IT’S, LET’S SAY, difficult to get Strange to open up about what climbing means to him, to get him to draw a picture of those moments when he first summits. But that’s typical at 17, right? Fortunately, that age comes with plenty of idealism.

In Strange’s case, idealism has been stoked by interaction with people from around the world. His time with the porters on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, which he climbed with his mom when he was 14, has stayed with him. Between climbing moments, Strange would hang out with the porters, playing Hacky Sack and talking. One porter wondered aloud to Strange, “[Are you] going to turn out like the rest of the people like where you’re from and just forget about us?” The teen’s answer? “I told him that I’d never forget the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met, and so I’m never going to be like anybody else. Besides, my last name’s Strange, so … kind of weird, anyway.”

“In Africa, I will be forever known as Johnny’s mom,” says Wells. “I went back a year or two later with my oldest daughter and still, all the porters and the guides [were like], ‘Oh, Johnny’s mom! Johnny’s mom!’ ”

Strange is dogged in his determination to discuss the issues that have grabbed hold of him. Atop Everest, at a moment of accomplishment that warrants something akin to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “king of the world” Titanic line or a photo of the climber pumping his fist triumphantly into the air, Strange pulled out a handwritten sign that said, simply, “Stop genocide.” He left it on top of the mountain along with another reminding people about Parkinson’s disease, which a friend’s father lives with.

“I’m cracking up because I’m seeing him in all these interviews and he always manages to get [word of his causes] in,” says Wells, who adds that Strange has always been the most sensitive of her three kids.

Brian Strange says his son’s desire to spread the word about his causes is part of the reason he hired a publicist to tout his son’s achievement. “It’s an opportunity for him to talk about the issues that are important to him and also, as a youth, to be able to bring attention to what you can do as part of the youth movement, which is important to him too.”

For now, Strange’s next goal, or at least, the one he’ll talk about, is finishing high school and getting into college. Although Wells worries about her son “because he really has that sense of invincibility right now, as most young men do,” she wants nothing more for him (aside from a college degree) than a life of adventure.