Jake Norton
Jake Norton back from scouting the West Ridge on Everest (Photo: Grayson Schaffer)

Climber Jake Norton on Going Higher Than Everest

A Q&A with an Outside in Aspen participant

Jake Norton
Nick Davidson

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Jake Norton is a climber and photographer on the Eddie Bauer First Ascents team and has been guiding climbing expeditions for nearly 20 years. He was the expedition leader on the Eddie Bauer team attempting the West Ridge on Everest this season leading up to the 50th anniversary of the route’s first ascent in 1963. He’s been to the summit three times. Norton will lead rock climbing at Outside in Aspen this year.

How did you get into mountaineering?
When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts—far from the climbing scene—I got to know Lou Whittaker through my father. Lou had just returned from leading the first American ascent of the North Side of Everest and took us to a slideshow of the climb and shared the expedition film, Winds of Everest. That opened my eyes to climbing. I was never very good at traditional team sports and always liked competing against myself more than anything. Climbing seemed like a perfect discipline for me, so I began climbing with my father.

My first climb was in 1986, at age 12, of Mount Rainier. We tried the Mont Blanc in France that same year, but I got hypothermic in a storm at about 15,000 feet. But we kept climbing together, my dad and I, and were supported by my mother and stepmother, which helped a ton. Things steadily progressed from Rainier to ice climbing in the White Mountains with Nick Yardley to rock climbing in the Wind Rivers and in New Hampshire. I started guiding for Rainier Mountaineering when I was 18 and soon was leading international climbs around the world.

Tell me about your Challenge21 climbing project.
Challenge21, for me, is a dream come true. For years, I’ve wanted to take climbing a step further. Simply bagging summits was no longer worthwhile for me, especially after getting married and having two kids. While I love climbing, I wanted my life to have an impact on the world outside of myself, and climbing alone couldn’t do that. Additionally, I wanted to show my kids that they could follow their passions in life and make a difference. I think that’s something we should all strive to do. So with those thoughts, coupled with my wife’s background in development—and specifically in the water and sanitation sector and Water for People—Challenge21 was born.

Some might think Challenge21 is just an excuse for me to get to peaks I want to climb. But, truthfully, it’s not. I’d likely go to many of the peaks on the list anyway as a guide and climber. Instead, Challenge21 is a way for me to use my skills as a climber to leverage the inherent drama and visibility of climbing the world’s highest peaks, and then redirect people’s attention to something that is really important: water, sanitation, and the work of Water For People. Sure, I could just climb mountains, and then go off to Village X and sink a well and call it good. But, I’m not a development expert—I’d likely mess up something, and everyone would suffer. I’m a climber, and Water for People is the leader in this development sector. So it makes sense for me to climb, raise money, and direct it all to WFP—everyone doing what they’re good at.

Why is the issue of clean water a particularly important one for you?
I didn’t really know much about the water-sanitation crisis specifically until Wende started her work with WFP. Since then, I’ve come to understand it is the most pressing development crisis in the world today, and it’s made me reflect on my past experiences in Nepal and the developing world and see how much of the tragedy and suffering in the world is a direct result of the lack of water and sanitation. When in college, I lived in a small, rural village in Nepal called Shyam Pati, and my host family mother spent hours each day fetching water for the family. Most families, including mine, defecated in the fields. There were no outhouses. Serious illness was prevalent, and countless hours—and thus income—were spent collecting water. I’ve seen this situation played out in other places in Nepal, India, Rwanda, and around the world.

Having kids has only magnified the importance of this issue for me: 5,000 kids under age five die every day from water-related illness—kids the same age as mine. Nearly one billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe water, and another 2.5 billion don’t have adequate sanitation. Without these basic human needs and necessities, development comes to a screeching halt. The more I learn and the more I see firsthand, the more I know the global water and sanitation crisis has to be addressed first and foremost.

What was your role in helping discover Mallory’s remains on Everest?
The 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition was my first to Everest. I was 25, and was invited to be a climbing team member and searcher by my friend Eric Simonson. On that expedition, we all worked as equals, putting in the climbing route, moving supplies, and searching for signs of Mallory and Irvine. On May 1, 1999, five of us—Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, Tap Richards, Conrad Anker, and myself—set off from Camp V on the North Ridge to do a first, cursory search of the pre-determined search area high on the North Face. We all climbed to Camp VI, Conrad and I without oxygen as a test, and then dropped into the search area, looking for anything out of place.

By luck, I found the first clue, an O2 bottle from the 1975 Chinese expedition, during which Wang Hung-bao found Mallory’s remains. From there, we all split off and spread out. After an hour and 45 minutes, Conrad hopped on the radio, calling a mandatory team meeting. He was about 50 meters away from me, frantically waving his ice ax above his head. I walked over and happened by proximity to get there first, and there was Conrad, standing silently above the remains of a fallen hero: exactly as he appears in my photo from the cover of Outside. It was the most humbling experience of my climbing career, and one that will stay with me forever.

Tell me about your explorations in discovering all of the pre-WWII camps on Everest. Also, how was that 68-year-old biscuit?
I’ve always had an affinity for “old junk,” as my mom loves to call it. I prefer “artifacts.” Anyway, that led me to really get into finding the old items left behind by the pre-WWII expeditions to Everest. Most of those were of course in and around the old camps, so I made it an objective to find the camps. In 1999, I accidentally found the 1933 Camp VI high in the Yellow Band by literally tripping over an old piece of metal. It turned out to be a porter’s pack frame, and right below it was the tattered remains of the tent, sleeping bags, and canned goods, exactly as shown in the final photo taken by Eric Shipton out the tent door in 1933. Amazing, and right in the climbing route.

I found the 1924 Camp VI on the North Ridge with Brent Okita in 2001, and the 1938 Camp VI on the NE Shoulder in 2004 by myself. Very cool. I came back to the 1933 high camp in 2001 with Brent Okita and unearthed the entire camp, hauling some 40 pounds of artifacts from the camp. In the process, I found a beautiful tin of Huntley & Palmer’s Superior Reading Biscuits, complete with a dozen or so biscuits still in the box. Either Shipton or Smythe had last eaten from that box, and I just couldn’t resist, and chomped an artifact. Honestly, it was good—like it was left there just yesterday. Everest is the best Tupperware, I guess.

This year marked your 7th trip to Everest. What draws you back there?
Not much, really. I’ve honestly been pretty jaded by Everest on my last couple of expeditions, but there are certain things which bring me back. This year, it was the incredible opportunity to celebrate what I consider to be one of the most impressive climbs in Everest history, if not Himalayan history: the 1963 American ascent of the West Ridge. The vision and audacity of all the West Ridgers, and especially that of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, is the stuff of legends, and literally changed the Himalayan climbing game forever. So, for me, the opportunity to try to climb such a seminal, iconic route, and draw much needed attention to Tom and Willi’s climb (it was largely overshadowed by Whittaker and Gombu’s ascent three weeks earlier) was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. Additionally, Challenge21 was inspired in part by Willi Unsoeld’s famous post-Everest words about needing to, metaphorically, go “higher than Everest.” So, this expedition made great sense from a Challenge21 perspective as well.

This has been a tough year on Everest, particularly for West Ridge climbers like yourself. What’s it been like?
Luck is a big part of Everest and high-Himalayan climbing, and this year was not a great one for luck. It was a hugely dry winter in Nepal, and that dryness was reflected by bullet-proof blue ice on much of the mountain. On the standard route, the Lhotse Face was raining rock down on climbers, injuring many. On our route, we ran into that same blue ice for thousands of feet to the West Shoulder. We were only a team of four climbers—Brent Bishop, Charley Mace, David Morton, and myself—with no Sherpa support, so that made the going incredibly tough for us. The other team on the route, Conrad Anker and Cory Richards, climbed only a couple of pitches on the route before turning around. Then Cory got sick, and no one came back. We worked the route for days and days, and still never made it to the West Shoulder. Definitely tough conditions, challenging and frustrating.

You made the decision to back down from the West Ridge climb. What did attempting the climb mean to you, and how hard was it to make that decision?
It’s never easy to turn around on a climb, especially one that you’ve dreamed about for as long as I have with the West Ridge. And Hornbein is a good friend and hero of mine, so it was even tougher to make the call to turn around. But, it was a decision we had to make. The writing was on the wall, and the risks were too high to continue in good conscience. But that is all part of the game and the allure of a route like the West Ridge. It’s thwarted far, far more climbers than it allowed to pass, and many people have died trying to climb it. There’s no guarantee of success, even 49 years after the first ascent. In his expedition book, Tom Hornbein spoke of embracing the “opportunity to fail.” One still has to today on the West Ridge, and that’s precisely why the attempt is so enticing. It’s really a step to some degree into the unknown, a realm rarely encountered on Everest these days.

What’s next on your agenda for the Challenge 21 or other projects?
A lot. In July, I’ll head to Kenya to climb Mt. Kenya with Pete McBride. In August, we’ll be in the Caucasus climbing the highest peaks of Europe: Elbrus, Dykhtau, and Shkhara. Then, hopefully to Antarctica for Shinn and Tyree in January, Ojos del Salado and Monte Pissis in Chile in February, and to K2 in Pakistan in June. That’s the plan at least.

What are some of your ultimate goals and aspirations?
My ultimate goal in life as a whole is to live it with passion, doing the things that give me joy, and making sure I’m doing my best to leave the world a little better than when I found it. If I can do that, and pass along those same lessons and values to my children, and have a lot of laughter and love with my family and friends, well, that’d be pretty nice from my perspective. That’d be success.

Outside in Aspen, June 8-10, is a weekend filled with outfitter-led adventure, including mountain and road biking, kayaking, rafting, trail running, fly-fishing, hiking, stand-up river paddling, and rock climbing for all skill levels. The weekend also includes parties, a base camp featuring Outside’s Gear of the Year, a symposium with professional adventure athletes and Outside personalities.