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Challenge21: Thoughts from Near the Top
Posted on August 25, 2011

Guide Jake Norton is in Africa kicking off Challenge21, a four-year project in which he will attempt to climb the Triple Seven Summits—the three highest peaks on all seven continents. The challenge is an effort to draw funds and attention to one of the world’s greatest crises—water and sanitation—while raising $16,763 for Water For People in the process.

Story by Jake Norton

Climbing mountains is kind of a perverse passion, in all honesty. It leans toward masochism at times as we climbers put ourselves through mental and physical deprivation regularly, and willingly. When we climb, we leave behind the comforts of home, say goodbye for a spell to family and friends, and venture out to a realm of risk and adversity with always uncertain outcomes.


That’s a simple question I’ve struggled with since I began climbing in 1986. I’ve read MacFarlane and Tierray, Hornbein and Houston, and many other climber-thinkers. I’ve pondered the question countless times myself from small tents on faraway peaks and from the comfort of home. I’m still no closer to an answer.

And perhaps there is no clear answer. Maybe the biggest questions in life don’t really have answers, but only hints, hunches, and feelings that point in some general direction, hinting at an unspoken, unspeakable truth.

As I sit tonight outside my tent at 14,780-foot-high camp, the peaks and passes of the Rwenzori spread out for miles beneath, reaching to the plains of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Above me, Karakoram-like towers of granite thrust a thousand feet into the air, their bulk splitting what little is left of the glaciers in this range. While most of Stanley’s summits are hidden from us now, other giants of the Rwenzori—Mounts Baker and Speke—rise in the distance. And, now, light cumulus clouds catch a hint of pink, while towering thunderheads far off on the plains burn a bright orange. Not a noise, not a sound, not a sign of “civilization” up here aside from our small team.

I breath deep of the cool, crisp mountain air, and know my answer. It’s all of the above, and none of it. I go to the mountains to refresh, recharge, and be grounded and humbled in my place as a small part of a big machine. These mountains, the Rwenzori, have barely noticed our passing. The rains will wipe away our footsteps almost as soon we lift our feet. But we will all come away changed, empowered, filled with the perspective only the mountains can provide. We’ll come down from the hills knowing we’re not all that and then some; we’re just people, we’re just tiny cogs in some mighty big machinery … and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good one.

We’ll also come down knowing that our struggle here in the mountains represents the struggle of people around the world who battle daily for safe water and proper sanitation. Our foray through the mud and rain of the Rwenzori will, we hope, spark interest from you and from others about the water and sanitation crises around the world, and the creative solutions Water For People is helping to provide. And through our efforts, and your generosity, we are making a difference, we’re spreading the word, and we’re raising money.

I may never be able to say exactly what compels me to climb mountains, but I know that through Challenge21 I’ve found all the reasons I need to keep on climbing.

* * *

Tomorrow, we’ll arise at 3 am Uganda time, have a quick bite of food, and begin our climb to Margherita Peak. We hope to be on top around 9 am, or midnight Colorado time, and I’ll try to call in an audio dispatch from the summit if possible.

The team is doing amazingly well, holding up to the trials of the Kilembe trail quite well. And, as we all keep remarking, we couldn’t do any of this without our silent, but essential, teammate, Eddie Bauer & First Ascent. First Ascent was kind enough to outfit the team from head to toe in the best gear on the planet. We’ve been kept warm by our Igniter Jackets and Cloud Layer 1/4 Zips, and our BC-200‘s and Rainier Storm Shell Pants have shed the persistent Rwenzori rain. So, from all of us here in Uganda, THANK YOU Eddie Bauer and First Ascent!

Author: - Thursday, August 25th, 2011

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