Jake Norton

Jake Norton Interview taken in 2014

Jake is a world-renowned climber, photographer and filmmaker, his worldwide adventures have taken him to the summit of Mount Everest (three times) including the Mallory and Irvine Research Expeditions of 1999, 2001, and 2004, and on expeditions on all seven continents.

On the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition how much of a shock was it that the “English Dead” turned out to be Mallory and not Irvine who it was believed to have been?

It was a complete shock, as was most of that day (May 1, 1999). We had incredible good fortune throughout the expedition. First, we hit by sheer chance one of the driest years ever recorded in the Himalaya; the mountain that winter received very little snow, and lots of high wind, which scoured the upper flanks and left Mallory’s body uncovered – perhaps one of only a handful of years in the prior 75 when it was uncovered. On that day, May 1, we weren’t really ready to start our searching. We had yet to establish Camp VI, and didn’t yet have our infrastructure fully in place, but decided to just make a first, cursory search, see if we could locate the 1975 Chinese Camp VI (where Wang Hung Bao left from when he saw Mallory’s body), and get a feel for the terrain. It ended up snowing the next day, May 2, so theoretically had we not searched on May 1, Mallory’s body would have been covered by snow and we wouldn’t have found it. And, then, thanks to Conrad Anker’s insights, skill, and perhaps an additional dusting of luck, he came upon the “English Dead” after just an hour and 45 minutes. Amazing.

As you note, we all immediately thought we must be looking at the remains of Andrew Irvine. The remains were directly (roughly) in the fall line from where Irvine’s ice ax was found in 1933 by Wager, and common logic always said that the ax marked the sight of a fall; the fall would have been Irvine falling (not the more experienced Mallory); and the body Wang found in 1975 must be Irvine. I believed it was Irvine so thoroughly I carved a tombstone, reading “Andrew Comyn Irvine: 1902-1924”, while Conrad and I waiting for the rest of the team (Dave Hahn, Andy Politz, and Tap Richards) to arrive. We then started excavating the body, chipping the remains from the ice, snow, and rock in which he was encrusted, with Tap and I doing most of that work. As we went, I noticed the shirt collars were still intact (most of the back of his clothing had been torn off by rockfall) and that there were labels in there. I figured it would be interesting to get on camera me turning over the labels so we could record the company who made them, etc., so had Dave Hahn turn his camera toward them as I flipped them over…and there was the laundry label reading “G. Mallory”. We were blown away, awestruck.

One of your photographs showing Mallory’s body stretched out caused controversy when it was first published around the world. Do you think we needed to see this photograph?

Ah, the photo. I still stand by it 100%, and I do think it is important to see it. I don’t think it’s gross, exploitative, hyperbolic, crude, or anything that people have said about it. There’s always a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation when something gets out in the public eye, and I do have some regrets about how the photo was used (which we, sadly, had no control over, although that is a whole other story) and where it was used in publications. But, as for the photo itself, I do believe it’s key to a full understanding of the story. The photo of Conrad standing over his remains was not staged, was not contrived, and certainly was not – as some have interpreted – meant to show “a hunter over his kill”. It is exactly the scene I stumbled onto after Conrad’s radio call; he was locked in silence, stunned really, standing over the remains of one of our collective heroes. To me part of the importance of the photo is in the contrast it shows: here’s Conrad (like us all), clad in a $1000 down suit, $1000 boots, all the modern equipment, standing over the remains of someone who had climbed at least that high dressed in little more than we’d wear outside on a cold day here in Colorado. That contrast, coupled with the austere environment and the summit of Everest just beyond, shows what a true hero Mallory was…and is.

Additionally, that photo (and the others taken by me and Tap Richards) are instructive and tell us more about Mallory and Irvine’s final hours. We can see that Mallory fought hard, through horrific injuries, to stop himself in his downward, cartwheeling fall. We can see he won that fight, albeit briefly, arresting himself on the North Face of Everest, for he’s still in the classic self-arrest position, head uphill, hands still clutching the sides of the mountain. And, we can see his last action: protectively crossing his good left leg over his shattered right ankle in a defensive position. One can talk about this till they’re blue in the face, but it’s the images that bring it home, make it clear, and tell the story completely. As they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Where do you personally believe the body of Andrew Irvine lies?

I believe Irvine lies not far from where the fall that killed Mallory (and, indirectly, Irvine) took place. That is to say, I believe Irvine is in the Yellow Band, off the standard climbing route, below and to climber’s left of the First Step.

You have stood on the summit of Mount Everest three times, were the second and third times just as good as the first?

They were, in that none of the three times on the summit were really all that meaningful for me. In fact, when I think back to the figurative high points of my 7 Everest expeditions, the summit doesn’t even come close to making the top ten. And, it doesn’t on any of my climbs, really. For me, summits are just one tiny part of a much, much greater adventure. As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “To live only for some future goal is shallow…it’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” So, sure, reaching the summit of Everest was nice, especially when I made it first: in 2002, just me and my good friend Karma Rita Sherpa. Everyone else turned back that day, and we had the summit completely to ourselves. But, it really wasn’t a big deal.

Do you know of any further expeditions planned to find Irvine’s body? (This was asked by my Facebook friend Jonathan Clegg)

There’s always talk, and always planning going on, but I don’t know of any real, promising search expeditions planned. Having been on 3 of them, I know what it takes to really do it right, and putting that kind of team and infrastructure together is a huge task. That said, I’d love to see another search launched…and actually have some basic plans myself with another cohort.

One thing I’ve always wonders is how you maintain an objective photographer approach and don’t get gripped by the climb or just caught up in summitting – never mind how you manage to plan camera gear as well as summit gear! (This was asked by my Facebook friend Alan McIntosh)

Shooting in the mountains definitely adds a challenge, Alan. But, for me personally, it’s quite a welcome one. To steal from Smythe, “a camera in the hills” has always been part of the equation for me. My climbing has always been not a purely personal endeavor, but rather one where I go into the mountains in order to share those experiences back home with others…and a camera is critical for that. Of course, shooting professionally on assignment in the mountains adds some more challenges: more gear, more pressure, more forethought and planning and effort. But, again, it’s what I love. I truly enjoy the challenge of interpreting the mountain environment – physical and mental – in a single frame. And, shooting in the hills adds another wrinkle to the whole climb: I’m no longer just climbing, but have to think and plan, anticipate where the next shot will be and what it will look like, and then get there and shoot it. It’s a lot of work, but also a ton of fun.

What’s the one mountain shot you haven’t got but wish you had? (This was asked by my Facebook friend Alan McIntosh)

There’s three, actually: one that pops to mind immediately was this autumn in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. We (David Morton, Pete McBride, and I) went there to try and climb the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV at the head of the Gangotri Glacier (and thus the headwaters of the Ganges River) and then follow the Ganges from true source to sea. We succeeded in that second part, but a lingering monsoon hammered us with 36” of snow in about 12 hours, squashing our climbing plans. I was really hoping to get a shot looking down from high on Chaukhamba at the Gangotri – one of the largest and longest glaciers in the Himalaya – as it winds down valley, its snow melting and forming the first trickles of the world’s most iconic river.

The second shot was really a series of shots I was trying to get in 2009. I was working with some folks from Disney to get giga-pixel, HDR panoramas from high on Everest (more than 400 individual shots would go into each panorama). I was able to shoot them at Basecamp, Pumori Camp 1, in the Khumbu Icefall, at Camp II, and at the South Col, but had some varied snafus on summit day. Basically, I carried all the gear up to the summit (my regular shooting gear plus the camera to shoot the panoramas with) and had a great Sherpa friend carry the panorama tripod with me. As is the case on Everest these days, there was an epic traffic jam; I was at the front, and Mingma was at the rear. Long story short, I was on the summit for about 2 hours before Mingma was able to get there with the tripod, and by then clouds were closing in and there was no chance to shoot the summit panorama.

The final shot was from 2012, again on Everest, when David Morton, Charley Mace, Brent Bishop, and I were trying to climb Hornbein and Unsoeld’s route up the West Ridge. The weather and conditions, coupled with our choice of style (unsupported above Camp II), wreaked havoc on us, and it became pretty obvious we were not going to climb the route that year. But, David and I, on our last day pushing up the West Shoulder Headwall, had high hopes we’d gain the Ridge at least and be able to reshoot the classic and iconic shot by Brent’s father, Barry Bishop, of Hornbein and Unsoeld making their way up the ridge. Sadly, it never happened.

How did it feel to be part of the expedition that found the body of the great George Mallory? (This was asked by my Facebook friend Colin James McCann)

An absolute honor, and the most poignant and humbling Everest moment for me. History has always been a driving force for me, and the history of climbing is what got me into it in the first place. As a kid, I devoured books like Hornbein’s The West Ridge and the early Everest chronicles, so to be able to be a part of that history – even a tiny, insignificant part – was a huge honor.

If you had to choose just one as a career which would it be and why, mountaineering, photography or making films?

That’s a tough one. I love them all in equal measure, and they’re hard to separate for me. But, I guess if I had to choose it would be photography. Still photography requires a ton of thought and preparation to capture a lot in just one, single frame. You have an entire story to tell with one image, and there’s a beauty in that challenge. And, to me, the power of photography is mind bending; a good photograph can change perspectives, ignite passion, share important stories and, if done well, create positive change in our world. So, yes, photography would be it if I had to choose just one. (But, thankfully I don’t!)

Whilst Mallory may not have reached the summit (we may never know) do you rate the efforts and achievements of those brave climbers in the 1920s who failed above those who later reached the summit arguably better equipped? (This was asked by my Facebook friend Peter Cunning)

In many ways, yes, I do. The pioneers on any climb – “successful” or not – to me always have a tougher challenge, for there is so much unknown. For the early Everest climbers, the unknowns were enormous. In 1921, it began with “How do we even get to the mountain??” Only John Noel had been close, and was still 40 miles away. Then, it was: “How do we climb it? Where is the route?” In 1922, they had found a route, but the big question was were they good enough to climb it? Could the human body withstand the challenges of such altitudes? What would life at 8,000m be like? They broke those barriers in ’22. Then, in ’24 (and later in the ‘30’s) the huge unknowns were the vagaries of the route: Go straight up the NE Ridge, like Mallory and Irvine, or to the Great Couloir, like Norton and Somervell? What would they run into? Could they climb the First Step? The Second Step? What lay in hiding around each corner?

On the other side of the mountain, it was much the same. The Swiss in ’52 had a ton of unknowns, and pushed the route nearly to the summit. Hillary and Tenzing, in ’53, pioneered the final summit ridge – no easy feat and a host of unknowns. But, the biggest ones to me were arguably solved by then. Climbers knew the body could handle extreme altitude

What is your current thinking on whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit? (This was asked by my Facebook friend Claire Reynolds)

Simply put, I think they made it. I’m convinced they could have made it, that it was within their ability, and I like to believe they did indeed make it. But, I think it was stupid…and heroic at the same time, if that’s possible. Stupid because they pushed too far, beyond all reason and chance of safe return. I really believe that Mallory could not turn around, that his only true way home was via the summit of Everest, and that he was willing to risk it all for that outcome. And, I believe Andrew Irvine would have gotten caught up in Mallory’s enthusiasm, his exuberance, and pushed onward.

At the same time, there is a note of heroism in their climb. As Wade Davis so eloquently and thoroughly examines in his book Into the Silence, Mallory (and all members from ’24 except Irvine) were products of the Great War. Their lives were thoroughly affected by their experiences in that war. They had seen the horrors of war, looked death in the face, and as a result were more focused than ever on making sure their lives had meaning, that they grabbed life by its proverbial horns and did not, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “come to the time of [their] death[s] and find that they had not fully lived.”

For more information on my theory of what happened to Mallory and Irvine on that final, fateful day, you can visit these links on my blog:

•  What Really Happened to Mallory & Irvine, Part I: http://mountainworldproductions.com/wp/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-george-mallory-andrew-irvine.html

•  What Really Happened to Mallory & Irvine, Part II: http://mountainworldproductions.com/wp/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-george-mallory-andrew-irvine-part-ii.html

•  What Really Happened to Mallory & Irvine, Part III: http://mountainworldproductions.com/wp/2010/05/what-really-happened-to-mallory-irvine-part-iii.html

Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?

I do, but not how we modern climbers think about it or try to climb it. As we know, Oscar Cadiach, Theo Fritsche, Conrad Anker, and Leo Houlding have all free climbed the Second Step. They’ve all given its technical difficulty different ratings, from 5.7 (Cadiach and Fritsche) to 5.10 (Anker in 1999 and 2007, Houlding rated it 5.9). Even at the easiest 5.7 rating, a climb of that difficulty would have been at the upper end of Mallory’s ability in the Alps, let alone at 28,250 feet. But, I don’t think they climbed it that way. In the 1920’s, climbing and climbing ethics were different than they are today. A common tactic on difficult terrain was something unthinkable by today’s standards: the courte-échelle. Basically, it’s one climber using the body of another climber as a “ladder” to move up an unclimbable section. A famous picture shows Colorado pioneer climber Albert Ellingwood using this technique with companion Carl Blaurock, and this is precisely how the Chinese climber Chu Yin-hua made the first known ascent of the Second Step in 1960 thanks to the strong shoulders of Liu Lien-man. Andrew Irvine was over 6 feet tall – presumably taller than Liu – and using him as a ladder, I’m confident Mallory could have reached holds on top of the Second Step headwall and climb over. He’d then have used the rope they carried to belay Irvine.

You can read more about this theory on my blog, here: http://mountainworldproductions.com/wp/2011/03/george-mallory-and-the-second-step-a-red-herring.html

What do you think of Graham Hoyland’s claim to have known Mallory’s location at the time of the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research expedition?

To be entirely honest, I haven’t thought about it too much. It is indeed interesting, and a tantalizing bit of information. But, I find it hard to believe, personally.

First and foremost, I think it would have been nearly impossible for Frank Smythe to have seen “something queer” via telescope at Basecamp high on the North Face. The distance is some 12 linear miles, and using Jochen Hemmleb’s 1200mm telescope in 1999 it was still difficult to locate climbers on the North Face from Basecamp, and we knew exactly where to look. Smythe would not have been looking for a body, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) the optics were as good in ’24 as they are now. Also, Frank Smythe was a prolific writer and author of many books; it seems implausible to me that this discovery was not made public by him at some point, or at least discussed more widely given the vast interest in the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. And, finally, if Graham indeed knew the location of Mallory’s body in 1999, we could have saved a lot of time by honing in on that spot exactly!

I like Graham a lot, have been on the mountain a couple of times now with him (1999 and 2004), and think he has a wonderful perspective and historic connection to this story and mystery. But, I do have a hard time believing the story of the 1933 sighting.

If you would like to find out more about Jake then please pay a visit to his website at www.mountainworldproductions.com