At 17,000 feet above sea level, where the wind is a biting 20 below zero, an unlikely mountain climber nears his goal of ascending the world's tallest peaks.
Jordan Romero, 3,000 feet away from tackling Alaska's Mount McKinley, has already conquered four mountains -- and he's 11 years old.
"I've climbed Mount Aconcagua in South America, in Argentina, which is 22,834 feet. I've climbed Mount Elbrus in Europe -- it's located in Russia -- at 18,510 feet. That was quite a tough one," he said. "Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, that's 7,310 feet. That was quite a tough one just because of the weather, otherwise it would have been an easy, walk hike, just a long walk. And Mount Kilimanjaro of Africa in Tanzania, 19,340 feet."
Jordan was 9 years old when he had the idea to climb to the top of the world's highest mountains -- one per continent including Mount Everest -- before his 16th birthday.
McKinley -- No. 5 on his list -- was turning out to be the hardest so far.
Located in Alaska, the mountain, also known as Denali, is 20,320 feet above sea level.
"It might not be the highest [one] that I've done, but it has to be the one that's most technical -- the one where you're most likely to slip and fall and have an accident, " Jordan said. "It's also known as the coldest and one of the hardest mountains on Earth."
Jordan said he knows the perils of mountain climbing and has learned to watch where he's going.
"You have no idea what's going to happen. But you gotta just always watch your step, just watch it and just have a good grip on there and take another," he said.
An Unusual Goal
His father, Paul Romero, said his son's goal seemed to come out of nowhere.
"One day I picked up Jordan from school, he hopped in the car and we weren't 100 yards down the street before he looked at me and he said 'Dad, I want to climb the seven summits,'" Romero said.
Jordan said that his dad's jaw dropped, but that he believed Jordan could do it.
"He did believe I could do it," he said.
Romero said the decision to let his son embark on his dream was a tough decision, but well worth it.
"There's this intangible rewards that come from what we do, from climbing mountains and from being out there," Romero said. "We are sharing moments that are so out of this world and that I know that few parents will ever share with their kid, and some people might say, 'well, why not wait till he's 16 or 18?' Well, I could. ? Jordan wants to go now."
Romero is also an adventurer, a paramedic who loves to run and kayak -- and climb mountains. When his son went up Mount McKinley, Romero was there with him, as his guide and his dad.
"We've always taught him to just think big and we'll try to make it happen. And when he had the idea of climbing the seven summits, I wasn't like 'OK, let's buy tickets for every corner of the world. We're going tomorrow!'" Romero said. "I knew he needed to begin to even understand what mountaineering was -- that there's this long, hard, dirty, un-fun hours and days and weeks of carrying packs and long, extensive, brutal travel, and all this type of stuff just before you can even think of climbing a mountain."
Jordan's mother lives nearby and while she thoroughly supports his goal, she herself does not mountain climb.
'One Wrong Step'
Jordan said a lot of preparation goes into getting ready for the grueling climbs. At home in California, he runs uphill tugging a tire, sleeps in an acclimatizing tent in his bedroom and has learned all the technical skills needed to make these climbs.
"There's no Sherpas up here, no sled dogs or anything like that. You carry your own stuff," he said. "That was hard, training for it. At first I thought, 'why am I doing this training?'"
"One wrong step is the last step you'll ever take," he said.
But it is precisely that thrill, combined with the discipline of mind and body that keeps him climbing mountains.
On day four of the climb up McKinley, Jordan woke up and reached outside his sleeping bag for his radio to hear the forecast. His foot had been bothering him. The forecast brought good news: clear skies.
Along for every trip is Karen Lundgren, Romero's girlfriend, who films the treks. They are keenly aware of the risks of Jordan's goal.
"I've been a paramedic for 10 years," Romero said. "There's a whole lot of people that go out to get a gallon of milk, down the highway, and never come home."
Yet, mountain climbing comes with its own set of perils not found on a trip to the grocery store, including deep crevices that could easily swallow a boy.
"I've had some tough moments, man. I've had some sleepless nights," he said. "I've had some very big tough decisions to make. Myself and my partner Karen, who's the most amazing adventure woman and motherly figure for Jordan I could ever imagine or want. We know we don't have a completely impenetrable bubble around him."
But as Jordan readily admits, that's part of the allure.
He said he wanted to do something that risked life, "because that's what every single person in their life has to do: take risks, take chances, go fast, take chances. And that for me is what mountain climbing is all about. Taking risks and taking chances."
The danger of the preteen's chosen hobby is what fascinates most people in his hometown of Big Bear Lake, Calif. He's become somewhat of a celebrity there. He is frequently asked to speak at schools where adoring students riddle him with questions about the climbs and refuse to leave without an autograph.
Trying to Stay Focused
By day five of the climb up McKinley, Jordan hoped for some easier terrain.
"There was my dad behind me motivating me and telling me to keep going," he said. "Without him behind me, I wouldn't be able to focus. He kept saying 'focus, focus, focus.'"
He took a short break in his father's arms that day -- a reminder for an instant that behind his adult ambitions Jordan is still just a kid.
"It's tiring," he said.
"There is no other boy in the world that could even dare this, Jordan," his father said. "It's amazing, Jordan. You are so brave."
"There's a fine line between encouraging him and pushing him through some dark, low moments when he's down on himself," Romero said. "When he just may need a piece of food and a big drink of water and a 10-minute rest is going to pull him out of a funk that he's in."
"There's a difference between that and a point where he has reached his maximum mentally, physically, and where the risk has become too high," he said. "Jordan has just not even come close to that point yet."
And he hasn't picked a cheap hobby either. Each trip costs about $100,000.
"We knew we bit off a lot to chew and these first couple years have been by the hair on our teeth," Romero said. "It's been tight. It's been just maxed out all of our personal expenses. It's been selling T-shirts. It's been some small fundraising efforts."
But for triumphant moments like the ones the three share on the top of the tallest peaks in the world, all the preparation and fundraising is well worth it.
On day seven, the family reaches the summit of Mount McKinley. It's an emotional moment.
"We did it," Jordan said, collapsing onto the ground in his father's embrace. "Oh my God. I cannot believe this."
"I know this would hurt you a lot," his father said.
"It hurt a lot but it is all worth it," Jordan said, shedding tears of joy before standing tall against the backdrop of clouds. He thrust his fists into the air in victory.
That's five summits that Jordan can check off his list. He's already a world record holder on several peaks that he's scaled, but now he's just two summits away from the ultimate goal of breaking the world record to be the youngest to have climbed them all.
Jordan said that conquering McKinley was one of the greatest moments of his life.
He plans to climb Everest at age 14.
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