On Aconcagua, the Romeros reunite with their team at Confluencia Camp, at 10,500 feet. On the eight-hour trek to the next camp, Plaza de Mulas, they can finally relax and just hike: The weather is balmy, burros carry the gear, and they’ve gone 24 hours without having Jordan’s permit confiscated.
At this point, the climbers assess their physical state and start strategizing their ascent of the Normal Route, a nontechnical ascent on which the chief threats are usually severe weather and altitude sickness. Jordan feels fresh, his appetite is good, and the Romeros have been clear from the start that they’ll move at his pace regardless of the rest of the team (which, except for the videographer Griber, consists of five friends from the adventure-racing community). The Romeros are better acclimatized than the others, so they decide to keep moving up the mountain while the rest climb and descend to sleep at a lower camp.
They make good progress to Camp Nido. It’s Christmas Day, and they celebrate with a Yankee Swap. Jordan gets a mini Monopoly set and an oversize magnifying glass. He gives a mini Swiss Army knife.
Camp Nido is also the base for rangers who patrol Aconcagua’s High Camps. “Is this the tent of Jordan Romero?” one of the rangers demands. He asks if the boy has been eating and drinking, and insists on checking Jordan’s oxygen-saturation level. At home in Big Bear, it would be 100 percent. All climbers should have oxygen levels above 80 percent before going higher. Jordan’s is 85. The ranger radios the results to basecamp, and the doctors below accuse him of lying. The Romeros respond by placing the oxygen sensor back on Jordan’s finger and taking a photo of the gauge.
There are no medical studies of the effect of high altitude on a developing brain. Dr. Peter Hackett, director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado, and a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says, “There are plenty of studies that show MRI abnormalities as well as, to some extent, functional abnormalities in people who have come down from Everest and other high peaks. Climbers often show brain atrophy, a shrinking of the brain from cell death, and white spots on their brains that we think could be scarring. People do not come back from Everest babbling idiots. But things like fine motor skills can be off for up to two years. It could be that a kid is more resilient because his brain is still growing. Or it could be worse.”
Which is not to say that Hackett opposes the idea of kids climbing big peaks. He’s an Everest veteran himself, as well as a father. And he’s taking his own son up Denali next year, when he’s 15. But Hackett draws the line with Everest. “For me, it’s riskier than all the other summits because of the extreme altitude. The danger is that you press on because you’ve raised expectations with friends, family, and the media.”
That’s true, of course, and Jordan readily admits as much. “When I am in the worst of it, I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this? What have we gotten into?’ I think about the risk of dying, especially when I am in a tiring and boring part. Dad and Karen and I have talked many times about the worst case, the risks, and we try to anticipate and avoid the biggest mistakes. I always think about my family at home. But then there is my dad right behind me saying ‘You can do it, little buddy.’ I think about everyone supporting me, and I think I’ve got to climb this mountain for them.”
That pressure will raise a red flag to many ears. But how different is it, really, from the expectations faced by kids immersed in more culturally acceptable sports? In 2008, at least 10 teenagers died while alpine skiing at U.S. resorts. Cameron Williams, a 13-year-old competitive skier and nationally ranked mountain-bike racer, comes over to Jordan’s when I visit. He says, “A lot of kids these days, especially ski racers, are doing what they’re doing because their parents want them to. Jordan is climbing mountains because it’s something he wants to do. That’s kind of cool.”
“There are days when Jordan says he doesn’t want to climb anymore,” says Karen. “I tell him ‘No problem, but you’re not staying home to play video games, you’re still going to train and be outside.’ I think a lot about where the line is between pushing him and guiding him toward accomplishing a goal.”
“It’s a little Zen,” says Paul, “but we constantly push the line. Then the line moves, and the next time we don’t push Jordan to that point, and he pushes himself because he knows he can do it, so we help him push to the next level. We help him build new levels of tolerance and accomplishment for his mind and body; with it, his confidence and ability build at lightning speed.”
When I ask Hackett to explain his unwillingness to let his own son climb Everest, he says, “He could probably do it, but I wouldn’t take the risk at that age. No one is immune from hypoxia, avalanches, or crevasse falls.” Still, Hackett refuses to criticize the Romeros. “They’re not yahoos,” he says, “and it’s not a super-crazy thing to do when you [take the precautions] they do.”