US Mountaineer Builds
Schools in Pakistan
By Afzal Khan
Washington, DC: An American mountain climber, whose life
was saved by villagers in Pakistan's Karakoram Mountains
during a failed attempt to scale the world's second highest
peak, is returning the kindness by building schools in northern
Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan.
Greg Mortenson wandered hungry and lost on the Baltoro glacier
in 1993 after failing to reach the summit of the 8,611-meter
high Mount Godwin-Austen, or K2, the world's second highest
He was found by villagers in the village of Korphe and nursed
back to health. During that assault on the summit, the team
of 12 climbers lost five members during the descent. Two
climbers made it to the top. Mortenson had to turn back
600 meters short of the top. Because of its steepness, Mount
Godwin-Austen is more difficult to climb than Mount Everest,
the world's highest peak.
While recuperating in Korphe, Mortenson noticed that the
village had no school and children did their lessons by
scratching twigs in the sand on a mountain ridge. The teacher
split his time between Korphe and a neighboring village
because the Korphe residents alone could not afford to pay
his salary, the equivalent of one dollar a day.
After he recovered his health, Mortenson told the village
chief, Haji Ali, that he would return to Korphe one day
and build a school for the children. He fulfilled his promise
in 1996 and has gone on to build 54 more schools in northern
Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan that employ 527 teachers
and have more than 22,000 students.
Following the massive earthquake that struck the Kashmir
region in October 2005, Mortenson has helped build more
than 30 tents schools. The 55 schools that Mortenson built
earlier were not touched by the quake.
Mortenson's story of mountaineering, his brush with death,
and his educational philanthropy is recounted in his book,
Three Cups of Tea, which has become a best seller.
Mortenson is a former US military nurse who served in Germany
and is the son of Christian missionaries who worked in Tanzania.
The first contribution for the Korphe school, $100, came
from former TV newsman Tom Brokaw, who, like Mortenson,
attended the University of South Dakota and played football
there under the same coach as Mortenson. A second donation
came from students at an elementary school in Wisconsin
where Mortenson's mother was principal. They contributed
$623.45 in a "Pennies for Pakistan" drive.
The first big break in funding came when Swiss-American
scientist-philanthropist Jean Hoerni gave $12,000. Hoerni,
who played a pioneering role in the early years of information
technology and was an avid climber in the Himalayan and
Karakoram ranges, later bequeathed $1 million to a nonprofit
organization, the Central Asia Institute, at the time of
his death in 1997. Hoerni established the institute and
Mortenson today runs it.
A cover story about Mortenson’s educational work in
the April 6, 2003, edition of Parade magazine helped to
raise more than $1 million from readers for the Central
Asia Institute. These funds got the school projects going
in full swing with the institute hiring local personnel
in the region.
Mortenson has become a hero in Baltistan, where villagers
call him “Doctor” because he often uses his
nursing skills to attend to the sick. After the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, village women brought him
precious handfuls of eggs and requested that he take them
back to their sisters in the “village” of New
Despite his school building efforts, Mortenson has not been
welcomed by all.
On one occasion, a Shi'a cleric from a Baltistan village
issued a fatwa or religious edict branding Mortenson an
infidel, unfit to teach the children – especially
girls. However, a senior Shi'a cleric from another village
intervened by sending the fatwa for final review to Qom,
the center of Shi'a religious scholarship in Iran.
Several months later the answer came back in a red velvet
box. When a council of Shi'a clerics in Baltistan opened
the box, the scroll of parchment proclaimed that Qom did
not see anything wrong in Mortenson providing education
to children – including girls. The proclamation went
on to say that education for both boys and girls is encouraged
in Islam and that the Qur’an does not prohibit a non-Muslim
from providing such noble assistance.
Since then, Mortenson said he has felt entirely safe and
welcome in the region. He has ventured farther afield into
the remote Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan’s northeastern
province of Badakhshan, where he has built eight schools.
Although warned by the US Embassy that it was unsafe to
travel in those regions after the terrorist attacks of September
11, 2001, Mortenson has been regularly visiting the area
from the headquarters of the Central Asia Institute in Bozeman,
Montana. Even his wife and young daughter once accompanied
him to Korphe, where the village women treated them like
a “queen” and “princess,” he said.
Mortenson currently is touring the United States promoting
Three Cups of Tea. The title comes from a conversation he
had with Haji Ali years ago.
“The first time you share tea [green tea with salt
and yak butter] with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second
time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time
you share a cup of tea, you become part of the family,”
Mortenson recalls Haji Ali as saying.
(Courtesy The Washington File, a product of the Bureau of
International Information Programs, US Department of State.
Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)