Introduction: In Mr. Mortenson's Orbit
Writer David Relin accompanies Greg Mortenson on a helicopter ride in Pakistan. The helicopter appears to be running out of fuel. Mortenson, reading a map, points out that the experienced former military pilot, Brigadier General Bhangoo, is steering the helicopter in the wrong direction. They end up avoiding calamity, landing to refuel before continuing on to the village of Korphe. Mortenson had ended up in Korphe after a failed 1993 attempt to climb K2, the world's second-tallest mountain and the most difficult one to climb. Mortenson had been instrumental in building Korphe's first school, and he and his companions are now greeted with warmth and great fanfare.
Bhangoo tells Relin that, though he has met countless world leaders, he considers Mortenson to be the most remarkable person he has ever met, a sentiment shared by many others Relin interviewed for the book. Relin admits that, since he has witnessed firsthand Mortenson's work in Pakistan, he cannot tell Greg's story with a purely objective voice. He considers Mortenson a hero and hopes he succeeds.
Chapter 1: Failure
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
- Persian proverb
Karakoram, in Pakistan, contains 60 of the world's tallest mountains and the 40-mile-long Baltoro glacier. On September 2, 1993, Greg Mortenson finds himself lost on the Baltoro, trying to reunite with Scott Darsney, with whom he had recently launched a failed attempt to climb K2. Mortenson has also lost his porter, Mouzafer, who was carrying his food and tent. Mortenson attempted this summit in order to honor his late sister, Christa, by leaving her necklace at the top of the mountain. Christa, 12 years Greg's junior, had contracted meningitis at age 3 when they were living in Tanzania and had suffered seizures and difficulty with manual tasks from then until her death at 23 years old. Greg had been her protector and friend.
K2 is known as "The Savage Peak" for its unforgiving vertical drops and "razored granite." Greg came within 1800 feet of the peak but had had to turn back. Now, lost, he turns in for the night on a rock face and waits for morning light.
He attempted the summit with "thoroughbred" climbing leaders, Dan Mazur, Jonathan Pratt, and Etienne Fine. Greg and Scott Darsney are a bit slower, but steady. Seventy days into the expedition, Greg and Scott see flashing lights at the summit and realize one of the climbers is in danger. Fine is suffering from pulmonary edema, altitude-induced flooding of the lungs. It takes 78 hours for the climbers to reach Fine and carry him down to a lower base camp to be airlifted out. By then, Greg and Scott are in no condition to summit anymore. Four out of sixteen people who try to climb the summit that season die.
Chapter 2: The Wrong Side of the River
Why ponder thus the future to foresee,
and jade thy brain to vain perplexity?
Cast off thy care, leave Allah's plans to him -
He formed them all without consulting thee.
-Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat
Mortenson wakes up disoriented on the mountain. As he sets off to find his companions, he sings a Christian song in Swahili, recalling his childhood, and relishes in the overwhelming beauty of his surroundings. Eventually, he sees the shape of a man and calls to him. The man climbs over: it is Mouzafer, his porter, who is overjoyed to see him. Mouzafer is a Balti, a member of the mountain people of northern Pakistan. The Balti had migrated from Tibet 600 years ago, and had become Shiite Muslims. They are generally petite, tough, and suspicious of outsiders. Mouzafer makes him paiyu cha, rancid yak butter tea, although Mortenson is secretly loath to drink it. As they walk together afterward, Greg asks Mouzafer to tell him the Balti words for the scenery they passed.
Greg becomes lost again and wanders into an orchard where women and children are harvesting apricots. Accompanied by tens of children, he reaches the entrance of a village. He is greeted by the chief, or nurmadhar, of the village Korphe. The nurmadhar is called Haji Ali. After instructing Mortenson to wash his hands and face, Haji Ali leads Mortenson to his hut, where he serves him chewing tobacco and tea. Haji Ali reveals to Mortenson that he is not in the village Askole, as he'd hoped, but in the village Korphe. He instructs Mortenson to rest.
Chapter 3: Progress and Perfection
"Tell us, if there were one thing we could do for your village, what would it be?"
"With all respect, Sahib, you have little to teach us in strength and toughness. And we don't envy you your restless spirits. Perhaps we are happier than you? But we would like our children to go to school. Of all the things you have, learning is the one we most desire for our children."
- Conversation between Sir Edmund Hillary and Urkien Sherpa, from Schoolhouse in the Clouds
Mortenson awakes in Haji Ali's home. Ali's wife, Sakina, prepares a simple breakfast of chappati, unleavened flat bread, and cha, tea. In the afternoon, Mortenson hears a commotion; a man is pulling himself along in a box suspended by a steel cable 200 feet over the river. It is Mouzafer, who is again overjoyed that Mortenson has survived.
Over dinner, he learns that Mouzafer is famous in the region for his skills in mountaineering. Mortenson goes to Skardu but finds himself drawn again to Korphe. He enjoys the slow-paced life in this village as he slowly regains his health, but, although many other Westerners had the impression that the Balti lived superior lives to their Western counterparts, Mortenson recognizes the difficulties that abject poverty and a lack of basic medical attention cost the Balti people. He begins to perform medical services for local people and distributes his belongings - Nalgene bottles, a camping stove, his jacket - among them. When he asks Haji Ali to show him the local school, Ali demurs at first but finally agrees to take him there. Mortenson is mortified to see 82 children kneeling on the frozen ground, without books or proper writing utensils. In a moment that would portend momentous change in his life, he promises Haji Ali that he will build a school for Korphe.
The introduction and first three chapters introduce Greg Mortenson's character. From the first scene of the book, in which Mortenson has more knowledge of the northern Pakistani mountain territory than a member of the Pakistani military, it is evident that Mortenson is a person of rare capabilities. He has a few overarching character traits: determination/strength, openness to other cultures, and loyalty to those close to him. Chapter 1 opens with a greatly fatigued Mortenson wandering lost in the Karakoram, a subregion of the Himalayas. He is preoccupied with his failure to climb K2, which points towards a strong perfectionist streak in his character. But he failed only because of his loyalty to his fellow climbers; he took part in a 72-hour rescue mission to save the Alpiniste Etienne Fine and was too exhausted afterwards to attempt to summit again. Another prominent trait of Mortenson is his quick adaptability to foreign cultures, likely borne of his international childhood in Tanzania. This adaptability is evinced by his drinking paiyu cha, the rancid yak milk that Mouzafer offers him, despite his initial physical distaste for the smell. He also quickly tries to learn the Balti language from Mouzafer as the latter leads him on the trail, which indicates that he will quickly become part of the local community in which he finds himself.
Chapters 1-3 also introduce the environment in which many of the events of this book will take place. The terrain - the Baltoro glacier, and Baltistan, an area ensconced in the Karakoram mountain range - is at once majestically aloof, and forbidding (when Mortenson attempts to climb K2, it has already claimed 48 lives). The stark mountain range ends up being as much an emotional challenge to climbers as a physical one: climbers, including Mortenson, are forced to face the limits of their own physicality. It often conjures metaphorical proportions, called "the throne room of the mountain gods" (Chapter 2). Such an overwhelming backdrop seems to demand of its inhabitants, and Mortenson, equal strength.
Chapters 1-3 also introduces the Balti people. Similar in build and toughness to the Buddhist Sherpa, they are less known (and, arguably, less loved) because of their Muslim faith. Their most prominent characteristics are their physical strength (many of them carry 90-lb loads on behalf of their European mountaineer-employers); their culture of hospitality; and the stark poverty in which they live. Though they had been cast in a romantic light by previous Western visitors, Mortenson quickly recognizes the hardship their daily life entails, from high infant mortality rates to severe malnutrition. Mortenson sees in these people the same trait that he admired in his younger sister, Christa: a strength of character that allows them to carry on in the face of difficulty. This recognition compels Mortenson to begin to work on their behalf.