Jordan Romero plans to complete the Seven Summits, ending with Mt. Everest in spring 2010–when he’s 13. If successful, he’ll become the youngest person to reach the top of the highest peak on each continent by four years (the current record was set in June by 17-year-old Johnny Strange). But does that make him a climbing prodigy or just a really determined kid with a dad who won’t say no?
It’s hard to tell him apart from the other tweens when I visit his public school in Big Bear. He blends in with the rest of the droopy-jeaned fifth graders so well that I quickly lose track of him. At his mom’s house, his room is plastered with muscle-car posters, and his chief concern is remembering to bring his new Billabong button-down and a pair of Vans to his dad’s. (His parents are divorced–they married young and separated when Jordan was 3. Jordan splits his time between Paul and mom Leigh Anne Drake, a schoolteacher.)
“It’s hard for me sitting at home watching a dot on a GPS climb a mountain,” says Leigh Anne. “I am so proud, but the mom thing kicks in and it’s a roller coaster for me.” She says this while sitting with Jordan, and she practically strangles him with hugs as she talks. “I remember when Jordan got off Kilimanjaro. The first thing he did was call and say, Mommy, I love you so much. He was gone for two weeks. It was the longest time we had been separated, and you were climbing a mountain…” Leigh Anne trails off, her eyes watery.
“Mom, I wasn’t 100-percent happy when I got to the top of Kilimanjaro, because you weren’t there to share it with me,” Jordan assures her. (Apparently, he’s learned a few of the nuances of navigating the mountaineer’s life along the way.)
Kilimanjaro was the first Seven Summits peak Jordan attempted. A year after seeing that mural, Jordan flew to Tanzania with Paul and Karen. There, they employed the climbing technique that they’ve used on every peak since: Ascend methodically and directly, go lightweight, and don’t waste energy. To prepare for this strategy, all three arrive at the mountain pre-acclimatized, thanks to altitude-simulation tents that they sleep in for a month prior to the attempt. On Kilimanjaro, they hiked from 7,000 feet to 19,340 feet and down in 72 hours.
“On Kilimanjaro, we made really good time, but I was miserable,” says Jordan. “My dad motivated me to keep going, to get to the next camp so that I could really rest instead of just stopping on the trail. I wanted to get to the top and get down. I sprinted the last 100 meters to the summit. I didn’t feel really great until I saw it, and then I ran.”
The experience served more as motivation than intimidation–and Jordan immediately started to plan his next climb, of 18,310-foot Mt. Elbrus. Despite his chill California persona, Jordan leaves no doubt that he shares his adventure-racer dad’s driven, competitive spirit. He tells me about a 16-mile run he did when he was 12–to beat Ryan Hall, an Olympian who did the same run at 14. He claims the Guinness Book of World Records as one of his favorite books.
“There are some easy records that I think I could beat, like longest time standing on one foot,” Jordan tells me. “Or the most snails on a human face at one time. I think I could beat that one. There is also a record page of mountain climbing,” he continues. “There is no youngest person to climb Mt. Everest listed. I hope that if I climb the Seven Summits and Mt. Everest that I might be in that book someday.”