recently became the youngest climber to go up Mt. Whitney's "Mountaineers" route with a backpack. Stein, who was 9 years old at the time, had made up his mind to take the 14,500-foot-high challenge at the ripe old age of 8 and begged his father to take him. His father, physician Ted Stein, agreed in mid-June, and they went on the four-day journey with a guide. The fourth-grader at John Thomas Dye School received a letter from Gov. Gray Davis: "By making this incredible journey," the governor wrote, "you not only had an extraordinary experience, but you also serve as a model of excellence for all Californians."

ERIC ZEITLIN spoke with Eli about this trip and what propelled him to make it.

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My mom can't stand hiking, so I went with my dad and a guide. At 14,000 feet, it's harder to breathe than at the 200 feet I'm used to. You breathe a little shallower. So we did altitude preparations [and] pressure breathing, where you take these breaths that are short and brisk and big. If you don't you start breathing really shallow and then your energy drops and then you hunch over your walking stick.

I've been hiking for a long time...a lot in the Santa Monica Mountains and also a lot around the Los Angeles Basin and near Palm Springs on an Indian reservation. That was a hot place to hike. When I was littler, my dad would take me on these hikes and I would take two steps and says "Daddy, I'm tired," and go up on his shoulders. But then when I was about 5 or 6, I really started liking it. And when I was 7, I started hiking about once a week, and then started going off trail with my dad. I liked going off the trails. I thought they were too civilized. And then I said, "One day, I'm going to climb a really high mountain like Mt. Whitney. I want to be on top of Mt. Whitney before I'm 10."

Now that I did it, I probably won't do that mountain again, because I know what it was.

[We were on] a route for mountaineers that's very strenuous, and it's a short but steep route off trail. It isn't on a map, so you really have to know where you're going. I was a little freaked-out, looking down and knowing that if I fell, I could get flung off a cliff.

I think some things would be too dangers for a child, like going up without an icepick. The icepick is so important if you fall because when you're going up a steep ice slope, you don't have anything to hold onto. I think whatever you do, there are some risks that you have to take; I can deal with these risks because I know what to do. Who knows? There could have been an avalanche or I could have been stuck on the mountain alone. But if that happened, I have a 2-mile beacon [strobe light] that I just turn on and it starts flashing.

I think it's exciting to be scared. But I also think you have to know what can happen. I hadn't fully trusted a rope with my life before; you hold on to this rope knowing that if your guide's knots are wrong or if the rock falls and slits the rope, you're dead.

I was cold because there was hail pelting us, and there was lightning that hit the top of Mt. Whitney before we got up there.

I want to do a volcano in Mexico next year, which is 3,000 feet higher. My mother doesn't really like the idea of me climbing an active volcano, though, so maybe we'll go somewhere else.

I wanted to be the youngest person to do the mountain, but being the best I could be was really what I wanted. [Actually,] I am not the youngest person to do it [anymore] because after I told my class about my trip, another kid who was 8 years old went. But I am still the youngest to do it with a pack. With a pack, you get a full sense of the wilderness, because you can go anywhere [because you have everything you need on you]. Without a pack, you need someone's help all the time, and I like to be self-sufficient. My dad carried my sleeping bag, though.

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