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Jake Norton with his family on top of Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda. Photograph by Jake Norton.

The Challenge of 21: Climbing the World’s Tallest Mountains for Water

This planet has a huge water problem. Luckily, there are people who are working to solve the global sanitation and water crisis. Even in the developed world, this is now our burden.

The Challenge21 Team plans to help. Representing the entity Water For People,  Jake Norton, Wende Valentine, and Danielle Elkin have created a mission that has Norton attempting to climb the Triple Seven Summits (21 peaks—the three highest on each of the seven continents) in order to raise $2.1 million for Water For People and to engage and impassion 2.1 million people on these issues.

Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga are all dramatic mountains, challenging climbs, and summits that will be attempted for Challenge21. In sharing the progress of these climbs in real time, the team will bring people into the Challenge21 story. The team has also launched school programs and grassroots fundraising efforts simultaneously with the larger project. In making the expeditions visible to the public, they hope to shift the focus—and the money—of millions of people from the climbing to the health of our planet.

The statistics on their site are staggering:

– 884 million people worldwide don’t have regular access to safe drinking water.
– 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities.  Recent estimates are also that over a billion people practice open defecation—no latrine at all.
– Every day, more than 6,000 people in our world die from water-related illnesses—nearly 2 million each year—and most of them are young children.
– Uncollected garbage, overflowing latrines, and non-functional residential and municipal drainage pipes plague poor people in urban areas. Children play in “latrine streams” filled with disease.
– About half of the world’s population lives in abject poverty on less than $2 per day. Water-related preventable diseases are killing these people and arresting development in their communities.
– More than 125 million children under five years of age live in households without access to an improved drinking-water source, and more than 280 million children under five live in households without access to improved sanitation facilities.
– 90 percent of wastewater in developing countries is discharged into rivers and streams without any treatment.

The threesome has a strong history. Wende and Jake are married with two young children, Lila and Ryrie. The couple had dreamed of merging their passions and careers since they hiked the Inca Trail in 2000 on their official “first date.” For Jake, climbing introduced him to people, places, and cultures that he had only seen in the pages of books and magazines. It also opened his eyes to the dramatic inequalities of geography. With both Wende and their friend, Danielle, working at Water For People, Jake was motivated to do more with his career as a climber, using climbing as a vehicle for change. The three collaborated on a vision of global sustainable development that could be tackled through a grassroots approach. Challenge21 was born to fuel a large-scale initiative in supporting humanity’s most basic pressing needs–clean water and good sanitation.

They each have a significant role. Jake creates, executes, guides, and documents (photography, film, blogs) all expeditions. He also speaks nationally at both businesses and schools to educate and inspire around their mission. Wende works with Water For People’s field programs, linking Challenge21 and Water For People with corporate sponsors and fundraising. Danielle is the glue of the project, running business development, marketing, sponsorships, and additional fundraising.

As the lead climber for every expedition, Jake has a daunting journey before him, but also a direction of which he can be proud. “The difficulty of the Triple Seven Summits is why I chose them as the climbing goal: they’re tangible, and represent a real challenge—one which in some ways mirrors the challenges faced daily by so many around the world, and mirrored by Water For People’s challenges in providing locally appropriate, sustainable solutions in their program areas.”

For Wende, as a mother of two young children, the reality of 5,000 people (most of which are children under five) dying every day from lack of water and sanitation has made her work with Water For People become far more than a career. She is compelled to do all she can to bring people into the fold of awareness and action. As Wende shares, “We are the lucky ones who can choose our challenges. Billions of people around the world have not chosen theirs. It’s the least we can do to start to change this trajectory and get behind the most effective model in creating change for everyone.”

As of March 7, Jake has climbed seven of the 21 peaks on the list, so there are 14 remaining. With an expedition planned to Everest later this month, he will then head out again in August 2012 to climb the three highest peaks in Europe—Elbrus, Gora Dykh-tau, and Gora Shkhara. And, that’s just on the climbing side of Challenge21. The team has large fund and awareness raising goals: $2.1 million to raise, and still at least 1 million more people to engage in addition to the 1.1 million who have already been reached by the effort. There is a long road ahead.

Get Involved:

1. The team is actively seeking additional corporate partners who want not only to support an incredible organization like Water For People, but also to reap the rewards and visibility of having their brand and message tied to the climbs of Challenge21.

Where does the donation go?

On the fundraising side, 100 percent of the money raised goes directly to Water For People. If someone clicks the “Donate Now” button on the Challenge21 website or Facebook page, they’re immediately redirected to Water For People’s donations interface. And, Water For People is in the top 1 percent of charities on Charity Navigator, with the highest four-star rating for nine consecutive years, setting the worldwide benchmark for financial accountability, so people can rest assured that their donations are responsibly and efficiently used by Water For People.

3. Why Water For People –

Wende, “We chose Water For People as our non-profit partner because of the efficacy of their development model, and their dedication to full transparency and accountability. Everywhere they work, Water For People focuses on creating real, sustainable change for Everyone Forever in communities, rather than simply adding taps and toilets and counting “beneficiaries”. And, they pride themselves on being accountable – for their successes as well as their failures. Their development of the innovative FLOW application is testament to this: it is a simple Android app which allows real-time reporting on the condition of water points around the world, including Water For People projects.”