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Mountain Guide Jake Norton Reflects on Big Challenges, Bigger Rewards
Posted on May 17, 2010

By Jake Norton

For me, guiding has always been about the mental and physical challenges associated with getting people up mountains, especially when they have little-to-no previous climbing experience. This makes climbing richer, fuller, more rewarding. It no longer is about me, but rather about others, about relationships, about teaching, empathizing and working together.

Take Art, for example. He’s 6 feet 6 inches tall and 320 pounds. He’s a bass singer in a barbershop quartet by night, radiologist in Tennessee by day—not exactly the type of person you’d expect to see on the roster of a Kilimanjaro climb. The highest peak Art had climbed previously was Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, Georgia … which is only 1,686 feet and has a tram to the top. In all honesty, I had my doubts about his chances on Kili, but I also liked the prospect of the challenge.

One of the many great things about Art is that he has a sense of humor—and a great one at that. With a thundering bass voice to match his stature, he commands attention, and generally leaves everyone around him laughing. (The first night, at dinner, Art started off with a question to me: Hypothetically speaking, Jake, what would you do if someone happened to lock the keys to their duffel bag inside the duffel?)

But, humor aside, Art is also a hard worker and listens to suggestions. By day 2 of the climb, my wife, Wende Valentine, and I had him consistently walking a steady pace and keeping up with the group. By the time we crossed the Western Breach on the Machame Route, he was moving along with the group, and my only quasi-complaint was that he made everyone laugh so much they weren’t pressure breathing as much as I would’ve liked.

And, several days later, Art was standing atop Kilimanjaro, which at 19,340 feet is nothing to scoff at.

I knew that accomplishment meant a lot to Art, as it should. He had done something that most thought he couldn’t do. And in the meantime, he lost some weight, gained some confidence, and found a new sport in the process.

After the climb, I discovered another aspect of Art that I not only appreciate but look for in my clients: an understanding that the climb is only one aspect of a mountain adventure and should not be the sole focus. It should also be about getting to know new people, new places and new cultures. It should, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “allow us to return home, and know the place for the first time.”

Since that first climb with Art, we’ve shared more great adventures together. We made an attempt on Mount Fuji, Japan, in March 2006; climbed Djebel Toubkal—the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco—with 2 feet of fresh snow in February 2007; and had an adventure on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo with my wife, Wende, and then 7-month-old daughter, Lila, in 2008.

And, just last week, Art and I battled our way through a late-spring blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. I was teaching him some cramponing and basic rope-climbing skills to help prepare him for an upcoming trip to Mt. Elbrus in Russia.

What keeps me working with Art is that he’s always trying … trying to get better, trying to lose weight, trying to learn new skills. Sure, Art may never climb El Cap, he may never make a speed ascent of Rainier, and climbing above 8,000 meters might not be in his future either.

But I know for sure that Art will continue to climb. He’ll continue to adventure in the mountains, pushing his own personal limits … and expanding them. He’ll set new goals as he sees old ones realized. And he’ll continue to see new places and meet new people, expanding his horizons.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be with him, too.

Author: - Monday, May 17th, 2010

  1. Allen Smith


    In the world of big ego climbing your post touched my spirt and is what adventure, climbing and life should really be all about.

    “But I know for sure that Art will continue to climb. He’ll continue to adventure in the mountains, pushing his own personal limits…and expanding them. He’ll set new goals as he sees old ones realized. And he’ll continue to see new places and meet new people, expanding his horizons.”

    Isn’t this what life is supposed to be all about? My hats off to the both of you. Blessing in Him!

  2. Jake Norton

    Hi Allen,

    Thanks for your note and comment. I agree – that is what life should be about! We all have our limitations, our personal boundaries. For some, that is soloing El Capitan or climbing Everest without oxygen, and for some it may be more humble, but no less impressive or important. It’s all about pushing our own limitations and expanding our personal horizons.

    Thanks again, and good luck to you in all your endeavors!

    -Jake Norton

  3. Becky

    Jake, loved this post! What part of Tennessee are you in? Nashville or Knoxville? Love to do a story on you!

  4. Jake Norton

    Hi Becky,

    Thanks for your note. I’m actually in Colorado, Golden specifically. But, Art is in Knoxville.



  5. Erica 0822

    Jake, what a great story! I found it really nice to see a different side of climbing in that people of all shapes sizes and backgrounds can work to get up the mountain without judgement and be met with the utmost encouragement and enthusiasm.

    Truly inspirational.
    All the Best,

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