Paul Romero’s family trip to the “death zone”
By Matt Niswonger, Photos courtesy of Paul Romero
In May of this year, ten people died while attempting to climb Mt. Everest. There were no particularly severe storms or remarkable events to account for these deaths. Reports from the mountain cited everything from exhaustion to hypothermia, but many people, climbers and non-climbers alike, were still left scratching their heads.
If Mother Nature’s fury was not the direct cause, then what gives? Why did so many people die this May on Everest, even though the weather was mostly benign? Beyond this, just what is it that makes Everest so alluring that it causes prospective climbers to leave the comforts of civilization to willingly suffer and even die on her slopes year after year? Armchair mountaineers love to debate the question over cocktails, but most would agree it is best to consult with people who have actually been there.
One such person is Paul Romero. An impressive athlete and an accomplished mountaineer, Romero has climbed Everest with his family. In fact, this summer Paul and his girlfriend Karen are supporting his son Jordan’s quest to travel the country and inspire other kids.
Catching up to him right before the nationwide tour began, ASJ was able to talk to Paul about his history with Everest, the pros and cons of climbing it, and how the world’s tallest mountain can bring out the best (and worst) in people.
Back in 2010, Paul, Karen Lundgren, and Paul’s son Jordan made it to the top of the world. The ascent received a fair amount of media coverage because the team’s efforts were the right mix of inspiring and controversial: at just thirteen years of age, Jordan was the youngest person in history to stand on top of the world.
With a recent ascent of Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, Team Romero have completed their family’s goal to conquer the fabled Seven Summits, making Jordan the youngest person to climb the tallest peak on each continent. Much of the media coverage has been very positive. However there are those of the opinion that teenagers don’t belong in the so called “death zone.”
The issue of Jordan’s age inspired spirited, contentious debate, and Outside magazine put a somewhat negative spin on the endeavor in an April 2010 feature by noted outdoor author Bruce Barcott entitled, Into Teen Air: A 13-Year-Old On Everest?
From the vantage of hindsight, one sees that the coverage of their Everest climb and the ensuing debate was pretty histrionic. Providing a perfectly controversial “hook” for journalists to sell the story, the ethical questions surrounding Jordan’s age were all anyone wanted to talk about leading up to the climb. Taking their lead from Bruce Barcott and Outside magazine, some Everest aficionados condemned their efforts.
Somewhat lost in the debate was just how well prepared they were to climb the highest mountain in the world. Mentally and physically, they were quite possibly the fittest team on Everest that year. Team Romero was not just another group of amateurish, wealthy, “pay for the top” seven-summiteers. Paul and Karen race on one of the top adventure racing teams in the world (Team SOLE), and Jordan is a highly gifted endurance athlete who trains very hard. To Barcott’s credit, he did mention deeper in his article that the team’s training regime leading up to the climb was beyond impressive.
In fact, how the team prepared for the climb, and how they continue to prepare for future endeavors, is a fascinating aspect of the Romero story that hasn’t been fully told. As coaches and role models for endurance athletes, Paul, Karen, and Jordan are poised to leave quite a mark on high altitude mountaineering in particular, and endurance sports in general.
This is a big statement, but consider that with a relatively short mountaineering apprenticeship, Team Romero was able to meet the challenges presented by Everest, and this without a professional guide and while climbing with Paul’s son.
Along the way, they employed some cutting edge tactics to help put the odds in their favor. Employing a brand new medical device called a Masimo Pulse Oximeter, the team was able to check their blood’s oxygen saturation levels on a regular basis. Also, the trio slept in high altitude chambers for weeks in California, before they even left for the Himalayas, in an effort to achieve the highest level of altitude readiness.
According to Wikipedia, about 200 people have died on Everest since seven Sherpas first perished there in an avalanche in 1922. Over 5100 climbers have stood on the summit as of 2012, and based on this, it is common to say that Everest has a fatality rate of about 4%. By comparison, the second tallest mountain in the world, K2, has racked up about 50 deaths to about 200 summits, for a fatality rate of nearly 25%. Given this, Everest is an extremely dangerous mountain, and climbing K2 is nearly suicidal.
Paul asserts, however, that determining the likelihood of dying while climbing is much more complicated than compiling statistics. Approaching the problem with the mind of a risk analyzing flight medic and adventure racer, he emphasizes that fatality numbers don’t tell the whole story.
When it comes to Everest, Paul believes one can’t just blame the mountain for the tragic human history that has unfolded on her flanks. “Look at 1996. Most of those deaths were the result of a series of logistical and strategic failures.”
Paul is referring to Into Thin Air, the Jon Krakauer bestseller that tells the story of the May 1996 climbing season. That is to say, the fifteen climber deaths in 1996 were a tragic waste of life because certain practices at the time made the mountain more dangerous than it had to be. Bad weather was the ostensible cause of the fatalities, but a failure to observe turnaround times, and a total disregard for teamwork were the root causes, according to the book.
“Alpine climbers are some of the most selfish people you can imagine. I watched people die on Everest because of the ‘every man for himself’ attitude that prevails up there,” he asserts. “What you see is an old-school model where everyone expects a single authority figure to do all of their thinking for them.”
According to Paul, this is not only the wrong way to approach climbing Everest; it is also a potentially disastrous way to engage in any serious endurance sport. “By not taking ownership of strategy, fitness, and nutrition, an outdoor athlete puts himself in a vulnerable position. Even ultra-runners, who are considered to be “solo” athletes, are only as effective as the care provided by their support team.”
After a decade of top finishes in some of the most grueling team endurance events in the world, including the Eco-challenge and the Primal Quest, Paul’s strong opinions carry the weight of experience. Paul repeats, “In the world of adventure racing, everything is about the team. We expect that mistakes will be made, and things will go wrong. Listening to every voice and keeping everyone involved to the max is actually the best strategy to solve these problems.”
To understand Paul as a teammate and a leader, one must look to his years spent as a critical care flight medic. As a member of a helicopter medical team, his sole mission has been to save lives by trying to make the right medical decisions 100% of the time. Wilderness emergencies, life and death situations where every second counts, multiple vehicle pile-ups on desolate roads—these situations are the bread and butter of people like Paul. When asked how he deals with the pressure, he doesn’t skip a beat, “We rely on flowcharts and endless training to provide proven, cookie cutter strategies to deal with complex situations.”
When I press for more details, he is candid, “With lives on the line, you can’t fuck-up. We get off that helicopter and walk straight into the worst day of people’s lives. For example, an SUV rollover accident that turns a family trip to Vegas into a horror movie. Everything we do is informed by a strategy of shaving precious seconds off our hospital delivery time. And always it’s team, team, team.” Listening to the passion in his voice, I can’t help wondering if he is also describing his version of a world-class AR team, or a successful team of alpinists.
In the late 1990’s, while beginning his career as a flight medic, Paul found himself tackling longer and tougher adventure races. The lessons learned while developing into a successful adventure racer informed his performance as a flight medic and vice-versa. In the next fifteen years, he became very good at both.
Turning his attention to the high stakes game of mountaineering was a natural progression. One could even say it was pretty much inevitable. “When Jordan started talking about doing the seven summits, something clicked. I knew what the next step for our family would be,” he explains.
When deciding how to climb Everest, Paul and Karen chose the Northeast Ridge route from China, over the much more popular South Col route from the Nepalese side. Overall more technical and substantially more physically grueling, the Northeast Ridge has one tactical advantage over Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 South Col route: it avoids the Khumbu Icefall. Over the decades, many have died in the Icefall. Sadly, these deaths have primarily included the native Sherpas who are hired to equip the precarious blocks of ice for the safe travel of paid clients. Historically, critics have decried the popular choice of the Hillary/Norgay first ascent route for this very reason. The South Col route may have other advantages, but because of the Khumbu Icefall and the heavy concentration of climbers there every May, it will always be controversial.
Choosing the Northeast Ridge was a tactical decision that hearkened back to Paul and Karen’s adventure racing (AR) days. “In expedition length AR, the smart racers know when to choose the long way around. Avoiding highly technical terrain, and avoiding terrain that requires a large amount of complex risk management, can prove to be the best strategy,” Paul explained. “Of course, these are crucial decisions, and every member of the group must provide input.”
In other words, make tactical decisions to remove the “x-factor” of objective hazards from the equation. Raise the team’s overall fitness to make feasible a choice for the long way over a potentially dangerous shortcut. This is just what Team Romero did when they climbed Everest and we see here that as team leaders, the guidance of Paul and Karen is constantly informed by a career spent as adventure racers.
Since Everest, Paul and Karen have turned their attention to coaching other serious athletes on an individual and team basis. Also, quite a bit of their time has been spent managing Jordan’s schedule, which is quite full with speaking engagements and PR events. As mentioned, this summer Jordan launched his Find Your Everest tour, which has kept the family very busy attempting to reach the high point in all fifty states while giving slideshows to schools, churches, and youth groups.
There is no talk of retiring as athletes, however. Paul and Karen still maintain an impressive schedule of adventure races, recently coming in first place with Team SOLE at the highly competitive Untamed New England in June.
When asked if he would ever consider guiding Everest, Paul doesn’t hesitate: the answer is yes, absolutely. “There is nothing wrong with guiding Everest if you have the right fitness level, experience, and abilities. Climbing big mountains is the challenge of a lifetime for the right person, and guides are privileged with the task of making this possible for others.”
After two hours of straight conversation, Paul suddenly remembers that he has a conference call regarding a sponsorship deal for Jordan. He excuses himself, but leaves me with one final thought: “the greater the challenge, the bigger the opportunity to change your life for the better. That is why we push so hard.”
As for Everest, new rules put in place may ensure that Jordan’s record stays intact for the foreseeable future. The minimum age for climbers coming from the Tibetan side has now officially been set at eighteen, and Nepal now prohibits climbers younger than sixteen.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–Team Romero’s ‘Seven summits’
July 22,2006 • Jordan Age 10
Africa – Mt Kilimanjaro (5,892m; 19,340ft)
April 5, 2007 • Jordan Age 10
Australia – Mt Kosciuszko (2,228m; 7,310ft)
July 11, 2007 • Jordan Age 10
Europe – Mt Elbrus (5,642m; 18,510ft)
December 30, 2007 •Jordan Age 11
South America – Aconcagua (6,962m; 22,841ft)
June 18, 2008 • Jordan Age 11
North America – Mt McKinley (6,194m; 20,320ft)
September 1, 2009 • Jordan Age 13
Oceania – Carstensz Pyramid (4,884m; 16,024ft)
May 22, 2010 • Jordan Age 13
Asia – Mt Everest (8,848m; 29,035ft)
December 24, 2011 • Jordan Age 15
Antarctica – Vinson Massif (4,892; 16,050)
Highest mountains of each of the seven continents.
List first postulated by Richard Bass includes Mt Kosciuszko, the
highest mountain of mainland Australia. Reinhold Messner’s later list
replaced Mt Kosciuszko with Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid. So the
Seven Summits is actually eight.