Merry Christmas from Alaska Sporting Journal! Here’s a story in our December issue that will satisfy your craving for adventure, history and perspective. Enjoy!
BY CHRIS COCOLES
If you wanted to boil Jake Norton’s life down to a single sentence, it might be this one: He really likes to get on top of things. Literally. A world-class mountain climber and guide, there are few daunting summits on the globe the 46-year-old Colorado resident hasn’t scaled, including North America’s tallest peak, Alaska’s famed Denali (Mount McKinley). From South America’s massive Mount Aconcagua to Africa’s iconic Kilimanjaro and literally the top of the world, Mount Everest, Norton’s list of successful climbs is impressive.
While he had a passionate connection to Mount Everest – he’s made multiple trips there to either reach the world’s highest summit or help solve an almost century-old mystery that could change the history books forever – his successful scaling of Denali had its own special symbolism. For Norton, who’s scaled peaks around the world, a successful Alaska summit was a home game of sorts.
“It was my first really big mountain that I had summited and my first continental high point, and it was in my home country. That was pretty amazing and powerful,” he says.
“I think the summit of Everest is always irrationally built up in one sense that you’re going to get up there and there is going to be cerebral trumpets and epiphanies. And I find there’s not. It really is just a patch of snow along the way. And Denali is not built up in that same apocryphal beautiful way. You get there and you can just enjoy (it). You’re not expecting some biblical insight to come to you.”
Yet mighty Mount Everest still impacted Norton, who has elevated to its sacred ground as the highest spot on Earth. But the mountain also holds the kind of secrets that have turned him into a bit of a mountaineering Sherlock Holmes.
IN 1953, NEW ZEALANDER Edmund Hillary – he’d soon be known as Sir Edmund Hillary for the rest of his life – and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay successfully reached the summit of the world’s highest peak, Nepal/China’s Mount Everest, and lived to tell their tale after also making the dangerous descent from the top of the world.
But while historians likely won’t ever diminish Hillary’s and Norgay’s accomplishments, it’s possible two climbers preceded the 1953 Everest conquest by almost 30 years. For Norton, getting to the bottom of the mystery of the 1924 fate of George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine consumed him for the better part of 20 years. In October, a Discovery Channel documentary, Everest’s Greatest Mystery, premiered as part of the network’s new series known as Undiscovered.
Norton led an expedition to Everest in 2019 to find further evidence of what happened to Mallory and Irvine. What we knew already: They both died on the mountain, which over the years has become a tragic toll of trying to conquer Earth’s highest spot (there have been roughly 300 deaths of Everest climbers, with almost annual fatalities).
Norton has found himself literally climbing over the bodies of the dead climbers who either failed to reach the top or perished making the even more dangerous descent, when draining oxygen levels and exhaustion can be fatal.
“On the one hand it is gruesome, but I find there’s a beauty within the tragedy of those lives lost … I find some solace in the human remains can tell a story and leave these less than subtle reminders of our own mortality,” he says. “And keep our egos in check and make us safe, hopefully.”
Norton was part of a 1999 expedition that found the remains of Mallory, a far more experienced climber than Irvine.
But two major questions remained as Norton and a team returned to the mountain last year: Where is Irvine’s body, and did the pair or either one actually make it to the summit? Observers at the time confirmed that they did get within striking distance of the 29,029-foot summit. But with several short but treacherous spots known as the First, Second and Third Steps ahead of them, it’s possible that the men died just shy of the top.
“There are always things left undone and more to do,” Norton says. “I think what I always come back to – with the story of Mallory and Irvine, which is something I’ve been fascinated with since I began climbing in the mid-1980s – it’s really who these guys were, regardless of whether or not they summited (Everest) … They were such a different breed of explorer and climber.”
As the film depicts, the 2019 explorers were equipped with top-of-the-line equipment, tents and clothing to handle the hazardous weather conditions, including crampons attached to their boots that help gain traction on the slick ice and snow. But when he was part of the team that found Mallory’s remains in 1999, Norton was astonished by what Mallory and fellow Englishman Irvine had to do to make the dangerous ascent in the 1920s.
“It was almost comical looking at what (Mallory) was wearing compared to what we were, when we had these $1,000 boots and modern-fabric, space- age technology,” Norton admits, also marveling at the men’s remarkable acclimation to Everest’s high altitude.
“They didn’t know how the human body would respond to the rigors of altitude. Some scientists thought it was humanly impossible to go that high. The down gear that we take for granted today had really just been invented. It wasn’t very good; it was heavy and thick. And they were using solid fuel burners without water. They didn’t know the importance of hydration. Just challenge after challenge for the fact that they even got to base camp (17,000-plus feet), which until 1921 no one had been within 40 miles of. It’s just phenomenal that they were anywhere on the mountain, let alone within 1,000 feet of the summit.”
Mallory in particular is something of a role model for mountaineers. They appreciate some of his philosophical thoughts about why he was such a climbing savant in his day, which made Norton so emotional when he and the 1999 team that was led by Eric Simpson found Mallory – Conrad Anker was the first who reached the remains – at the 26,760-foot level on Everest’s north face (the Tibet side now controlled by China).
“I just remember at first the gasps and disbelief; we were just stunned into silence,” he says of the Mallory discovery. “Nobody could really talk and get out a coherent thought for a while. There we were with a hero of all of ours.”
Norton, who as a tween first scaled Washington state’s 14,000-plus- foot Mount Rainier, started working as a guide at 18 and has since climbed, besides Denali, five of the world’s Seven Summits (highest peaks on each continent), was enthralled by Mallory’s passion to reach the top.
Norton says he felt something of a spiritual connection with the mountaineers he’s searched for now on multiple trips to Everest. In watching the Discovery Channel film, there was a sense that these explorers who were less interested in getting back to the summit than finding the truth about Mallory and Irvine, almost owed it to those pioneers to find more signs of what really happened almost 100 years ago.
“I feel that way; not in a Ouija board- type sense, but I think those of us who have been to the mountain a lot, you can’t help but really begin to revere and feel some degree of connection to those who paved the way and those who came first,” Norton says.
“I find myself up on the mountain always thinking about Mallory and Irvine, or (fellow 1924 expedition members Noel Odell and Howard Somervell), all these different climbers, going over there in such a different era. Their experiences do kind of speak to us, and hopefully we’re wise enough to listen to those voices.”
Unfortunately, despite several possible leads and even finding other bodies buried in the deep snow banks who weren’t Irvine, no evidence of his remains were found. Discovery Channel’s film was likely the end of the line for Norton’s 20-year odyssey to find definitive proof whether the English mountaineers predated Hillary’s successful climb.
“I think there’s always a degree of unfulfillment. There’s always more to know and more to learn. But I think over two decades of being a part of this, I’ve kind of come to having terms of the fact that it’s OK not to know it all,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to help tell these stories. We may never know all the answers, but we know a lot more and we can still celebrate the fact that they were there and did incredible things.”
All because Everest was there.
IT DOESN’T TAKE AN experienced mountaineer to know that climbing Mount Everest is one of the most physically and mentally demanding tasks for a human being to achieve. But even at 10,000 feet lower in elevation, Alaska’s Denali proved to be arguably a tougher task for Norton and those who he guided on two expeditions there. It took the second trip for him and his party to reach the top, in July 1995.
“The 30-second answer is, when you take altitude out of the equation, Denali is hands-down a more difficult ascent to climb,” Norton says. “Granted, I haven’t been there since 1995, but I know the mountain hasn’t changed height and I don’t think it’s gotten to be noticeably warmer.”
“There’s a physical nature of Denali (that you) don’t have pack animals and don’t have Sherpa support. You’re carrying massive packs and dragging a sled. You’re dealing with temperatures that go from 90 degrees on a calm day in the sun down on the (lower portions) to 40 below zero in a storm up near the summit. It’s a punishing but beautiful, incredible mountain.” Norton knows his Alaska history and even compared his obsession studying and searching for Mallory and Irvine to some Last Frontier legends of yesteryear.
“It was really reminiscent of the Sourdoughs, especially their first ascent of Denali,” says Norton, referring to the miners who, with similar gear to Irvine and Mallory’s, somehow managed to reach the top of the mountain – it would be officially known as Mount McKinley – in the early 20th century.
“Nobody thought they could make it, and then when the next ascent party got up, they found a huge pole stuck in the wrong summit of Denali, but almost at the top. They just did it with their mining gear.”
Norton would have his own special memory on top of Alaska and the entire continent.
WHEN NORTON FIRST WAS what he referred to as a “grunt guide” – “I had the pleasure of carrying a heavier pack,” he proudly says – on a Denali expedition, the May mid-1990s trip didn’t go well.
“We just got pulverized by storms and cold (conditions). And then my second (attempt) was a July trip where the mountain was empty and there were only two teams of us on the mountain,” he says. “We summited on a beautiful, warm day.”
For mountaineers like Norton, topping these massive peaks is part of the symbolic lore of the challenge (he would love one day to climb another of his last remaining Seven Summits, Carstensz Pyramid, which is located in a remote and politically unstable corner of Indonesia).
And when he and his teams finished what they started the year before and reached the pinnacle of a North American climbing challenge, it was a moment to savor and to soak up the sunshine, the view and the accomplishment.
“We were able to have a fly-by done by the bush pilot while we were on the summit. It was a breathless, warm- for-Denali day. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I was up there with light gloves and a baseball cap and my down jacket unzipped. It was just gorgeous,” says Norton, who hopes to go back and explore more of Alaska’s mountains in the future.
Where the top of Denali differs from some of Norton’s successful Himalayan climbs is the scope of the view. While atop many of those peaks means more mountains around him, the way Denali towers over everything made for an even more spectacular vista point.
“It felt more (like being) on top of the world than the summit of Everest does,” says Norton.
But memories like his Denali ascent is likely why Norton was so driven to complete his quest of fully solving the Mallory-Irvine mystery, while not only finding his remains but coming closer to determining if they indeed completed their Everest climb. Part of him wants to buy into the theory that they had the ability and motivation to at least get to experience the joy of getting to the top of the planet before succumbing to the great mountain.
“I’m admittedly an idealist and a romantic. On the one hand, I truly want to believe that they summited, not because I believe it would take away anything at all from Hillary and Tenzing; if anything, it would underscore what they did because they made it back down alive,” he says.
“But I would love to imagine (Mallory and Irvine) being up there in their tweed coats and woolen knickers.”
Perhaps it’s a feeling of elation and hope that only fellow mountaineers can truly understand. ASJ
Editor’s note: You can see more of Jake Norton’s adventures and guiding at his website, jakenorton.com. For more on Discovery Channel’s film on the Norton Everest expedition, go to go.discovery.com/ tv-shows/undiscovered/full-episodes/ everests-greatest-mystery.
SIDEBAR: SO YOU WANT TO CLIMB DENALI?
ount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, has drawn inexperienced mountaineers who have struggled trying to ascend and descend the 29,000-plus-foot peak.
But Jake Norton, who’s done both climbs, says the National Park Service has done a good job of keeping away those not ready to handle the rigors of a climb at Alaska’s Denali.
“I think a decade ago that would have been the case. I think, oddly, these days it’s actually the reverse; here you see people with far less experience on the slopes of Everest than you’ll see on Denali,” he says.
“And a lot of that is, and in our country we don’t like the term ‘regulations,’ but the regulations of the National Park Service has put on concessionaires in our national parks. If you’re an outfitter, you hold a special concession to guide on the mountain. And they’re held to very high standards by the Park Service. If there’s an accident or a death of a paying client, it’s investigated deeply.”
He added that the financial impact of negligent decisions could be devastating financially for climbing services.
Contrasting those increasingly strict guidelines for Denali climbers, many Everest guides now lack some of the same vetting of potential clients.
“These days, you’ll literally see people on Mount Everest who would not have been accepted to climb (Washington’s) Mount Rainier when I was a guide there,” says Norton, who also offered the following advice for climbers hoping to take on the Alaska summit.
“First and foremost, I would say don’t ever downplay Denali. I think people will be like, ‘Wait, I’ve been to the Himalayas and climbed at 20,000 feet,’” he says. “Denali’s a whole different animal. It’s like someone from Colorado saying, ‘I climbed a (14,000-footer) and I should be able to climb Rainier.’ They’re not in the same league whatsoever.”
“And so don’t go without a guide, unless you’re truly experienced enough for the challenge. Guide services are great to go with. They ensure your safety and help you enjoy the trip. But also take the cold and the physical aspect of Denali seriously. You can’t just be used to being in snow; you’ve got to be used to being out in the winter cold day after day. It’s a long expedition and it’s physically demanding. If one is not used to it, it will be a game-changer on Denali.” CC
JAKE NORTON ON TOP OF THE WORLD
SEVEN SUMMITS (TALLEST MOUNTAINS ON EACH CONTINENT)
Everest (China-Nepal, Asia; 29,029 feet): May 18, 2002 Aconcagua (Argentina, South America; 22,841 feet): Jan. 17, 2009 Denali (Alaska, U.S.A., North America; 20,310 feet): July 17, 1995 Kilimanjaro (Tanzania, Africa; 19,308 feet): Sept. 20, 2002 Vinson Massif (Antarctica; 16,050 feet): Jan. 10, 2011 Mont Blanc (France-Italy, Europe*; 15,410 feet): July 7, 1987 *Mount Elbrus in Russia is considered by some the tallest peak in Europe, but since it straddles the Europe-Asia border some experts argue that Mont Blanc is the continent’s true summit.
Jake Norton’s globetrotting travels have kept him away from wife Wende Valentine and kids Lila and Ryrie, and he had a short film, Wild Love, made as a tribute to them: mountainworldproductions.com/portfolio/wild-love-jake-norton-wende-valentine.