Greg Mortenson was born in Minnesota in 1957, but from 1958 to 1973 he lived in Tanzania, where his father, Irvin “Dempsey” Mortenson, helped found the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, and his mother, Jerene Mortenson, started the International School Moshi. Greg joined the U.S. Army in 1977 and served two years in Germany, after which he began college. In 1983, he graduated from the University of South Dakota with an Associate Degree in Nursing and a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry. Mountain climbing had been a lifelong passion for him, and during the next decade, he combined work as a trauma nurse with increasingly ambitious mountaineering expeditions. In 1993, to honor the memory of his recently deceased sister, he decided to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain. He lost his chance to reach the summit when he helped to rescue another climber and bring him down the mountain to safety. After a difficult descent that left Mortenson weak and exhausted, he was taken in and cared for by the local people of a tiny village called Korphe. During his recovery, Mortenson saw a group of children writing in the dirt with sticks. He promised that he would return and help build them a school.
Mortenson’s promise to build this single school ultimately led to the creation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has helped to construct and staff dozens of schools across rural Pakistan. Mortenson’s early efforts to raise funds for the school in Korphe were unsuccessful, but they brought Mortenson to the attention of Dr. Jean Hoerni, a wealthy, accomplished scientist—and fellow mountain climber—who provided Mortenson with the money he needed. The two men eventually co-founded the CAI, which, under Mortenson’s guidance, began the work of educating Pakistani children. The CAI placed a particular emphasis on schooling girls, who had traditionally been neglected in the conservative Muslim culture that dominates rural Pakistan. Today, the schools Mortenson has helped create, combined with those the CAI provides with significant support, serve nearly 60,000 children, more than 40,000 of them girls.
In 2004, Mortenson teamed with journalist David Relin, who had traveled extensively in East Asia publishing investigative reports on international issues affecting children, to tell the story of how he became co-founder of the CAI and one of the world’s best-known humanitarians. Mortenson and Relin worked together for two years on Three Cups of Tea, which was released in 2006 and immediately named “Asia Book of the Year” by Time Magazine. A variety of other awards followed, including the 2007 Kiriyama Prize Nonfiction Award and a 2008 Montana Honor Book Award. Stones Into Schools, a sequel to Three Cups of Tea, was released in 2009.
When Mortenson’s story began in 1993, few Americans were aware of the political situations in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. That lack of awareness changed dramatically, however, after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea recounts the perils and problems that confront Mortenson as a result of international tensions—including his kidnapping by the Taliban and the fighting between Afghan warlords that almost cost Mortenson his life—but also shows how his core principles continually guide his actions. Mortenson’s philosophy is based in the belief that peace depends on person-to-person relationships and the willingness of different cultures to find common ground. In addition to explaining the origins and evolution of the CAI, the book also recounts Mortenson’s personal path from self-described “climbing bum” to husband, father, and world-renowned humanitarian.