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The Cause: Jake Norton Discovers the Source of His Challenge21 Clean Water Mission
Posted on January 11, 2013

Light in Darkness.

When you speak with Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide and high-altitude photographer Jake Norton, you are instantly drawn in by his stories and his presence. Whether it is his deep connection to climbing history as a former director of the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum or his Challenge21 mission to become the first person to climb the three highest peaks on all seven continents, the source material is always good. West Ridge, Rwenzoris or Antarctica, Norton always tells a engaging tale. And when Norton is passionate about a topic, you can feel the emotion dripping from his every word. That deeply ingrained connection to peoples, places, and a better world is why we asked him to explain his philanthropic drive, in his own words, for the first installment of The Cause. -LYA Editor

Carrying Water

Words and Images by Jake Norton

Without knowledge action is useless, and knowledge without action is futile.
Abu Bakr –

Sitting, shivering in the frigid air, wind howling through my hood, icicles of breath and snot crusted to my face, I looked into their vivid blue eyes and thought about them dying. The picture showed the challenge of the journey: wrinkled, creased in places, tattered corners, and wrapped in a protective Ziploc bag, it had made the long journey to the bottom of the world and up the slopes of Vinson with me. The picture also showed my wife, Wende, and our young children, Lila and Ryrie. It was my talisman, my charm, and my constant reminder to tread lightly…and come home safely. There was a lot to look forward to.

I couldn’t shake the image, the apparition haunting my mental lens. I knew Lila and Ryrie were fine – I had spoken to them on the phone just days before. But I had been thinking a lot about life, about climbing, about my desire to take it to a new level and use my skills and career as a climber to do more than simply climb. And that thinking and talking and exploring led me to water…and the incomprehensible daily tragedies wrapped up in it:

  • Every day, nearly a billion people worldwide – or one in seven – goes without access to safe water.
  • Every day, some 2.5 billion people – one in three – go without adequate sanitation, wondering if what just came out of their body might well come back in with the next drink of water.
  • And every day, some 5,000 children under age 5 die of water-related illnesses like diarrhea…5,000 kids just like my daughter and son.

It was indeed an apparition – I spoke with Wende the following day, and sure enough all was well with our kids. But the vision stuck with me…just as the photo was my talisman reminding me to come home again, the apparition was a Dickensian urging to create something more with my life and career, to leverage the power and visibility of climbing to make a bigger impact. To borrow from Abu Bakr, I had the knowledge — it was now time to pair it with action.

Since that climb, my life and my climbs have been focused on a new goal, a new paradigm: climbing to raise funds and awareness, to engage people through the drama of climbing and divert their attention to something far more important – the water and sanitation crises, and the solutions implemented by our partner, Water For People.

Like any climb, this project, Challenge21, has been a massive challenge. We’ve self-financed most of our expeditions to date. I’ve spent long hours at the computer working away, long days traveling to present to schools and associations and corporations, and long months far from my family, climbing and sharing the story of water. And Wende, Lila, and Ryrie have endured long absences and the stresses of a new endeavor.


But, somehow, it’s working. From the Rwenzoris in Uganda to El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, Everest’s West Ridge to the spires of Mount Kenya, we’ve taken Challenge21 across the globe. Through these expeditions, we’ve raised nearly $250,000 – every penny of which has gone straight to Water For People.  We’ve engaged schools and universities, corporations and associations with our message, and turned them into stalwart advocates for Water For People and active fundraisers for the cause. And, most importantly, we’ve helped bring safe water and adequate sanitation to people around the world: in 2012, Water For People reached everyone across the districts of Chinda, Honduras; Cuchumuela, Bolivia; peri-urban Blantyre, Malawi; and Pathar Pratima and Sagar blocks, South 24 Parganas, India. That’s a total of some 551,399 people who now have water and sanitation.

And the climb will continue. We’re looking ahead to more expeditions in 2013, more fund and awareness raising, and more sharing of the story of water, Water For People, and Challenge21.

The climb is still tough, with a myriad of daily challenges coming across my desk and my path ahead. But, anytime it seems I just can’t go on, the apparition visits me again. I look at my children and am reminded of how lucky we are – and how tough life could be — and I’m inspired to keep on climbing, to keep on pushing for water. As Loren Eiseley wrote in The Flow of the River:

If there is magic in this planet, it is contained in water… Its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future: It moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea.


Author: - Friday, January 11th, 2013

  1. Thad Sweet

    Great post. I love reading about people who combine their passions with helping others. Lots of great ngo’s out there. I’d encourage everyone to just pick one and get started. I traveled to South Africa in 2010 to run Comrades with Team World Vision and raise money for child sponsorships. It’s humbling to get a glimpse of what a lot of the world lives with (or without). What a privilege we have to be able to help others around the world. Again, thanks for your tremendous work, and words here.

  2. Jake Norton

    Thanks, Thad. Glad you enjoyed the story, and that you have been doing something similar with your energies and passions. Keep up the good work, and thanks again!


  3. Marcella Crane

    been trying to keep up on your climbs around the globe. I came across your efforts through my friend Collin and his friends through Water For People. Congratulations on your efforts to date. Keep the faith and close to your passion.

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