Challenge21 climber Jake Norton sets out for three tallest peaks on each continent

Jake Norton, a mountain climber from Golden, CO, is in Uganda this week to climb Mount Stanley's Margherita Peak, a 16,763' peak in the Ruwnezori Range, as the next step in what he's calling Challenge21. Climbing the Seven Summits -- the tallest peaks on each continent -- has long been a hallmark achievement for climbers around the world; Norton's tripling up the ante and going for the Triple Seven Summits, aiming to be the first climber to bag the three tallest peaks on each continent, 21 peaks in all, in an effort to raise $2.1 million for the Denver-based non-profit Water For People and draw attention to the global water crisis.

We caught up with Norton by email from Africa, where he'll also be climbing Kenya's 17,057' Mount Kenya this month (he's already crossed Africa's tallest peak -- Tanzania's 19,340' Mount Kilimanjaro -- off his list, having previously made the summit three times) to learn more about Challenge21, the work of Water for People, and the allure of the world's tallest mountains.

Challenge21 climber Jake Norton sets out for three tallest peaks on each continent

Westword: In the personal statement on your website, you write, "On a mountain, we cannot begin with our focus on the summit, for it is a long, long way off. We've got to start at the bottom, at the most basic level, and work our way up, bit by bit. And, if we do that, combined with a good strategy, solid teamwork -- and perhaps a little luck -- we'll make it to the summit." You're actually talking about resolving the global water crisis there, but before we unpack that metaphor let's talk about the literal beginning of this journey: Why did you choose to launch Challenge21 in Uganda with the Mt. Stanley climb, and can you speak about some of the advance planning that went into this first part of the journey?

Jake Norton: Mt. Stanley, and the Rwenzori Mountains as a whole, are an amazing, almost mythical, range, and one I've long dreamed of visiting and climbing in. Additionally, Water For People has a very strong presence in both Rwanda and Uganda. The current Rulindo Challenge -- part of the Everyone Campaign -- is a huge initiative in Rulindo District, Rwanda, where Water For People, in partnership with the Rwandan federal and local governments, aims to get safe water to all 260,000 Rulindo residents by the end of 2014. Given all that, it made a great deal of sense to begin the climbs of Challenge21 here in Rwanda and Uganda.

In terms of planning, there was a lot to do. It's never straightforward planning an expedition, as there are tons of things to think about, to plan for. And it's especially challenging when planning for a place that I have not been to before, and not many people in general have been to. So, to put this all together, it required a lot of research into outfitters, route options, conditions, etc., to build the expedition infrastructure and secure reliable, ethical outfitting on the ground. In addition to that, we had the added challenge of figuring out how to promote this to a large audience for Challenge21. That meant not only promotion pre-expedition, but also figuring out how to collect assets (still and video) during the entire trip, and also dispatch from the expedition while we move. Along with climbing gear, I'll be carrying along a laptop, cameras, satellite phone, cables, etc., so that I my co-photographer, Tim Ryan can tell the story essentially in real-time from the slopes of the Rwenzori.

Finally, we've got a lot of folks coming with us on this journey: Water For People CEO Ned Breslin and our good friends Barb Neary & Dan Fillipi, Collin Barry and Charlie Lovering. I was able to secure outerwear for all of them from our partner, Eddie Bauer & First Ascent, so they'll be clad head to toe in gear I've helped design and test over the years. With a big group like this, there's always a lot to think about!  

And now to that metaphor... How did you first come to be involved in and supporting the work of Water for People, and can you speak to the critical work they're doing? Do you have a sense of what the $2.1 million you aim to raise would allow this organization to accomplish?

I got to know Water For People, and their work, back in 2003 when my wife, Wende Valentine, began working for them as an intern while she earned her Masters in International Development from D.U. Upon graduation, she started working full time for Water For People, managing their programs in Asia and Africa. (She's now in charge of major donors to the organization.)

Through her, I got to see Water For People, their work, and their model...and what a huge impact they have on people's lives. And, from my travels previously to the far corners of the developing world, I already knew how essential water and sanitation are to the health, well-being and development -- or lack thereof -- of a given place.

What I saw immediately in Water For People was a dedicated organization that, unlike many others, was not out to be "sexy". Instead, they developed a model that works amazingly well, and stuck to it. Their focus is on true partnership with local communities and governments, on making sure everyone is invested and that everyone benefits. Having seen well-intended projects in places like Nepal, Tibet and India fail miserably time and again because of poor implementation and planning, Water For People's model was a breath of fresh air for me, and one I knew I wanted to support.

It's funny -- or, rather, interesting, not really funny -- that water (and its corollary, sanitation) is so essential to life and development, and yet for years it didn't really get much attention. Take, for instance, a village I lived in for a while in Nepal. It's not far from Kathmandu, the capital city; it sits up above the valley rim. Anyway, the family I lived with had electricity in their home, which is great, but no safe water nearby. The village tap was broken, and so they had to walk about 45 minutes each way to get safe drinking water. About seven years later, I went back to visit and they had repaired the water tap and the village now had a tiny internet cafe... but many villagers were still defecating in the fields.

What I'm getting at with all of that is the importance of starting at the fundamental level -- water and sanitation -- before going on to the higher levels of development. A cyber cafe is great, but not if people are spending all their time fetching water, or getting sick from water-related illness.

As for what the $2.1 million we raise will accomplish, I can't really speak directly to that. Water For People has, admirably, stayed away from the old "price of a cup of coffee will do XYZ" platform, recognizing that you can't really say that definitively. Prices, costs, etc., are different everywhere, and $5 in one region of the world goes a heck of a lot further than in another place with equal needs. That said, I have enough experience with the developing world to know that $2.1 million will go a long, long way toward changing people's lives. Keep in mind that Water For People always works with local municipalities and communities to implement each project: they have to pay a substantial amount of the cost. So, that makes the money go even further.   Why the Triple Summits, and what do you expect will be the biggest challenges as you work your way through the list?

I deliberately focused, in consultation with my wife, Wende, on setting a high climbing bar for three reasons. First, we wanted the climbing goal to mirror in some sense the magnitude of the water/sanitation crisis around the world. So, it had to be big. Second, we knew we wanted to raise a lot of money through the project, and get a lot of people involved through small donations rather than a couple of big checks (although we're not opposed to those!). So, we knew it had to be spread out over a longer period of time. Third, having past experience with expeditions and sponsorship, I was very aware that quite often companies are pitched an idea to fund an expedition, and then have a relatively short time window to maximize their ROI -- perhaps only the 30 or 60 days of the expedition. We wanted to be different with our funding approach to companies. Corporations who partner with us to underwrite will be buying into a four-year marketing push, rather than just one expedition. So, the long project made sense from multiple perspectives.

With the Triple Seven specifically, it's interesting as I've never really been much of a peak bagger. I climb because I love climbing, not because I have a mountain "to-do" list. But, I recognized that, to be digestible to the general public, I needed to have a tangible, coherent goal. Most people have heard of the Seven Summits, or at least can understand the concept. The Triple Seven was an ambitious goal that would satisfy the three components listed above and -- to boot -- has yet to be done by anyone. So, it made a lot of sense. And, there's a lot of peaks on the list I've long wanted to climb, so that's an added plus!

On challenges, there will be lots. Most of the 2nd and 3rd highest peaks are either more difficult technically or logistically than their higher siblings, so there's huge challenges there. If I were to single out a few, it would be K2 (#2 in Asia/World), Logan (#2 in North America), Tyree (#2 in Antarctica), Kangchenjunga (#3 in Asia/World). Those are all tough peaks, both technically and logistically, and are not climbed a heck of a lot.  

As a climber, what are your own personal water concerns as you look at that Challenge21 list? Which places on your list raise the biggest red flags in terms of water quality?

As a climber, water -- and sanitation -- are always big concerns. We're lucky, as we don't live daily with that concern, but rather visit it from time to time. But, it's still huge for climbers. Get sick -- from water, or from just getting some feces on your hand and then in your mouth -- and your trip can be over. Or, you could really get into a jam if you get sick up high on a big mountain.

Whenever I travel to the mountains, I'm always careful about water. Everything's got to be either filtered, boiled, or treated. Even a drop of untreated, dirty water in a cup or on a plate can be a disaster. We end up being pretty neurotic about it because we have to be: When you've invested a huge amount of time, energy, and money into a big climb, it'd be a shame to have it all tank because of avoidable illness and general carelessness. And, having been very sick on expeditions before, it's just plain un-fun!

Most of the peaks of Challenge21 lie in the developing world, so there's always a hazard there, as mentioned. In most situations, our local outfitters are pretty tuned into hygiene, and keep things very safe for us. But you've still got to be careful. So, I can't really say one area is more challenging than another in terms of water and sanitation: it's a constant concern. That said, one place worth noting is Antarctica -- it gets a green flag and a gold star in terms of being pretty pristine. I was there for a month in January, 2011, and was hugely impressed by the stewardship of the continent. Everything is flown off "the ice": feces, urine, wastewater, everything. As a result, you'd be very hard pressed to get sick down there from water -- you're melting clean snow into water. It's pretty amazing.

Challenge21 climber Jake Norton sets out for three tallest peaks on each continent

What would you like to see emphasized about the start of Challenge21?

Aside from the need and the importance of water / sanitation, and the work of Water For People, there's a couple of things about Challenge21 that I would like to make sure people hear and understand:

1. We want to reach a lot of people, not just a few people with lots of money to give. At the end of the day, we'd be happy if we got 2.1 million people to each give $1, rather than raising, say, $4 million from a few wealthy individuals. The idea is to go viral with this story and the fundraising aspect; we're hoping people will be drawn into the climbing story, and then get sucked into the development aspect, which is far more interesting and important at the end of the day.

2. We really want to be clear about how money is being spent for expedition costs versus fundraising. We're working with corporations, big to small, to underwrite the hard costs of the expeditions, which aren't trivial as you can imagine. This will come from company marketing budgets based on a detailed, defined list of ROI's for each company. Really, they'll be making an investment decision from a marketing perspective as to whether or not they want to get involved. In addition, companies can make a charitable contribution to Water For People.

With the fundraising side, we at Challenge21 never touch a penny of those funds. If someone clicks to donate off our website, or off our Facebook page, they're immediately redirected to Water For People's donations system to process their transaction. 100 percent of donations go directly to Water For People; not a penny will be used for Challenge21 expedition costs.

3. We've set a big goal for this first expedition of $16,763 (the altitude of Mt. Stanley's Margherita Peak). We're really just starting, so haven't gotten the word out yet, but it's spreading. That said, we've already raised $6,599, so we're getting there, but we need people to get involved, to spread the word (even if they can't donate). And, we want people to know they don't have to be a big donor to donate. We're looking for donations in increments of 21 -- 21 cents, $2.10, $21, etc. If someone's only got 21 cents, they can team up with 4 friends who also have 21 cents, and pool their cash for a $1.05 donation (the minimum is $1). Again, the idea is spreading the word, getting it out to as many people as possible.

To learn more about Challenge21 and to follow along with Norton's blog or make a donation, visit

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