2011 Mountainfilm in Telluride: Mountaineer Jake Norton and Challenge 21

2011 Mountainfilm in Telluride: Mountaineer Jake Norton and Challenge 21

[click “Play” to hear Jesse’s interview with Jake Norton and Wende Valentine]



by J James McTigue

Jake Norton Jake Norton is an Eddie Bauer First Ascent athlete and world-renowned climber, photographer and guide. He has a list of accolades as tall as Everest, a mountain he has attempted six times and summitted three. His career has taken him to the top of the world’s highest mountains and on explorations across the globe. His newest endeavor is Challenge 21, a campaign to climb 21 peaks, raise 2.1 million dollars and get 2.1 million people involved in clean water initiatives around the world. 

He will be a guest judge for the Charlie Fowler Award at this year’s Mountainfilm in Telluride and a presenter at the Saturday morning coffee talks to discuss climbing the second highest peak in the world, K2. Norton speaks passionately of mountains, but more so of the impact they have had on him.

Crisscrossing the globe as an athlete and photographer, Norton describes an insatiable unrest he feels when leaving remote regions of the world after an expedition.  He can’t let go of the vast juxtaposition between the money invested in climbing expeditions and the impoverished conditions the people living in these remote areas endure.

In 2006, after summitting Gurla Mandhata in western Tibet, Norton asked himself, “At the end of the day, who did this trip impact besides the seven climbers?” He decided he needed to use his climbing, and the interest people had in climbing stories, to give back to these communities.

“I was troubled by the fact that climbing only benefits the people who are climbing,” Norton said. “I thought I could leverage the visibility and money in climbing to make a positive change in the world.”

Since Gurla Mandhata, the idea for his newest undertaking, Challenge 21 has been germinating, and just last month it has come to fruition. Challenge 21 is an initiative he developed in conjunction with his wife, Wende Valentine, who has worked for the non-profit organization, Water for People, for the last eight years.

Through Challenge 21, Norton’s objective is to climb the three highest peaks on seven continents totaling 21 peaks, raise 2.1 million dollars and engage 2.1 million people in the cause to provide creative and sustainable solutions for clean drinking water and sanitation to remote regions of the world.

“I wanted to put forth a climbing goal that would parallel the water and sanitation crisis around the world, and to raise funds and awareness,” Norton explained.

Norton is excited to partner with Water for People because his climbing philosophy mirrors their philanthropic philosophy: quality over quantity. For Norton it’s not about the amount of summits, it’s about the experience on each mountain; and for Water For People, it’s not about the amount of wells they build around the world, it’s about the integrity and sustainability of their work to bring clean drinking water to every household in each community.

As a seasoned guide and veteran climber, Norton is all too aware that not succeeding to reach the summit of an expedition is as likely as succeeding. He brings this understanding with him to Challenge 21. “We may not reach all the summits,” he said, “but we can try.”

Traveling in remote places to access the world’s highest peaks has left a lasting impact on Norton. And now, with Water for People as his partner, he hopes he can reciprocate.

Jake Norton photo courtesy of Eddie Bauer First Ascent


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