English, Prying eyes

Coco Popescu, the teen climbing up the world

An average girl would spend time helping in the home, shopping, watching television or sleeping. But Crina Popescu – or Coco as she introduces herself – is anything but an ordinary teen.

I visited Coco the day after she had an appendicitis operation. “We were on the Everest, in the base camp (5,400 m). Suddenly, she experienced some serious cramps and had to return,” explains Ovidiu, her father and climbing partner.

Coco’s beautiful, curious blue eyes escort me to the table in the dining room where her parents and Geta, her younger sister, were about to have breakfast. “Doctor said I can only drink tea, eat one egg, yogurt, toast and some light cheese,” she explains. The entire family is lacto-vegetarian, but Coco’s look tell she could devour an elephant in a minute.

Her mom passes on to Coco a one-liter thermos with tea. “One thing I’ve learned is to accept my bounds, both mental and physical,” she confesses, remembering of one of the most difficult moments in her ten-year long climbing experience: “I was part of a team of seven. I left my colleagues behind one by one up to 6,500 m altitude. I questioned myself if I can make it.” From that point on she was on her own.

Coco is only 16, but she has an astonishing record. In the last six years she climbed seven mountain peaks that are part of the Seven Summits (Aconcagua, Carstensz Pyramid, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Kosciuszko, McKinley and Vinson). She is the first woman who finalised the Seven Volcanoes project (Damavand, Elbrus, Giluwe, Kilimanjaro, Ojos del Salado, Orizaba, and Sidley). And her list goes on with Ararat, Kazbek and Mont Blanc. All these records make Coco the youngest mountain climber in the world to complete the two projects.

The mountain family

In 2007, the Cornell University released the findings of “The Time Use of Teenagers” study. It reveals that “parents and teens can easily disagree about how a teenager’s time should be used and which activities are appropriate”.

The Popescu family totally contradicts this conclusion. Coco’s father is the one who took her, when she was only six-years-old, in their first mountain trip. He is a climber himself and quit his job to train her. Geta on the other hand is prepared by the mom, Gabriela. They moved from Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, to Rasnov, a town at the bottom of the Carpathians. “The first thing I see when I wake up every morning is the mountain,” says Coco.

According to the same analysis, some of the most common activities in the lives of teenagers include watching TV (127 minutes per day for girls), sports and exercise (30 minutes per day for girls) or using the computer (20 minutes per day).

Coco spends seven hours per day in school, 120 to 180 minutes on sport activities and three more hours doing her studies. There is no TV in the Popescu house, no computer and no access to the Internet. “A few years ago, right after one of our interviews was published, we started receiving TV sets as gifts” says Ovidiu smiling. “It is not a matter of money, it’s a choice. That is how we live.”

A girl in a men’s world…

Just like her predecessor, Sir Edmund Hillary, Coco considers herself a lucky person for doing what she wants and likes to do. “My next objective is to climb the Everest and finalise the Seven Summits project.”

Her birth date reveals that Coco is a Sagittarius, the real adventurer of the zodiac. “This girl is forever keen for excitement and opportunities to widen her horizons. She feels very capable of equaling if not surpassing most obstacles her male counterpart will attempt to overcome. She is more often found traveling or enjoying the outdoors then holding down a 9-5 job,” reads a horoscope.

I ask her how does she feel among so many men. “I mind my own job. I know what I can and I always take my limits into account.” she replies. Coco doubted herself once when understanding that one of her male partners was unable to continue. “I moved on; I knew I can reach the summit and get back safely by myself.”

… yet mommy’s kid at the end of the day

None of the places she visited impressed Coco as much as Antarctica. “When climbing, there is nothing in my mind except the peak. I am so focused I don’t even see the beauties around me, but I take the time to admire the landscapes on my way back. Antarctica, however, is different,” she says. “Nothing but ice, minus 30 to 40 Centigrades and 90kmph winds are common for Antarctica.”

Gabriela, Coco’s mother, is bringing extra tea, so I take the chance to ask her how do they keep in touch. “When traveling to Papua New Guinea, Coco’s cell phone run out of battery and my only option to track her down was to go to the bank and check her payments,” she remembers. “I didn’t know anything about her for about ten days.” She is laughing when I check on the kind of gifts she gets from her daughter. “Usually stones. Plus the fruits, seeds or nuts I find in her pockets.” The largest stone she was supposed to get is from Antarctica, but Coco forgot to give it to her. “Could be a late Easter present,” says Gabriela while looking into the world’s youngest mountain climber eyes.

In a couple of hours, Coco is going back home. where she plans to join her class mates on a weekend trip right after Easter. Even if the Carpathians are like a training session to her, Coco is eager to wake up in the morning and see their picture in the window. She’s just like Heidi: anxious to hug Klara and Peter, yodeling the mountains and devouring mama’s made apple pie. But the Everest is there, waiting for her.

Pix: courtesy of Popescu family

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  1. Tracey

    November 20, 2011 at 08:25

    Great story Cristina, did you get this published?

  2. cristina

    November 20, 2011 at 09:04

    Hi Tracey, thanks! 🙂 No, this one didn’t make it. Next year I plan to follow up on it as Coco has fully recovered and is back to climbing, plus my pitching skills will be better off.

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