18 Under 18: Kristen Kelliher

18 Under 18: Kristen Kelliher (0:39)

Kelliher is the youngest female to summit the tallest mountains in each of the 48 contiguous United States. (0:39)

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As her classmates fret over final exams, Kristen Kelliher is preparing for her ultimate test.

Last September, the 17-year-old from Norwich, Vt., became the youngest female to summit the tallest mountains in each of the 48 contiguous United States. And if all goes according to plan, she'll conquer North America's highest peak -- Alaska's Mount McKinley -- in May, thereby reaching the apex of all 50 states.

Kelliher's climbing odyssey began in 2002, when as an 8-year-old she hiked up South Dakota's Harney Peak with her family during a cross-country trip. The next year, she read about a boy who had highpointed in all 50 states and determined to match the feat.

During vacations with her mother, stepfather and three brothers, Kelliher reached highpoints in 42 states between 2004 and 2007. She resumed her quest in 2009 and last year climbed three of the country's most imposing peaks -- Oregon's Mount Hood, Washington's Mount Rainier and Montana's Granite Peak. Saving her home state for last, Kelliher set the record by scaling Vermont's Mount Mansfield at 17 years, 4 months and 13 days of age.

Although Kelliher's ascents have included peaks in five states that rise less than 900 feet, she has climbed mountains in 11 states that top 11,000 feet. Her grit was particularly evident last July, when she reached the 14,410-foot summit of Mount Rainier after two previous unsuccessful attempts. "You have to be open to trying again," she said.

Optimistic and unassuming -- there was little fanfare surrounding her record at her New Hampshire high school, a friend said -- Kelliher has incredible tenacity and drive, according to her stepfather, Bill Bender, who summited 47 of the 48 peaks with her. "She's both physically and emotionally very tough," he said.

An all-state field hockey goalie who also competed interscholastically in basketball, crew and downhill skiing, Kelliher graduated a semester early from Hanover (Hanover, N.H.) and planned to climb Hawaii's Mauna Kea (13,976 feet) in February. And she has been working to raise $17,000 to finance her travel to Alaska and a guided trek up the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. "I've had several neighbors of family members want to help support me, but I'd rather do this on my own," she says.

To fulfill her latest goal, Kelliher has been writing to manufacturers of outdoor gear seeking sponsorship and "babysitting like crazy," as Bender puts it. Although through December she had banked only a fraction of the funds, Kelliher's track record of persistence makes it hard to bet against her.

Read more about Kelliher's quest on her blog, Climbing With Kristen.