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After returning to California, Mortenson visits the storage unit in Berkeley
where he has kept all his possessions. He picks up a stuffed animal and is carried
away into thoughts of his past life. We learn that he was born in Minnesota, but his
father wanted to see the world and make a difference, so the family moved to
Tanzania, Africa, when he was three months old. He has fond memories of growing up
there while his father built Tanzania’s first teaching hospital and his mother
started a school. Mortenson thinks about Christa’s early illness and the graceful
way she faced her hardships. The family returned to America when Mortenson was
fourteen, and although he experienced some difficulties at first, he was comfortable
with the multicultural environment of his high school and became a star athlete.
There was little money in the family, so Mortenson joined the Army.
After two years in the service, during which he was stationed in Germany, he
attended college on the GI bill and attained degrees in nursing and chemistry.
Following his father’s death from cancer, Mortenson moved to California and soon
took up climbing. He rapidly became an expert, learning all he could about the
history of mountaineering. Christa visited him every year, and he went on several
climbing expeditions. In 1992, he was injured in a fall on Mt. Sill, at nearly the
same time that Christa died during a seizure. The following year, Mortenson was
invited to serve as medic on a K2 expedition and made his plan to honor Christa with
the climb. The chapter ends with Mortenson’s mind returning to the present,
wondering how he will now fulfill his promise to Korphe.
Mortenson begins trying to raise funds, but he has no experience with
fund-raising and no knowledge of computers. He starts by writing letters to famous
people, explaining his project and asking for donations. Fortunately, he meets a
Pakistani man who owns a computer store and teaches Mortenson how to type his
letters on a word processor. Mortenson sends out 580 letters and makes sixteen grant
applications but receives only one contribution: a $100 check from television news
anchor Tom Brokaw. Mortenson’s mother, now a school principal, sends more than $600
collected by her students. During this time, Mortenson is working as an emergency
room nurse and he begins a relationship with Marina Villard, an attractive resident
who shares his interest in climbing. He enjoys spending time with her and her two
daughters, but since he is living in his car and saving all his money for a return
to Pakistan, problems arise in the relationship. Mortenson also becomes friends with
another ER physician and climber, Tom Vaughan. Vaughan writes a small article about
Mortenson’s project for a mountaineering journal and receives a note from wealthy
scientist Jean Hoerni. Hoerni agrees to provide $12,000, the amount Mortenson
estimates the school will cost. After selling all his belongings to pay his own
expenses, Mortenson leaves for Pakistan.
Relin begins the section with a common literary device: using sensory details,
such as sight and smell, to trigger a character’s memories. Relin describes
Mortenson’s emotional response to the sight of his stored belongings and the smell
of a stuffed animal. The experience triggers a flood of memories, and the narrative
shifts abruptly into the past, allowing Relin to tell the whole story of Mortenson’s
life up to that time and connect Mortenson’s past experieces with his present
situation. We see that Mortenson’s family and upbringing provided many examples of
service to others and that he watched his parents start and complete ambitious
projects. We also notice that Mortenson himself is divided between his sense of
responsibility (exemplified in his care for Christa and devotion to his father) and
his desire to live an unrestricted life of adventure. These two aspects of his life
collide when he takes a serious fall during a climb at the same time his sister is
dying. Relin dramatizes this turning point with a detailed description of
Mortenson’s fall and a startling visual image of Christa’s body, found stiff on
hands and knees.
Chapters 4 and 5 reveal that while Mortenson is a good person, he can still be
very immature. He focuses much of his attention on physical accomplishments and
tends to become obsessed with his interests. For example, he not only spends much of
his time mastering the skills of climbing, but also collects hundreds of books on
the subject and spends most of his money on equipment and trips. Although he takes
up a profession that involves serving others, he works only enough to support his
climbing activities. He does experience a personal turning point in Korphe and makes
a commitment to help the people there, but even this worthy objective is, in many
ways, just another new obsession. He neglects his family-like relationship with
Marina and her daughters to focus his life on getting back to Pakistan. Mortenson is
also still sleeping in his car at age 36. Even though he now has a goal, his life at
this point has not changed significantly from what it was before his experience in
We also see that mountaineering has symbolic value for Mortenson. It
represents an escape from ordinary life as well as signifying achievement. We learn
that Mortenson felt attracted to Mount Kilimanjaro from an early age, but when he
finally persuaded his father to let him climb the mountain, he became sick on the
way up. Only when he stood on the summit did he experience the thrill he was
seeking, and it appears that during his life after that, he constantly tried to
recapture those mingled feelings of freedom and success. Beyond pursuing the
activity of climbing, Mortenson wants to know everything he can about the history of
human interaction with mountains. In these chapters we learn more about the climbing
community and the importance it will have for Mortenson’s project. In particular, we
hear about Sir Edmond Hillary’s Everest expedition and his project to build schools
in Nepal, foreshadowing and inspiring Mortenson’s impulsive promise in Korphe.
Lastly, these chapters mark the introduction of Jean Hoerni, the first
character in the book whose personality is developed in the narrative. Prior to this
point, the characters have generally been outlined for the reader rather than
depicted thoroughly. For example, we hear about Mortenson’s family and climbing
associates from the narrator rather than observing their actions and interactions.
They are mainly presented as people who influenced Mortenson’s life rather than as
individual personalities. Even the Balti characters, Haji and Mouzafer, are depicted
only through a few actions and comments. Yet everyone we meet is pleasant and
helpful, so it is a surprise to the reader when Hoerni turns out to be such an
eccentric, sharp-tongued character. His attitude obviously intimidates and confuses
Mortenson, reinforcing our view of Mortenson as somewhat immature and naïve. When
Hoerni cautions Mortenson not to “screw up,” we realize that Mortenson’s own nature
may be an obstacle to the success of his project.