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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
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.