Interview with Jake on “The Commentator”

Just before the holidays, I posted some thoughts on an article – Mount Everest is Man’s Mental Achilles Heel – which I came across on The author of the article, Alessandro Nicolo, has his own blog, The Commentator, and he asked me to answer some questions in an ongoing interview series on his blog called Five Questions.

He posed some great ones, from the reasons people climb to my thoughts on our 1999 discovery of George Mallory, the ethics of mountain climbing today (and the recent death of David Sharp on Everest) to what steps to take if one wants to learn to climb. It was a fun interview process, and I really appreciate Alessandro not only asking me to take part, but also his insights and thoughts on various subjects. Read the interview in its entirety on The Commentator blog or read it here:

FQ’s with Professional Mountain Climber Jake Norton


Welcome to another installment of Five Questions where interesting people are asked, well, FQ’s. Today’s guest  Jake Norton is not only a mountain climber but a speaker, photogrpaher and guide. Check out his bio via his link.

Jake blogs at Mountainworld
Mountain World Photo

1) Rhetorical question first. Do you have rocks in your head? 

perhaps. In all seriousness, I think people – myself included – do
question both my intelligence and sanity when the amount of time I’ve
spent on Everest and in the mountains in general are taken into
account. But, I have had some wonderful experiences in the hills, and
climbing truly is my driving passion in life…So, I guess that makes it
all worthwhile. It is nice to be able to do something you love for a

2) I read on your
website that you discovered the remains of a British pioneer climber.
Was that something you set out to do or did you stumbled upon it? Did
you know who it was? What went through your mind? Briefly walk us
through this fascinating experience.

Yes, in 1999 our
team – the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition – discovered
the remains of pioneer climber George Leigh Mallory. Our goal that
year, as evidenced by the name of the expedition, was to go to Everest
and attempt to solve – or at least shed more light on – the mystery of
Mallory & Irvine.

For those who don’t know the story,
Mallory and his climbing companion, Andrew Comyn Irvine, were last seen
about 800 feet from the summit of Everest on June 8, 1924, by their
teammate Noel Odell. The big question was, of course, did they reach
the top that day, some 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa
Tenzin Norgay climbed to the summit via the easier Southeast Ridge on
May 30, 1953. While Mallory & Irvine would not get a summit
certificate if they reached the top (it’s important to make the round
trip!), it still would be an amazing accomplishment if they did reach
the top and has been a fascinating mystery for years.

In 1999,
our team was comprised of our leader, Eric Simonson, historian Jochen
Hemmleb, doctor Lee Meyers, film crews from BBC and PBS-NOVA, a
climbing/search team of Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, Tap Richards, Conrad
Anker, and myself and, most importantly, our stellar Sherpa team, who
as always did the lion’s share of the work on the hill.

After a
month-and-a-half of work on the peak, on the morning of May 1, our
climbing team set out from 25,600 foot Camp V on the North Ridge with
the aim of doing a first cursory search of an area we identified as the
Mallory Basin – it was where we thought we had the best chance of
finding evidence of Mallory & Irvine. After and hour and forty-five
minutes, Conrad called a mandatory team meeting, and I could see him
about 50 meters away from me frantically waving his ice axe. I climbed
over to him and was immediately stunned into silence, for there was
Conrad standing over the remains of what had become our hero: he had
found George Mallory.

It really was a stunning moment – or
series of moments, as we spent about 4 hours with George that day. I
still get goose bumps to this day remembering it, and thinking about
how humbling it all was. For there we were in $1000 down suits and
$1000 boots, standing over the remains of a man who had climbed at
least as high as we were: he did it in silk shirts, a tweed coat, and
woolen knickers. It definitely gave me perspective on the pioneer
climbers and all they accomplished – summit or not.

3) You
climbed Everest twice via the Northeast and Southeast ridges. Could you
describe these ridges and what are the significant characteristics of
each? Was Everest your most difficult challenge?

now been on 5 Everest expeditions, 4 to the Northeast Ridge (climbing
via Tibet) and one to the Southeast Ridge, climbing via Nepal. I
reached the top first from the Southeast Ridge in 2002 while shooting
and expedition for Discovery, and then again in 2003 shooting stills
and video for the Outdoor Life Network’s Global Extremes reality TV

These two ridges are the most common climbing routes on
Everest, and see probably 98% of the climbing traffic. While the
Northeast Ridge was the route of the first attempts on Everest (all
pre-World War II, 1921, 1922, 1924, 1933, 1935, 1936, & 1938), the
technically easier Southeast Ridge was the first definitive summit
route and has been the route of choice for most parties since 1953.

main differences between the two ridges are a question of objective
versus subjective hazards. The Southeast Ridge route, while easy from a
technical climbing standpoint, ascends through the Khumbu Ice Falls –
one of the most dangerous ice falls anywhere in the world. This mass of
ice – literally a glacial waterfall – moves an average of 3 feet per
day during the climbing season. Thus, there is immense objective hazard
on this route: we climb through the ice fall early in the morning
before things have heated up and blocks begin to topple over. But, it
is incredibly dangerous and although we do our best to minimize the
risks of the ice fall, to some extent you are rolling the dice and
hoping nothing collapses around you. However, once through the ice
fall, the route is very simple and straightforward: you travel up
through the Western Cwm, ascend the steep Lhotse Face through Camp III
to Camp IV at the South Col, and then climb to the summit. The only
marginally technical section on the route is the Hillary Step at about
28,800 feet – but that is now quite easy given the traffic it has seen
over the years.

In contrast, the Northeast Ridge has almost no objective hazard on the route. The only objective dangers are a small band of seracs
(ice towers) you cross beneath on the North Col Headwall, and then the
minimal danger of being hit by falling rock (or perhaps an abandoned
oxygen bottle) on the upper, rocky ridges and faces. But, the summit
day on the Northeast Ridge is quite involved. It is nearly all rock,
and not good rock for climbing – it tends to be crumbly shale and
fractured limestone, all tilted downhill at impossible angles. It feels
as if you are walking on a giant, ceramic-tiled roof that runs for
10,000 feet. Once you ascend through the steep terrain of the Yellow
Band and gain the Northeast Ridge crest, you encounter the major
obstacles of the climb: the First Step, the traverse to Mushroom Rock
and on to the Second Step, and then the Second Step itself. In a
nutshell, the Northeast Ridge forces you to keep your focus, to always
pay attention to the route ahead and behind as well as to ascend
moderately technical terrain at extreme altitude. And, the most
difficult part is that you cannot get down quickly, for the route is
nearly all rock, and descent is an arduous process. Nevertheless, it’s
fun climbing, and there’s no objective hazard, so the Northeast Ridge
is my route of choice.

On an interesting side note, it was
really a matter of politics that forced the pioneers in the 1920’s and
‘30’s to climb from the North via Tibet. At that time, Nepal was ruled
by the xenophobic and autocratic Rana regime, and the country was all
but sealed off to foreigners. So, the pioneers gained permission from
the 13th Dalai Lama to approach the mountain via Tibet. In 1949-1950,
the Chinese invaded and occupied Tibet. China subsequently sealed it
off to foreigners while a revolution in Nepal overthrew the Ranas and
brought King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah Dev back to power. This opened
Nepal’s doors to foreign travel, Along with it the first attempts to
climb on the south side of Everest.

4) We
came across each other’s path on one of my posts at Blogcritics that
questioned if people climb mountains for the right reasons and if there
is an overall benefit to mankind. It sparked some interesting comments.
Would you care to rehash your thoughts here?

Basically, the debate was whether or not climbing, in light of recent
tragedies in the mountains and ethical debates about David Sharp’s
death, serves any purpose to mankind or the world as a whole.

me, climbing can serve a purpose for humanity, for it has the potential
to show people what one can accomplish, what barriers – self imposed or
otherwise – one can overcome. In essence, climbing is about pushing our
limits as humans, about looking up at a seemingly insurmountable goal
and having the confidence to push toward that goal while maintaining
the decision making power, ration, and instinct to decide when to turn
around. As I wrote in my Blogcritics comment:

to come back around, I think climbing mountains – Hood, Monadnock, or
Everest – should be about striving to see what we can accomplish in our
lives. It is, really, a metaphor for life itself. Climbing (and similar
sports) teach us that many things which seem impossible are actually
possible given the right combination of skill, insight, tenacity, &
instinct. As James Ramsey Ullman so eloquently put it: "In its truest
and most profound sense, the mountain life is an escape not from, but
to, reality.

Sadly, however, climbing has recently made
somewhat of a transition, especially on Everest. Many people who go to
Everest these days do so, to me, for the wrong reasons. They are not
there to push themselves to their limits, to discover the fine balance
between pushing to the limits and ensuring a safe return. Rather, many
people come to Everest today for one reason only: to stand on top. And
this is not only unfortunate, but dangerous as well. It is unfortunate
because these climbers miss the beauty of the challenge, the inner
growth which stems from deliberately pushing our mental and physical
limits. In the words of one of my favorite authors, Robert Pirsig: "To
live only for some future goal is shallow…It’s the side of the mountain
that sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."

trend in Everest climbing is dangerous because when one is focused
solely on the top, living only for some future goal, that person is
more apt to sacrifice their humanity in an effort to reach that goal. I
cannot say what happened in the David Sharp incident last May – I was
not there, and thus have only a bystanders opinion with the benefit of
20/20 hindsight. (I know many people who were on the ridge that day,
and know they are good people and did what they thought was best in the
situation.) But, I do know that, when faced with the option of helping
a dying man versus reaching that little patch of snow on top of the
world, I would always choose the former…and have on Everest expeditions
in the past.

5) What do you do to relax? Skydive?

do I do to relax? Well, I honestly don’t do that too much – I like to
be active, be it cerebrally or physically. And, my businesses take up a
lot of my time when I’m not out climbing. But, strange as it may sound,
I find climbing – ice, rock, or mountain – to be incredibly relaxing.
For me, climbing forces all the superfluous things in life out of my
head, and I become completely focused on the bare essentials: move that
hand, don’t fall, breath, step up, etc. By breaking down life to its
most basic components, I find I return from a climbing outing focused,
happy, and more at peace. So, I guess that’s my relaxation!

Bonus: What advice would you give those who are thinking about climbing. What should they consider before undertaking such a journey?

question. Let me start by saying that this is my true opinion, and not
said because part of my profession is being a mountain guide. I truly
believe that the best way to start climbing is with a guide, and
preferably with a good guide service – not the cheapest one. Remember
the adage of you get what you pay for. This holds true in the
mountains, with pretty serious consequences. A good guide will take you
into the hills and get you acquainted with climbing in a safe and fun
manner, and you’ll be amazed by the things you’ll accomplish after a
day or two of instruction.

Once the initial learning phase is
done, lots of people want to go out on their own and start climbing.
That is fine, but people need to be sure they have mastered the basics
of climbing first – anchors, route finding, safety, etc. The joy of
climbing comes in part from living to climb another day, not dying in
the process.

So, in a nutshell, I would suggest to those
interested in climbing to start with a guide, learn the essentials and
make sure they are second nature (there’s nothing more terrifying than
needing to build an anchor to save your life and not remembering
exactly how to do it) and then go to the hills but climb well within
your ability until you’re sure you can push the proverbial envelope
safely! Never forget the priorities: safety, fun, summit – in that order!





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