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What factors enable Mortenson to develop trust, first with the
Korphe villagers and later with other Pakistanis?
When Mortenson arrives in Korphe, he is weak and disoriented, so the
villagers view him sympathetically rather than as a threat. Since they have
a tradition of helping strangers, they take care of him, and Mortenson
responds with gratitude. Also, because of his background—especially his
boyhood experience of growing up in a different culture—Mortenson does not
judge them and is very open to understanding their ways. He is eager to
repay their hospitality, and his medical skills enable him to contribute to
the community. Having recently lost his beloved sister, Mortenson is
attracted to the close relationships among the villagers, as well to the
fatherly kindness of Haji Ali, so he begins to feel that Korphe is like a
second home. His desire to help the villagers is so strong that they believe
his promise to return, even though no other Westerners have tried to help
Mortenson’s ability to build trust is helped by his talent for
languages, which enables him to show respect by speaking with people
directly rather than through a translator. He also wants to understand the
ideas and beliefs of the Pakistanis, not in a theoretical way, but
concretely, by living as they do. To better understand Islam, Mortenson
begins learning the activity of prayer rather than just reading about the
religion. Whenever he is in Pakistan, he lives in the same way as the people
he is with, eating the same food and following the same customs. He even
insists on wearing drab clothing so he will not stand out. Above all,
Mortenson always keeps his word, and therefore he maintains a good
reputation with the locals.
How do political conditions change during the course of the book,
and how do they relate to Mortenson’s mission of building
In 1993, when the book begins, most Americans know very little about
the politics of Central Asia, and Mortenson is no exception. Even at that
time, however, the conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on for
many years, and the needs of many Pakistanis go unnoticed because the
government is focused on fighting. Nearby Afghanistan is already dominated
by ultra-conservative religious forces, and parts of Pakistan bordering on
Afghanistan are known to be dangerous areas. However, Baltistan, where
Korphe is located, is relatively far from the most politically problematic
parts of the country, and the extremely difficult mountain terrain keeps
Baltistan relatively isolated. So Mortenson comes to a part of Pakistan that
is more traditional and less politically entangled than other parts of the
country. The conflicts he sees during his early experiences in Pakistan are
local disagreements between villages, or between villagers and the
As the story unfolds, several things change. Mortenson goes into other
parts of Pakistan, such as Waziristan, that are ruled by tribal leaders and
are already infiltrated by the Taliban. Relationships between the two sects
of Islam (Sunni and Shia) become more tense. Osama bin Laden takes up
residence in Afghanistan, which brings an increase in the influence of
Wahhabi, an extremist form of Islam. Extremism spreads with the increasing
number of madrassas, or religious schools, which are often
the only source of education available to the poor. Mortenson realizes that
the best way to combat the rise of extremism is by providing an alternative
source of education. The political climate changes even more after the
destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, leading some in
America to criticize Mortenson for helping the people of Central Asia.
However, the CAI’s programs are seen by many as the best model for promoting
peace in the region.
How does the sport of mountain climbing relate to Mortenson’s
project of building schools in Baltistan?
Mountain climbing, both literal and figurative, is a key theme
throughout the book. On the literal level, it is mountain climbing that
brings Mortenson to Pakistan in the first place, and subsequently it is the
climbing community that provides much of the financial and moral support for
his project. Mortenson, a nurse, is befriended by physicians Tom Vaughan and
Marina Villard due to their common interests in climbing. Vaughan writes the
article in a mountaineering journal that leads Mortenson to Jean Hoerni, a
successful physicist who is also a mountain climber. Marina Villard becomes
Mortenson’s girlfriend, and although their relationship breaks off,
Mortenson meets the love of his life, Tara Bishop, at a mountaineering
event. As Mortenson continues his fund-raising efforts later in the book, he
uses a presentation about K2 to attract climbers so he can inform them about
On a figurative level, mountains symbolize the various challenges
Mortenson and others face throughout the book. Climbing them becomes a
symbol of meeting those challenges. Mortenson’s attraction to climbing stems
from his desire for freedom and his love of pushing himself to his limit. He
shares these traits with other members of the climbing community, which
helps to sustain him and his supporters in the daunting project of building
schools in remote areas of Pakistan. In addition, Mortenson’s love for high
places helps him to bond with the Korphe villagers and to appreciate the
dramatic beauty of Pakistan’s mountainous regions. He also learns that, for
the people who live in these remote areas, the challenge is not about going
to the summit for an adventure, but about surviving with dignity in a hard
land. As the book unfolds, CAI schools are built with views of the
mountains, reminding the students of the challenges they will encounter and
inspiring the students to overcome them.