Indeed, I find Jordan’s parents to be extremely engaged, thoughtful, and protective. They’re not pimping Jordan to the media. (It took BACKPACKER six months to get an interview, then I had to join a 4:30 a.m. snowshoe training as part of the deal.) And when Jordan starts talking about his climbs, his eyes light up as he recalls the most memorable moments–both good and bad–and one thing becomes abundantly clear: This is his quest.
“What altitude are we at?” asks Karen. Jordan checks his altimeter and responds: “18,700 feet.”
“Let’s shoot for 18,800 before the next rest,” Karen proposes. Jordan nods.
“When we first started,” Karen tells me in Big Bear, “we’d tie his boots and zip his coat. Now he puts on his own harness and keeps track of his gear. He’s always carried a pack, except on summit day. On Denali, he pulled a sled with 40 pounds of gear. He is a member of our team, not just a passenger.”
On every climb, Jordan has jobs that keep him engaged and vigilant. He monitors elevation and sets alarms for weather and wakeup. He’s learning knots and navigation and weather forecasting. And he’s cultivating qualities that any parent would hope to instill in his adolescent: responsibility, focus, goal setting, planning, and teamwork.
Later, in camp, he uses the Lake Louise Consensus test to quiz other mountaineers about their altitude sickness symptoms. He surveys his own team, as well as climbers he has just met, checking off their answers about headaches, stomachaches, and appetite loss on his chart. At 11, he’s learning to negotiate real-world complexities that confound many adults.
“Figuring out how to wade through the head noise, what’s right and wrong, what’s truth and bullshit, is part of the climb,” says Paul. “Whether in my job or in adventure racing, I constantly manage little bitty calculated risks.” With Team Sole, Paul and Karen placed third at the 2008 Adventure Racing World Championships, and have competed in demanding events worldwide. They understand the value of true self-sufficiency in the wild.
So it’s no surprise that team Romero chooses to break trail from Camp Nido to Berlin Camp, the last stop before summit day. Eighteen inches of fresh snow cover the route, and climbers from Britain, Poland, and Italy hunker down in tents amid the silent drifts–waiting for someone else to lead. The Romeros set out alone through gray air heavy with snow. Wind slashes their bodies as they ascend–Paul in the lead, Karen in back, Jordan in the middle.
As they plod on, Paul and Karen feed Jordan with the rhythmic regularity of an IV drip: a Werthers candy here, string cheese, water. But after several hours, Karen notices that Jordan is slowing down and breathing hard. She calls to him, and he looks back with tears streaming down his face.
The trio stops abruptly. Paul sits cross-legged in the snow and draws Jordan into his lap. Jordan erupts in a flood of emotion. He’s no longer sure why he wants to climb Aconcagua; he’s sad about his grandma, who died the previous summer; he’s tired. Everything on his mind bubbles to the surface–he’s bonking. Paul holds him and hugs him and tells him it’s okay, cry, use the memory of your grandma to help you. After 10 minutes of sobbing, Jordan takes a drink, eats some M&Ms, and says he’s ready to move on. They lean into the storm for another hour and a half, finally dragging themselves, exhausted, into high camp.
“It’s hard to strike a balance at this age,” says Jordan’s cross-country running coach, Tracy Tokunaga. “None of his peers really understands what Jordan is doing. In fact, many adults don’t either. But I’ve only heard support for Jordan from both teachers and students.” Other teachers at Big Bear describe Jordan as humble, composed, and compassionate. He only talks about his climbs if he’s asked.
That balancing act is getting trickier, now that Jordan’s climbs are getting bigger and more expensive. In January, he received a Polartec Challenge Grant, which helped fund this summer’s trip to Indonesia’s 16,023-foot Carstenz Pyramid. In June, he launched a new fundraiser called 7 Summits of Big Bear Youth Challenge, aimed at getting local kids to climb local peaks. But it’ll take more than small-town fundraisers and T-shirt sales to pay the price tag for Everest and Vinson. As the cost and risks increase, the pressure that sometimes makes Jordan wish to “just be a normal kid”–as he says to me more than once–also mounts.