'Dr. Greg' Failed to climb a mountain, but still achieved great heights

Sep 24 2010 - 5:06pm


(Photo courtesy Central Asia Institute) Greg Mortenson poses with Sitara "Star" schoolchildren in Afghanistan.
(Photo courtesy Central Asia Institute) Greg Mortenson poses with Sitara "Star" schoolchildren in Afghanistan.

After failing to summit K-2, the world's second-highest mountain, Greg Mortenson made a wrong turn that changed the course of his life.

It was 1993 and Mortenson was in Pakistan to conquer the treacherous mountain as a way of honoring his sister Christa, who had died the previous year of a massive seizure after a lifelong battle with epilepsy. He wanted to place his sister's necklace at the summit of this formidable ice and rock giant.

But after spending 70 days on the mountain and participating in the life-saving rescue of another climber, Mortenson was too weakened to continue and retreated before reaching the top. On his way down, he made a wrong turn and ended up in the small village of Korphe, where the emaciated mountaineer was befriended by residents who nursed him back to health -- an experience that involved copious cups of tea.

One day during his recovery, he walked behind the village, where he was dismayed and disheartened to see a large group of children kneeling on the frosty ground with sticks in their hands, scratching out their schools lessons in the dirt. This patch of dirt served as their pitiful classroom. In that moment, Mortenson had found a better way to honor the memory of his sister.

Before leaving the village, he made a vow to the village elder who had shown him such kindness. The promise is recounted in a passage from the best-selling book "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time" (Viking Penguin, 2006), co-authored by Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

"He (Mortenson) put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulder as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they'd shared their first cup of tea. 'I'm going to build you a school,' he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had been detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he'd taken since retreating from K-2. 'I will build a school,' Mortenson said. 'I promise.' "

It was a promise he would keep, over and over and over again.

Education with impact

Mortenson is the featured speaker Friday at Weber State University's Goddard MBA 10-Year Celebration Gala and Benefit. Mark Stevenson, MBA enrollment director for WSU Davis, said Mortenson's appearance at the gala is a rare opportunity to hear from this extraordinary man who is in high demand on the speaking circuit.

Mortenson receives more than 2,000 speaking requests per year, he said, so Northern Utahns are fortunate he is coming to the gala.

Mortenson is co-founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Bozeman, Mont., where Mortenson lives with his wife and two children. Since that first school in Korphe, the institute has built more than 145 education institutions for more than 58,000 children in Central Asia.

Mortenson's work through the CAI is an ideal fit with the gala's theme, "Education With Impact."

"With the MBA, the focus has really kind of been echoing what he does," Stevenson said. "Education can change people's lives ... It can really be a transformative experience for people, not just in career terms but also personally."

After WSU covers its costs to host the gala, Stevenson said, the remaining funds will go to the CAI to help build another school.

Chris Butterfield, a 2007 MBA from WSU, is the person who suggested getting Mortenson as the gala speaker. Butterfield said he read "Three Cups of Tea" shortly after it was published and was impressed with Mortenson's commitment to education and literacy, particularly in such a troubled part of the world.

Although the cost for the event is a bit pricey at $100 per ticket for the general public, Butterfield noted that the money going to the CAI can go a long way in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where prices are much cheaper for school supplies, teacher salaries and building supplies.

Mortenson built the Korphe school for approximately $12,000, a number that in the United States probably wouldn't cover preliminary planning costs, Butterfield said.

"When you read a story about kids that simply don't have an opportunity to receive any form of an education, it's saddening," Butterfield said. "But it's heartening when you have someone like Greg who basically did it to help people out. He didn't have an ulterior motive for money or anything else. I think he has done a fantastic job to bring something to kids who don't have it otherwise."

Educating girls

Against a backdrop of political turmoil, warfare and natural disasters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mortenson has continued to build schools, many of them for girls in remote areas.

The CAI reported in its September newsletter that none of its CAI schools were harmed by the recent devastating floods in Pakistan, but significant damage and fatalities hit the regions its serves. The CAI is assisting with flood relief and other support.

Over the course of his work, Mortenson has been kidnapped, caught in a firefight between Afghan opium warlords, and has had two fatwas issued against him by outraged Islamic clerics for educating girls.

Mortenson firmly believes that education is the only way Central Asia will ever see lasting stability and peace. And he believes educating the girls is key to that equation.

"Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities," Mortenson explains in the book. "But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."

Stevenson also sees great value and benefit in educating females in impoverished areas of the world.

"Female literacy is one of the best things you can do to raise standards of living in a country," Stevenson said. "There is an empowering aspect of women being able to participate more fully in their society and in the economy and raise standards of living for themselves, their children, their family and society as a whole."

Mortenson's book tells the story of one remarkable young woman, Jahan, one of the first female graduates of the Korphe school. Jahan, who at the time was going on to university and had planned to return to Korphe as a health worker, asks Mortenson not to laugh before she tells him her ambition.

"I don't want to be just a health worker. I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive, and look over all the health problems of all the women in the Braldu. I want to become a very famous woman of this area."

The chapter concludes with her enthusiasm: "I want to be a 'Superlady,' she said, grinning defiantly, daring anyone, any man, to tell her she couldn't."

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