Colorado Climber Launches Three-year Expedition for Global Water, Sanitation Solutions

Internationally acclaimed mountain climber Jake Norton’s climbed some of the most stunning peaks around the world, helped discover the remains of George Mallory on Everest, and guided others to reach the summits of their dreams. Beginning on Earth Day 2011, Norton’s attempting to do something no climber’s yet done so more people throughout the developing world realize their fervent dream of drinking safe water and having improved sanitation.

By summer 2014, Norton’s hoping to be the first to have climbed the Triple Seven Summits, or the three highest peaks on each continent. Along the way, Norton’s using each step to call attention to the close to one billion desperate for safe drinking water and the 2.6 billion without adequate toilets.

“I’m hoping to take the visibility of my life’s work and use it to help empower often-invisible people around the world lacking basic human needs. This is really about changing the world around us, and making sure my life and my passion serve more than just me," says Norton, who started climbing at 12 and has done more than 25 expeditions.

Norton is convinced that safe water and sanitation are the most pressing global-development issues. “Schools, libraries, computers: these are all great philanthropic efforts. But if people are fetching water all day, they can’t attend school. And if they're dying of water-related illness before they get to the school, library, or computer, nothing has really been gained. Like climbing, we've got to start at the most fundamental level and work our way up, one step at a time."

A climber since 1986, Norton said he’s long felt called to somehow use his career on some of the highest peaks in the world to do something to make the world a better place. Ironically, it was during a rainstorm that the way became clear.

“I was running above Durango, CO, in a downpour, when it finally dawned on me how I could leverage my career in climbing to draw more eyes to something critical that’s lacking throughout many parts of the world: water and sanitation.”

Having already climbed Mt. Everest, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. McKinley, among others in the 21 Triple Seven, Norton heads to Africa in August to climb two summits he’s yet to do: Mount Kenya and Mount Stanley. After that, every four to six months, conditions permitting, Norton plans to climb the remaining peaks on his list. The final two expeditions will be K2 in Pakistan scheduled for Summer 2013 and Kanchenjunga in Nepal slated for Spring 2014. All Challenge21 expeditions will be outfitted by Eddie Bauer and First Ascent, one of Norton's sponsors; they will also cover the expeditions through their media channels.

The philanthropic goal of the 21-peak expedition is to raise at least $2.1 million and get 2.1 million new people following the project and rallying around the need for safe water and sanitation. The proceeds raised will be dedicated to Water For People’s water and sanitation programs in 10 developing countries, says Norton’s wife and Challenge21 co-founder, Wende Valentine, Water For People’s major gifts officer.

Among several pivotal moments throughout her life and career, Valentine recalls a trip to Uganda in 2008. “I was visiting Water For People’s field program there and spent time with a mother who had just given birth to her third child. I knew what it was like to give birth, and to know that she’d done so with no accessible safe water pained me beyond words. Just two days after giving birth, she was living alone in a mud hut, with two other small children to care for, openly defecating, surviving on less than a dollar a day. The worst of all, she had to walk a mile in each direction to gather and then carry water back home for all of their basic human needs.”

Ultimately, Challenge21’s success will not be about marking off a checklist of summits, Norton and Valentine say. Like Water For People’s projects it will be ambitious, but grounded in accountability, partnership, thoughtfulness and commitment. “The goal will be to try to reach all the summits. But if I decide to turn around 20 feet from the summit of a given peak - for safety or other reasons - but still awaken thousands to the water and sanitation crisis, that's success to me," Norton said.