Jake Norton

Jake Norton - Water for People
Jake Norton – Water for People
Photo: © Jake Norton

Jake Norton has spent the majority of his life climbing the world’s most challenging mountains.

Since his first summit of Mt Rainier at the age of 12, Jake has climbed Everest seven times & summited three, summited Kilimanjaro four times, completed over 20 expeditions to Nepal & Tibet, summited McKinley & Aconcagua, led five expeditions to the Peruvian Andes, and summited Mt Rainier a total of 93 times.

Jake became the first person to visit & document all the pre-World War II camps on Everest, retraced the famous 1917 crossing of South Georgia Island by Sir Ernest Shackleton, led the first official American ascent of 25,502 foot Gurla Mandhata in Tibet, and was a part of the expedition that discovered the remains of George Mallory in 1999.

Jake is also a guide, accomplished photographer, motivational speaker, owner of MountainWorld Productions, and, along with his wife Wende Valentine, co-founder of Challenge21.

Challenge21 is a series of expeditions where Jake will attempt to be the first person to climb the Triple Seven Summits – the three highest peaks on each continent – to help combat water and sanitation problems around the world.

The Challenge21 goal: To raise at least $2.1 million over 3-4 years for Water For People and to get at least 2.1 million people actively engaged in water and sanitation solutions.

100% of the donations raised go to Water For People, with all expeditions funded by outside sources.

An Interview with Jake Norton

Jake Norton & Tom Hornbein
Jake Norton & Tom Hornbein
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

We recently caught up with Jake in Golden, CO to learn more about Jake, his latest Everest West Ridge expedition & to find out what lies next with Challenge21.

What’s the most spectacular thing you’ve experienced on a mountain?

Wow, tough question! I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some amazing experiences in a lot of special mountain places…it makes it tough to choose any single one! But, right off the bat, two things come to mind. First is our 1999 discovery of George Mallory’s remains on Everest. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life.

I’ve now been to Everest 7 times, and have managed to sneak to the top on a few occasions, but all those other moments pale greatly in comparison to the 5 or so hours my teammates and I got to spend with Mallory on May 1, 1999.

The second one that comes to mind is the start of Challenge21 and our Rwenzori expedition in August, 2011. For me, it was, honestly, the first expedition I was truly, deeply proud of. And, the reason was simple: it was the first expedition for me that was not about climbing, was not about just tagging peak x, y, or z, but was about something much more. It was about, in the words of Willi Unsoeld, going “higher than Everest”…or, in this case, higher than Mount Stanley’s Margherita Peak.

If you hadn’t been a climber, what career do you think you would you have chosen?

I really can’t think of anything that, for me, would be more fulfilling in all ways than the life and career I’ve been fortunate enough to carve out in climbing and the various tangents I’m involved in. But, if I had to choose something, I think it would be a historian. I’ve always been drawn to the activities, thoughts, actions, and mores of the past, and how those can/can’t, should or shouldn’t be applied to the present and future.

What’s your favorite climb?

I’ve got so many, it’s hard to choose. But, I’ll break it down a bit:

  • Rock: Center Route on Cynical Pinnacle, South Platte, CO: Just stunning rock in a glorious setting with very few people. The Platte is amazing!
  • Ice: Whore House Hoses, Eureka, CO: A great, varied, moderate ice climb in a mind-blowing area. Awesome!
  • Big Mountain: A tie between the NE Ridge of Everest and the West Ridge. Both are incredible, and have deep, inspiring histories emanating from them.

Who’s your hero?

Again, lots. Some that pop to mind, for various reasons, are Mahatma Gandhi, Ken Wilber, Paul Kagame, Marc Webb, Paolo Coehlo, Howard Somervell, Roe Duke Watson, Henry David Thoreau. But, if I need to choose just one, it would be Tom Hornbein. Here’s a guy who has achieved more in his life than most could in several lives, and retains an infectious, palpable modesty that simply blows me away. And, he’s just a sweet, kind, and generous man.

So, what do you do on vacation?

What is a vacation? Haven’t really had one of those in a long time! No, really, for me, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do for a living what I would choose to do on vacation: adventure, climb, hike, trek, shoot photos and video, and share stories. So, that’s what I do on vacation! The only real difference between my “work” and my “vacation” is that I get to be with my wife and children on the latter, and others on the former.

Any advice for the novice climber or weekend warrior?

Do it for the right reasons. If you find yourself wanting to climb route x or peak y because you want to tell people about it (rather than because you want to climb it), then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Climbing is – or should be – and internal game, one which is driven by your desire to climb a route rather than some outward, ego-driven desire for recognition, etc.

And, the big issues with the latter is that it, more than anything else, leads to bad decision making. If we’re driven up a climb or to a mountain for ego, we’re far less likely to turn around when it makes sense to do so. So, climb because you want to, push hard because it feels right…don’t do it for ego.

Can you tell us a bit more about Challenge 21 & Water for People?

Challenge21 is really my dream come true in climbing. I’ve been climbing since I was 12, and working professionally in the mountains as a climber, guide, and photographer since I was 18. But, over time the thrill and reward of simply climbing began to dwindle for me. It just was not enough for me to climb a peak and have it end there.

And, over the course of my travels, the mountains have really become a convenient excuse for me to get to the people and places and cultures that have inspired and shaped my life. And, most of those people are far less fortunate than me – not because they’re lazy, or unskilled, but rather their lot in life is a lot worse than mine simply by virtue of geography. They were born, for example, in Gri, Nepal, and I was born in Massachusetts. To me, that’s hugely unfair, and I see it as my responsibility, my obligation, to do what I can, using the skills I have, to give something back to these people and places and cultures. It was all of this that gave rise to Challenge21.

Specifically, Challenge21 is the 3-4 year project to climb the Triple Seven Summits, and use those climbs as a leverage point to raise funds and awareness for Water For People and the global water and sanitation crises. We chose water and sanitation because, quite simply, these are the two most profound and fundamental issues facing the world today. Sure, there are a lot of important, worthy, legitimate causes out there.

But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to water, and it’s corollary, sanitation. No other development is truly possible until people no longer have to spend most of each day hauling water to their homes…none of it is truly possible until millions stop dying of preventable, water-related illnesses. Water and sanitation are the bottom of the mountain, and that’s where we’ve got to start.

Water for People
Photo: © Jake Norton

We’ve chosen to work with Water For People – who, in full disclosure, my wife works for – because they are the best in the “business”. From the start, Water For People has focused on sustainable, long-lasting partnerships with communities and municipalities around the world. Their model is one which is proven, innovative, dedicated, and now emulated my many others.

Water For People is also dedicated to transparency and lasting solutions. They designed a revolutionary tool, FLOW, which allows for real-tim monitoring and evaluation of water points worldwide using an Android phone; the software, recently acquired by AKVO, shows both successes and failures clearly and accurately. They are focused on solutions that will be effective decades from now, as evidenced by the Everyone…Forever campaign which aims to reach entire communities, municipalities, and countries, rather than specific subsets, with water and sanitation solutions that will last forever. And, finally, they’re local – based in Denver – so the relationship works well on all fronts.

What can the average weekend warrior or person sitting on their couch reading this do to help with Challenge21 and Water For People?

A lot! The biggest thing is to spread the word. Through Challenge21, we’re in a unique position to leverage the drama of climbing to bring in prospective Water For People donors that would otherwise never know about the organization and their work. Since we started, we’ve done just that with thousands of people, and raised over $200,000. But, we’ve still got a long way to go to reach our goals (and help Water For People reach theirs). So, the biggest thing people can do to help is tune in, enjoy, and spread the word.

Challenge 21 - Water for People
Photo: © Jake Norton

We’re also a bit different than many climbing/fundraising organizations in that 100% of every penny donated goes straight to Water For People. Not a single cent goes to funding our expeditions, or any part of Challenge21. Instead, we’re funding our expeditions by attracting corporate partners who want to reap tangible ROI’s from involvement in our climbs, as well as supporting the work of Water For People.

So far, we’ve had great support from Eddie Bauer & First Ascent, Live Worldly, Vocus, and Eco Vessel. But, we’ve also spent much of our own money to make our expeditions happen (this trip to Kenya is completely self-financed). So, another way people can help our efforts is to connect us with corporations who might want to partner with us.

Additionally, we’ve actively looking to expand our presence in schools around Colorado and across the country. We’ve done presentations and fundraisers with several schools in Colorado, and in Canada, and with great success. The program involves a presentation by myself and Wende, an optional “Walk for Water” where kids carry water jugs on a short, 2 mile course and get a firsthand feel for what so many endure daily around the world, and also do a fundraising program to raise money for Water For People.

And, of course, people can climb! Those interested can organize their own climb – say, a Colorado Fourteener, or Mount Galbraith near Golden, or whatever makes sense to them – and raise money via Challenge21 for Water For People. Or, on certain expeditions, they can sign up to join me on a climb. Not all Challenge21 expeditions are open for additional members, but some are, such as Carstensz Pyramid, currently in planning for October, 2012, and Mounts Vinson and Shinn, hopefully scheduled for January, 2013.

What’s next for you?

Jake Norton and Wende Valentine
Jake Norton and Wende Valentine
Photo: © Jake Norton

Mt. Kenya. In Nairobi, I’ll meet up with my team for our climb of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak. It’s an amazing team – Pete McBride, Kim Havell, Dudu Douglas-Hamilton, Frank Pope, and Julie Stabler Hull – and along with the climb Pete and I will be shooting a film telling the story of the Mt. Kenya watershed, and the impact its disappearance is having on the people and environment that depend on it.

After that, hopefully being home for a bit with my Wende and the kids!!

Photography courtesy of Jake Norton & Wende Valentine. Photography may not be used without explicit permission.