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 and photographs (© Jake Norton/MountainWorld Productions) by Jake Norton
It’s 5:30 AM, and the torrential rains have awakened me here at the Rwenzori View Guesthouse in Fort Portal. As I sit, I find myself reflecting on the past 10 days in the Rwenzori Mountains. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these were some of the toughest—if not the toughest—mountains I’ve ever been in. Sure, I’ve had tougher days on Everest, Rainier, in Colorado, Tibet, and elsewhere. But, day for day, the Rwenzori take the prize for the most challenging. Put simply, they never relented, never gave up their prizes—dramatic summits, sweeping vistas—easily. We had to earn every inch, every day.
In all honesty, the Rwenzori would have crumbled most teams I’ve led into the hills. I didn’t know how tough and challenging in every way this new Kilembe Trail in the Rwenzori would be as I was planning this expedition and inviting climbers to come with me. All I knew for sure was that we would be going into an unknown place for me, and one which few had visited, and thus few had commented on. An exciting, yet daunting, prospect for a guide, and one that I knew would require a strong, special team.
In our team, I got that a thousand-fold.
Ten days ago, I gave a brief rundown of each team member. After wallowing in mud and working hard together for 10 days, I’d like to share a bit more with you about this great group of people who shared with me this first climb of Challenge21:
Barb Neary: Barb emanates kindness, thoughtfulness, and tenacity. I’ve rarely met someone as concerned about the welfare and condition of others as Barb, and she maintained this perspective throughout the Rwenzori, always checking on every member of the team to be sure things were OK. Barb’s also tough as nails. Emotionally, I know it was shattering to not be able to climb to the summit of Margherita Peak, but she made the decision stoically, knowing it was the right one. And, during our long night struggling through rain and sleet and knee-deep mud for 16 hours to Camp 6, there was never a single complaint from Barb … only smiles through the rain.
Charlie Lovering: I wish I was as mature as Charlie when I was a senior in college. Charlie is hugely intelligent, seeing our world through a lens unlike most 21-year-olds. He brings a positive, encouraging, caring perspective to everything he does, and seems unfazed by all challenges. With perhaps the record for the most mud-falls on the trip, Charlie never once yelled out in anger and frustration, but rather would laugh and chalk up another one on his mental tally. Strong and tough, Charlie had the least mountain experience of any member of the team, and yet eased through every hurdle—from mud to crevasses to ladders to 4th-class rock.
Collin Barry: A deeply thoughtful and introspective person, Collin is one of the brightest minds I’ve met. He’s constantly inquiring about our world, and actively engaging the lives of others. A Masters from University of Denver, a career at the CIA, and now with the prestigious Booz Allen Hamilton, Collin has much to be proud of, and he is proud … but without ego. He’s one of the most humble people I know, ready to hand out compliments and praise to all around him, to encourage them to strive and move upward, without ever mentioning his own successes, past or present.
Dan Fillipi: Unflappable. It’s a funny word to describe Dan, since the only thing that seemed to “flap” him in the Rwenzori were those things that flapped: birds. A dedicated wildlife biologist, Dan was never without his binoculars and bird book, eagerly identifying this or that derivation of sunbird, looking with wonder at the varied flora of the range, and moving with youthful enthusiasm through the hills. Dan’s also strong as an ox (and one of the best rock climbers I know), and he charged through long days in deep mud at high altitude with ease … and a smile on his face.
Ned Breslin: It’s a rare CEO who would jump at the chance to walk through mud for 10 days in central Africa. But, Ned is not your average CEO. He lived for years all over Africa, raising his girls there, and bringing his sense of adventure to all aspects of his life. Ned hadn’t climbed much before this trip, but that didn’t hinder him at all: He climbed strongly throughout, and kept a positive attitude in the worst of times. “This is great—I’m loving it all!” seemed to be Ned’s mantra. And, his dedication and passion for his work never fades: even on summit day, between breath gasps at 5,000 meters, Ned was talking about the challenges of water and sanitation in our world, and his pride in the work of Water For People.
Tim Ryan: As a photographer, I know how often shooters do the most work on a trip and get the least credit for it. Tim deserves a ton of credit. He humped a heavy pack of camera gear every day, leapfrogging the team to get shots from the right positions, then packing up and moving ahead once more. And, all with a smile on his face, even when that smile was smeared with jet-black mud. Tim’s passion and caring, however, goes far beyond pushing a button on a camera. He’s spent years working closely with Water For People, and offers great ideas, inspiration, and help to them and to Challenge21 as we move forward. A strong guy, tough climber, and creative genius, Tim made the Rwenzori look easy, but his imagery will tell the full story of the climb.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this trip would not have been possible without these six climbing partners. They were, simply put, amazing, stalwart, and fun. They took the hardship and kept on moving forward, always noting that they were not here for vacation, but rather for a reason: Challenge21 and Water For People. I cannot thank them enough for their dedication. As with every team, there were a lot of other who made us successful. We of course shared the mountains with our incredible Ugandan friends: William, Edson, Enoch, Moses, Julius, Saimon, James, Ripowe, Tito, Amos, Herezon, Imagineit, Harrington, Christopher, Yose, Remegio, Ardon, Neckson, Pasco, Robert, Mitton, Abraham, and Sedrack. They were strong, courageous, tough, fun, and our friends. Our Challenge21 partners—First Ascent, Live Worldly, Goal Zero, and Stanley—were with us every step of the way, too. Our Live Worldly Tibetan Buddhist protection cords hung around all our necks on the trip, ensuring safe travels on our mountain journey. And, most importantly, our First Ascent gear kept us warm and dry and happy in some of the toughest conditions I’ve encountered. While I already knew First Ascent made the best gear on the planet, it was great to see the rest of the team use it…and fall in love with it. Thank you, First Ascent!
And, finally, the most important team members of all, for me, were those that were far, far away. Danielle Elkin, our consultant extraordinaire for Challenge21, was always in the background making sure the word spread far and wide. Kalen Aquisto, a Challenge21 intern and classmate of Charlie’s, has been invaluable in helping shape Challenge21 as we grow and move forward. This first expedition would not have been possible without the deep support and confidence of my mother, Alice Norton, who’s believed in it from day 1. My father, Ed, and stepmother, Susan Gold, have been huge supporters, as have Lynne and Ralph Valentine. And, last but not least, the most important for me were my amazing family, who I will get to see again soon: Wende, my amazing wife, who supports and encourages and loves without bounds, and never, ever ceases to inspire me. And, Lila and Ryrie, who have endured my mountain expeditions before, and will do so again. I hope that they know I’m gone for a good reason, and I look forward to bringing them with me on some adventures in the future. This has been an incredible adventure, through and through, and we’ve reached more than one summit in the process. But, we’re not where near done. As the Zen Koan says: “When you reach the summit, keep on climbing.” There are many more summits on the horizon, and we hope you’ll join us as we climb them.
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