There have been a handful of mountaineers in the annals of history who have been able to face all odds to climb the toughest of mountains on the face of earth. Fewer among them managed not only to summit these peaks but also conquer the hearts of the natives.
Greg Mortenson is one of those legendary mountaineer-turned-philanthropists who risked his life for the welfare of the people drenched in sordid poverty in the remote Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, and continues to do so to this date.
Greg hails from a family of teachers and social workers which goes as far back as his great grandfather. Born in 1957, Greg found an early interest in the sport of mountaineering and rock climbing while his family was based at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. His father Dempsey, founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre while his mother Jerene, founded the International School Moshi. Greg struck a chord with the beauty of the Tanzanian savannahs and forests and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 11.
Living most part of his life as a climbing bum, Greg decided to conquer the world’s second highest peak K2 in 1993 to pay homage to his crippled younger sister Christa who had died the previous year. Christa was a patient of epilepsy by birth and being deeply attached to her sister, Greg vowed to climb the toughest mountain on earth also known as “The Savage Mountain”. Greg fell short of just few hundred meters and had to abandon his attempt for the peak to carry out a rescue mission for his missing fellow climber.
Greg was brought back to the Korphey village in the remote and rugged terrain of Karakorum by one of the high altitude porters and was nursed and brought back to health by the locals. Greg stayed in the village for few weeks and while wandering through the houses during his stay, noticed a girl trying to write something on dirt with a maple twig. He was so moved by the sight that he decided to built a girls school in the village, something which was unprecedented in the history of the region.
Greg, during his stay in probably the darkest corners of the world, came to witness the extreme life routine the locals followed. Under-fed and illiterate, these people did not have access to the basic health facilities. A broken limb often resulted in lifelong disability due to negligence and lack of medical care. Infant mortality figures were the worse and one out of every third child died by the age of one. Literacy rate among women was the lowest which often resulted in miscarriages during pregnancies and other complications.
Greg, having made up his mind, returned to the United States to collect donations for his dream school.
“Everything about their life was a struggle,” Greg recalls, “They reminded me of the way Christa … had a way of just persevering, no matter what life threw at her.”
He sold most of his belongings including his car and his climbing gear and wrote more than 500 hand written letters to different celebrities asking for donations. None of which yielded any results. Greg received his first major donation from his mother’s school in Rivers fall Wisconsin when the school children collected 65,000 pennies in less than a week.
In 1995 Greg returned to Pakistan and went ahead with his school-building project in the Korphe, starting with a 282-feet suspension Bridge. Today after 16 years of fighting the odds with his iron clad determination, Greg has been able to build 145 schools in the region providing education to around 58,000 children including 44,000 girls. In all this time he went through several life threatening ordeals when he was kidnapped by Taliban in 1996 for ransom and later released. He stood firm against many religious banishments (Fatwa) thrashed upon him by local mullahs.
As Greg fondly recalls the day when he was asked to come inside one of the sacred mosques and was handed over a black box by eight high ranking Muslim clerics. Greg remembers the day as he thought it was probably his last day on earth. Instead to his utter surprise, there was a letter in ornate Persian which held Greg’s work as the highest among the principles of Islam. The letter also maintained the view that there is nothing in Quran which goes against education for either sex.
Among other long list of awards, Greg was also bestowed with Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan), the highest civil award of Pakistan. Greg is the co-founder of the Central Asian Institute (CAI), which is running several social uplift projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also heads a no-profit organization“Pennies for peace”.
He spends most time of the year in Pakistan and tours the United States promoting his New York Bestseller “Three cups of Tea” which he wrote over his experiences in Pakistan. Greg’s wife Dr. Tara Bishop and two daughters Amira and Khyber live in Bozeman, Montana and frequently visit Pakistan.
"I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decides to hate us. It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death."
Greg Mortenson remains as one of the very few enlightened ones who are fighting the war on Terror on the right front. He may not stand shoulder to shoulder among the many celebrated war veterans, but the people of Korphe will remember him for generations to come.