Of course, despite Jordan’s low-key approach, an 11-year-old mountaineer is not normal. ABC’s Nightline program covered his Denali climb. And on Aconcagua, word quickly spreads that there’s a kid in high camp. Other climbers from all over the world pepper him with questions and snap photos.
After the friendly welcome, Paul and Karen tuck Jordan into his sleeping bag and make cocoa and tea. Jordan sets his alarm for the 7 p.m. weather report. When the forecast crackles across the radio, it’s not good: The park service recommends that no one attempts to summit the next day. The report calls for deteriorating conditions for about 24 hours, with the weather finally improving on December 30.
Nobody leaves Berlin Camp on the 29th. The climbers stay in their tents and shout through the nylon to neighbors. Griber arrives with two teammates. (He commits to a summit bid with the Romeros, but the others want more time to acclimatize.) The five teams in camp agree to a united effort the next morning.
Jordan’s alarm sounds at 4 a.m., but no one has slept in the battering winds. Outside, a gale blows 60 mph and the temperature is -40°F. Another six inches of snow have fallen. Jordan puts on two layers of polypro, two layers of fleece, then wind gear, double socks, glove liners, and a big down jacket. He inhales the steam from a thermos of hot cocoa, trying to blow smoke rings with his breath. With mittens, balaclavas, and goggles in place, the trio emerges from the tent into stormy darkness. Despite the camaraderie the previous night, no other teams appear: The Romeros and Griber are the only ones postholing toward the summit at 5 a.m.
They ascend in near-whiteout conditions, the wind blowing unabated. Occasionally, Jordan has to anchor himself with his ax to stay upright in a sudden gust, and Karen periodically grabs the back of his jacket to keep the 99-pound boy from blowing away.
After six hours, the team sets the next saddle as its goal and a possible turnaround point. At the saddle–which is the junction of the Normal and Polish Glacier Routes–they meet a Swedish team that’s retreating, defeated by the weather. The Romeros find a scrap of shelter behind a boulder and evaluate their options; while they rest, spots of blue appear in the gray sky and they decide to continue.
Two hours later, at the edge of a huge bowl, they finally see the summit. More blue spreads through the sky and boosts morale. The peak is still an hour away, but Jordan perks up. He walks with his shoulders back. All the scary scenes from the mountaineering documentaries have slipped away. “We’re going to make it,” he says. They’re not yet at the summit, but Jordan starts planning ahead. “When we do the next one, I want to come down and have a giant plate of spaghetti.”
They’re only an hour from the summit, but Griber, who had not yet had time to acclimatize, announces he’s retreating. They continue on, 10 steps at a time. When a Canadian team overtakes them, the climbers ask Jordan to pose with each of them for a photo, incredulous that they’re meeting a kid near the summit of Aconcagua. Two more teams, from the Ukraine and the United States, pass the Romeros just before the final rocky couloir. All of the other teams have climbed the Polish Glacier Route (today only the Romeros will ascend via the Normal Route).
As Jordan’s head pops over the summit ridge at 3:15 p.m., he gets a standing ovation, hugs, and high-fives from an international crowd. Later, on 7summits.com, a Canadian climber would write about his ascent that day, “I was working really hard not to get passed by an 11-year-old.”
Putting in an epic 16-hour day, Jordan, Paul, and Karen descend to basecamp. Time to start the long journey back to Big Bear. As always after a climb, Jordan knows he can quit. He can “hang out at the teen center and eat more Subway and pizza,” as he says he sometimes longs to do.
But not yet. He tells me, confidently, “I want to finish this project. The summits aren’t all I think about now–I have school, friends. But I’m almost done, and I don’t think there is anything that’s going to stop me. Then I just want to be a normal kid for a while.”
There’s no telling what, exactly, that will mean in Jordan’s case. But one thing’s certain: He’s already a good kid. After Aconcagua he sent a signed summit photo to Judge Galera, as promised.
Berne Broudy wrote a guide to adventure-travel skills in March.