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After a failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, Greg
Mortenson is lost in the mountainous Karakoram region of Pakistan. Eventually, he
wanders into the remote village of Korphe, where he receives help from the people and
meets the village chief, Haji Ali. After Mortenson sees some children trying to study by
writing in the dirt with sticks, without even a teacher to instruct them, Mortenson
promises to return to Korphe one day and repay their kindness to him by building a
school. Back in the U.S., Mortenson returns to his job as a trauma nurse in California.
He keeps his belongings in a storage building and lives in a car he inherited from his
grandmother. He reflects on his early life in Tanzania, where his father was building a
hospital and his mother was starting a school. He also remembers his developmentally
disabled sister, Christa. After her death the previous year, Mortenson had undertaken
the K2 climb to honor her memory, but he now realizes that the Korphe School would be a
more fitting memorial.
Mortenson knows little about fund-raising, and although he sends out 580 letters
requesting donations, he receives only one small contribution. After an acquaintance
writes about his project in a mountaineering journal, Mortenson receives $12,000 from
Jean Hoerni, a wealthy physicist who is also a climber. Mortenson sells all his
belongings to pay his own expenses, returns to Pakistan, and purchases building
materials for the school. In the process, he acquires a sympathetic guide, learns about
bargaining practices in the region, and gets two of the traditional outfits worn in
Pakistan. He believes his mission is almost accomplished, but when he returns to Korphe,
the villagers explain that he must first build a bridge across the deep river gorge that
separates Korphe from neighboring areas. Mortenson realizes that he has not planned
well, and after promising to come back and build the bridge, he goes back to America
discouraged. There he finds he has lost both his girlfriend and his job.
Mortenson is depressed for a time, but he finally contacts Hoerni again and
receives additional money for the bridge. Back in Pakistan, he continues to develop his
relationship with the local people, goes on a hunting expedition with the men of Korphe,
and completes the bridge. This time he returns to California with a feeling of success.
He is invited to attend a dinner honoring Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mt.
Everest. At the dinner, Mortenson learns that Hoerni and his friend George McCown will
pay Mortenson a salary while he completes the Korphe school. Mortenson also meets Tara
Bishop, the daughter of a noted photographer and climber. The two are instantly
attracted to one another and marry a few days later. Mortenson returns to Pakistan and
completes construction of the school. He also learns more about local customs from Haji
Ali, who encourages Mortenson to respect the ways of the Balti people.
Mortenson begins to look for the next place to build a school. He travels alone to
Waziristan, where he is kidnapped and held for eight days without ever knowing why he
was captured or released. When Mortenson returns to the U.S., Tara goes into labor and
has a daughter. Not long after, Jean Hoerni, just before his death, endows the CAI $1
million and names Mortenson the director. In the following months, Mortenson continues
his work and builds several new schools. A conservative Pakistani cleric issues a
religious indictment against Mortenson, but through the efforts of Ghulam Parvi, who
manages CAI affairs in Pakistan, and the moderate cleric Syed Abbas, the fatwa is
lifted. Mortenson and the CAI continue to develop a school-building program focused on
the education of girls, and they also begin to help refugees and to provide eye surgery
and other medical care in the region.
During the periods he spends in America, Mortenson tries to raise funds for the
CAI and attempts unsuccessfully to raise awareness about conditions among refugees.
Mortenson’s difficulties with organization and communication begin to strain his
relations with the CAI board, and he goes through a period of depression. His sprits
improve, however, when Tara gives birth to their son, and Mortenson returns to Pakistan
with a more professional approach and a renewed sense of mission. He realizes that
political conditions are worsening in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in part due to efforts
by ultra-conservative Muslim groups to build their own schools, called
madrassas. These schools offer free education to boys, but often
use the opportunity to enlist the students in militant activities. On September 11,
2001, while Mortenson is dedicating a school in Pakistan, the terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center and Pentagon takes place. Mortenson speaks out to reporters and
explains that terrorism is rooted in poverty and lack of opportunity, but his message
receives little attention.
Another fatwa is declared against Mortenson in Pakistan, and at home he receives
hate mail from Americans who condemn his efforts to help Muslims. He is also
interrogated by the CIA. He does, however, win the support of Representative Mary Bono
and is invited to talk to several congressmen about his work. Finally, a reporter who
has traveled with Mortenson writes a cover story on his work for Parade
Magazine, and the CAI receives a large number of donations. Mortenson’s work gains
national attention, and the book ends with his decision to expand the CAI’s work into