Nothing quite splits readers of Outside like a story about an adventurer or athlete who has died and left behind a spouse and children. The comments on such stories range from Good for them and They died doing what they loved and inspired countless others to Shame on them and They were selfish to take such risks and leave a grieving family behind. What gets lost a lot of times in the back and forth is the thoughts, experiences, and wishes of the family, both before and after the tragedy.
Recently, Andy Maser and crew made an adventure short that explores how Wende Valentine and Jake Norton deal with risk and danger while he is off climbing mountains around the world. The pair, who have been married for more than eight years, have two young children. The short does a great job exploring how the couple handles time apart and risk, so I won't ruin anything about it by trying to distill their relationship. You can watch the video for that.
Still, I wanted to know a bit more. Valentine works at a non-profit, Water For People, and has traveled the world doing work to improve sanitation and access to clean drinking water. Norton has a stacked resume of climbing achievements from Rainier to Everest. Now, the couple has teamed up, further bonding their relationship to their work. Norton is climbing the three tallest mountains on all seven continents to raise awareness and money for Water for People in a project called Challenge21.
How did two such driven people meet and how has their relationship evolved to deal with risk as they build a family? I emailed Valentine and Norton separately and asked them the same questions to get their independent answers.
How did you meet the first time?
Wende: Jake and I met at a party in Colorado Springs back in 1998. He was the landlord of someone with whom I was happily in a relationship and had been for two years at the time. But I’ll never forget thinking as I left the party that night, I’m going to be friends with that guy forever. He was tall, dark, and handsome, right? In reality, I didn’t actually have a huge physical attraction to him from the get-go—that came two years later. For me, it was his deep sense of calm, maturity, humility, intelligence, and his comfort with adventure and emotion for the world that really struck me.
Jake: Wende and I met first at a party in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I was a slum ... er, landlord, there with some friends from Colorado College. Wende happened to be dating one of our tenants. I stopped by the party, and was immediately drawn to this stunning woman across the room. Eventually we talked and I was amazed that she was beautiful on the outside, and even more so on the inside. We shared similar perspectives and outlooks on life, the world, and how we wanted to interact with it. In short, I was totally inspired and smitten ... but she was in a relationship, so we simply remained friends.
Two years later, in 2000, I had just come back from leading a climb of Cho Oyu and was heading down to Peru to lead another trip. I knew Wende was teaching English in Buenos Aires, so dropped her an email to see if she wanted to meet up. To my surprise, she agreed, and our first date was spent hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. It was amazing, and was the beginning of what has now been 12 years of love, laughter, and adventure.
What initially attracted you to the other?
Jake: I was first attracted to Wende by looks—seeing her across the room at a crowded party she caught my eye and never let it go. But, it was out first conversation minutes later that really sealed the deal for me. She did—and still does—inspire me through and through. As someone once said, she makes me want to be a better man, husband, father, and person.
Wende: The connection for me from our first conversation was profound on multiple levels. We shared a ton in common. We both grew up in New England and went to boarding schools there for high school. We both had the good fortune and desire to have worked and traveled in multiple countries already, from both studying abroad with the School for International Training (he in Nepal, me in Madagascar), to both guiding climbing (Jake)/backpacking (Wende) trips. We also both moved from back east out to Colorado, and knew that there was a big world out there, and that we wanted to ensure that our life’s paths and careers took us to the people and places that we both had learned so much from.
But it wasn’t until we were both single and I literally quit my job in Argentina to fly to Peru and spend 10 days with him hiking the Inca Trail and exploring Lake Titicaca in Bolivia in 2000 that I started to really fall for him. We slept side by side (I played really hard to get), laughed so much our bellies hurt, talked about our experiences, families, past relationships, passions, and inspirations ... and then eventually about each other.
When was the first time you had a serious conversation about the risks Jake was taking as a climber?
Jake: We've never really had that conversation, mainly because we've never needed to have it. From the start, Wende's known and supported what I do, and also understood that I'm really not a risk taker. I am a self-described wimpy climber. I know where my limits are, and I stay away from them. Sure, from the outside perspective, I'm taking big risks. But, they're well within my experience level, well thought out and calculated. And I'm not afraid to turn back if the risks get too high—just like we did on Everest this spring. So we've never needed to have that conversation.
And Wende knows risk too. In her work in development, she's traveled to some amazing, and challenging, places: Rwanda, Uganda, rural West Bengal, etc. And, she's climbed Kilimanjaro, up to 23,000 feet on the North Ridge of Everest, and more. She understands risk, and how I approach it.
Wende: It had to have been in January or February of 2001 when he was headed back to the north side of Everest for three months to continue his historical quest to tell the story of Mallory and Irvine. We flew to Nepal together and spent a couple of weeks hiking in the Khumbu enjoying every last moment together. I know we must have talked about the climb, what his goals were, what it would entail, how he would communicate, etc. I was pretty nervous about the unknown entity of what he was doing and also incredibly sad about saying goodbye for three months. But,I knew this was who I fell in love with, and asking him to give up climbing for me would be killing everything I loved about him. And because he turned back from going for the summit of Everest in 1999, I tried to be confident that he would be conservative. He said that coming home was always far more important than any summit or unnecessary risk. That being said, I bit my nails quite a bit that spring because a mountain of that magnitude was such an unknown entity for me. It wasn’t until I went to Everest with him in 2004 and climbed the North Col that I saw the terrain and saw him in his element that I understood just how predisposed he was mentally, physically, and emotionally for high-altitude climbing, photography, and filming.
What moment in your relationship has been the scariest, most worrisome?
Jake: For me, the most worrisome moments come every time I leave on a big expedition and have to say goodbye to Wende, Lila, and Ryrie. It's not so much that I'm worried about myself and whether or not I'll come back. Rather, I worry about the angst and trouble I'm causing for them. I know that my being gone puts Wende in a single mom situation with a ton to balance: work, kids, bills, house, etc. And add on to that the inevitable fears about what I'm doing and what might happen, and I know it's not easy. So my biggest worry is a recurring one: the worry about the worry I cause for my wife and children.
Wende: There have been a lot honestly. Between the two of our careers and adding children into the equation, we’ve put ourselves in a lot of intense situations. Honestly though, the majority of my worst fears come out in the weeks before any trip or expedition that either of us is taking. I’ll wake up at 2 a.m. and my mind will start racing, imagining all of the many ways either of us could die, what life would be like without Jake, how I would get the news, how I would tell the kids. Pretty morbid stuff. And then, an amazing thing happens. I become totally at peace in the days right before he leaves and for the vast majority of the entire expedition or trip. It’s like I just have to get it out of my system. There were some incredibly dicey situations that happened this past spring on Everest, but I’ve never felt so grounded, connected, and without fear before.
How has your communication changed during expeditions?
Jake: I don't think it's really changed much in terms of content. What has changed is the ability to communicate. On our first relationship expedition, in 2000, I was gone for about a month leading a trip into the east side of Everest. There was no communication whatsoever for the month—total silence. On the most recent one just this spring, I got 3G cell service in my tent at Everest Base Camp, so we could talk every night for 2.4 cents a minute. That has been a huge change as it allows some degree of communication even when far, far apart.
Wende: Our communications have changed dramatically over the last 12 years. Maybe that was why I was so at peace all spring. Jake had a Nepali cell phone with him at Base Camp that was the most reliable, affordable, and consistent means of communication we’ve ever had when apart from one another. In the past, we’ve gone from nothing at all for a month except for a letter, to a satellite phone call once a week, to emails once a day, to instant messaging and Skype or a local cell phone. It has changed things dramatically, especially for the kids. They had the option to speak with him almost twice a day this past spring, to tell Jake about their day, what they ate for breakfast, and ask him all about what life was like where he was. It made everything feel as normal as could be expected…for all of us.
What has been the high point of your marriage?
Wende: There have been lots of those too. Our wedding on August 30th, 2003, was an unbelievable day. Trekking from 14,000 feet in Tibet and then climbing the North Col (23,000 feet) was one of the most peaceful months of our lives together. Guiding a climb of Kilimanjaro together in 2006 was one of the only things we had on our list of things we wanted to do before having kids—and it was incredible. Growing as parents together of Lila (almost five) and Ryrie (2.5) is probably the most powerful thing either of us has ever been through. We have been stripped to our cores in a beautiful way—all of our rawness as people has been exposed and we are continually learning from our children how to be better people every single day. Starting Challenge21 in 2011 has been sort of akin to having another child. Our week in Sayulita, Mexico, with the kids this past March before Jake headed off to attempt a climb of the West Ridge was pure bliss.
Jake: Literally? Nearly 23,000 feet on Everest.
Figuratively, there have been many, but the three that sit at the top and share high point status are August 30, 2003 (the day we got married), July 30, 2007 (the day our daughter was born), and November 13, 2009 (the day our son was born). Those are the high points to me of our marriage, and, really, of my entire life.
What advice would you give to other couples in which at least one person is taking risks in an adventure sport on a regular basis?
Wende: Life is short and anything can happen to any one of us at any moment in time. Certainly there are more obvious risks than others, but if we can all be so lucky to do what makes our spirits thrive within ability and reason and not feel guilty while we’re doing it, then (at the risk of sounding very cliché), I truly believe the world will be filled with many more people who are at peace with themselves and happy in their relationships. Although it may not appear this way, everything in moderation for us is key. I used to be overseas for what seemed like weeks at a time multiple times a year, and since 2008 I have scaled back considerably to two international trips a year. Before setting his sights on any summit, Jake sets his sights on coming back home. All risks are calculated with that as his barometer. Be patient with each other, communicate everything, trust yourself and your partner, and live every day like it’s your last.
Jake: Be honest. If there are concerns, air them, and talk about them. Don't be afraid to remind the person taking risks to be careful. And, for the person taking risks, know what's really important in life. Summits are patches of snow and rock with only perceived significance attached to them. They're not worth your life or limb. Don't be afraid to turn around and make a wise decision.
For more on Norton and Valentine's ongoing adventure, follow Challenge21.