David Relin sits in a helicopter with Greg Mortenson, on their way to a remote area of Pakistan. Their pilot, Brigadier General Bhangoo, has a great deal of experience in the area, but it is Mortenson who points out that they are off course. After nearly running out of fuel, the helicopter arrives in the village of Korphe, where Mortenson’s project of building schools in Pakistan began a decade before. The villagers greet the men warmly, and Bhangoo tells Relin how much he respects Mortenson. Relin briefly summarizes Mortenson’s story, explaining that many people who encounter Mortenson are drawn into his “orbit.” Although Relin normally tries to remain objective as a journalist, he admits to being biased in Mortenson’s favor after seeing so many of Mortenson’s accomplishments. Relin explains that, although he has done all the writing, the book is a true collaboration. Together, Mortenson and Relin have gone through all of Mortenson’s slides, videos, and documents, and Relin has recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with people involved in the story. At Mortenson’s request, Relin has even interviewed all of Morteson’s critics. Although Relin notes that he, like many others, has experienced problems due to Mortenson’s disregard for sticking to schedules, he concludes by praising Mortenson for his hands-on approach to fighting terrorism through education.
On September 2, 1993, Mortenson is making his way downhill through rough terrain in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. He has failed in an attempt to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Mortenson was following Scott Darsney on the descent, but now he cannot see him ahead. The two had lost their opportunity to reach the summit of K2 when they spent three days on the rescue of fellow climber Etienne Fine. As the tallest and strongest member of the expedition, Mortenson has already used a great deal of energy carrying supplies, and he is physically and mentally exhausted after the rescue. He has lost thirty pounds and now has little in the way of supplies and equipment for the descent.
As he prepares to spend the freezing night on a glacier, with only a light blanket, Mortenson reflects on his life and recalls the reasons for his K2 attempt. We learn that he grew up in Tanzania, that he was in the U.S. Army, and that he is trained as a nurse. He thinks about his sister Christa, who became developmentally disabled after suffering from meningitis as a child. Mortenson helped his sister become independent and enjoyed taking her on trips. She died suddenly the previous year, however, during an epileptic seizure. Mortenson hoped to honor her memory by leaving her necklace at the top of K2. Now, realizing that he has reached his physical limit, he feels his body has failed him for the first time in his life.
Although his introduction is brief, co-author David Relin provides a summary view of the book’s subject, gives important context for understanding the story. He also offers a preview of events to come. Relin begins by vividly describing a tense helicopter flight that leads to a warm welcome. Through this story Relin shows Mortenson’s willingness to take personal risks, his knowledge of the country, and his close ties with the villagers of Korphe. Relin gives us a view of the man Mortenson has become before introducing us to the man Mortenson once was. Relin also lets the reader know through his first-person commentary that the book will not be biased, but it will be aligned with Mortenson’s views and supportive of his work. By explaining his own perspective in advance, Relin creates trust with the reader and provides a framework for evaluating him as a narrator.
The opening chapter is aptly titled “Failure,” since it shows Mortenson at a low point in terms of both physical exhaustion and personal disappointment. Relin begins the story in the middle of Mortenson’s descent, when Mortenson is in peril and unsure of his future. Relin continues with two flashbacks to Mortenson’s past that introduce readers to Mortenson’s character and provide some important context. The first flashback involves Mortenson’s recollection of Christa. These memories show Mortenson to be a loving brother, and they also explain his motivation for undertaking the dangerous climbing expedition up K2. The other flashback describes Mortenson’s efforts to rescue a fellow climber, establishing that Mortenson possesses great physical strength and stamina and showing his powerful sense of determination. Both stories also reveal Mortenson’s instinct to help others, even at his own expense.
Throughout Chapter 1, a pattern of pushing boundaries and challenging limitations emerges. For example, we learn that K2 is called the “Savage Peak” because climbers consider it the ultimate test of mountaineering. Yet Mortenson increases the challenge by joining an expedition that takes the most difficult and dangerous route. He pushes limits by doing much of the trip from Askole to the base camp wearing sandals and traditional local attire rather than the special clothing usually worn by climbers. In his life before the expedition, Mortenson had pushed his sister to make the most of her abilities and pushed himself as an athlete, soldier, college student, medical worker, and aspiring mountaineer. So at the end of the chapter, when Mortenson realizes that he has reached a limit he cannot push past, we recognize it as a significant personal failure for him.