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Greg Mortenson

Biography: Greg Mortenson
Best-Selling Author, Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson Date of birth: December 27, 1957

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Greg Mortenson was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He was only a few months old when his parents moved to Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika) in East Africa. The Mortensons settled in the town of Moshi, on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the continent.

Irvin "Dempsey" Mortenson and his wife Jerene were employed as teachers by a Lutheran missionary society, but they soon set themselves even larger goals. Dempsey Mortenson spent years raising funds to establish the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, the first teaching hospital in Tanzania. Jerene Mortenson founded the Moshi International School to educate the children of the many expatriates working in the region.

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Greg Mortenson grew up surrounded by children of many races and religions and learned a number of languages in childhood. Three younger sisters were born in Tanzania. The youngest, Christa, suffered from severe epilepsy, and as her older brother and godfather, Greg appointed himself her protector. Unusually strong and tall for his age, Greg Mortenson climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when he was only 11. Mountain climbing would become the great passion of his youth.

When Greg was 15, the Mortensons completed their work in Tanzania and decided that their children should experience life in the United States. They returned to Minnesota, settling in Roseville, near Minneapolis. Although Greg did well in school, and distinguished himself as defensive lineman on his high school football team, he found it difficult to adjust to life in his own country.

Lacking the resources to attend college immediately after high school, he enlisted in the United States Army, where he trained as a medic. He spent most of the next two years in Germany and was honorably discharged in 1977 with an Army Commendation Medal. He entered Concordia College in Minnesota on a football scholarship before transferring to the University of South Dakota.

With his experience as an Army medic, Greg worked part-time as a medical orderly at Dakota Hospital to help meet expenses. He graduated with an honors degree in nursing and chemistry. He had long dreamed of finding a cure for his sister's epilepsy, and won admission to medical school at Case Western University, but Dempsey Mortenson died while Greg was still in college, and the family's finances were severely strained. Greg dropped his plans for medical school and returned home to help support his family. He taught Christa to use the Minneapolis public transit system and helped her find a job that accommodated her disability. His mother completed a Ph.D. in education, and would eventually find work as a public school principal.

Free to pursue his own interests, Greg Mortenson felt drawn to the mountains. Uncertain of any other direction in life, he devoted the next three years of his life to mountain climbing. Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, he worked graveyard shifts in a number of hospitals to finance his increasingly daring expeditions, journeys that took him from the Sierras of California to the Himalayas of Nepal. He made time every year to take trips with his sister Christa, to show her places in the world she could not safely visit alone. When she died suddenly on the eve of her 23rd birthday, Mortenson felt compelled to do something extraordinary to honor her memory.

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He determined to take a memento of his sister, an amber bracelet from Tanzania, and place it on the world's most inaccessible mountain peak. The mountain known as K2 crowns the Karakoram Range that divides China from Pakistan. Second only to Everest in height, K2's razor-sharp cliffs pose even more daunting challenges to the climber. Greg Mortenson was in superb physical condition, had an exhaustive knowledge of mountaineering techniques, and had already summited a number of the most challenging Himalayan peaks. In 1993, he joined an expedition of English, Irish, French and American climbers, making the western approach from the Baltistan region of Pakistan.

Every summer, dozens of the world's most accomplished mountain climbers attempt K2, but most never come near the summit. For many, the return to base camp proves even more treacherous than the ascent. Of the 16 climbers who made it to the summit of K2 that summer, four died during their descent. Mortenson suspended his own effort when a fellow climber collapsed and was unable to return to the base camp on his own. After completing a 78-hour rescue mission, Mortenson had exhausted his formidable physical resources, and could only conserve the last of his strength for the journey back to civilization.

On the descent from the mountain, he fell behind his companions and became hopelessly lost in the snow. Starving and disoriented, he wandered into the village of Korphe, many miles from his intended destination. The villagers were members of the Balti ethnic group, a people of Tibetan descent and Shia Muslim faith. Life in their remote village had changed little over the centuries, and they lived without modern conveniences in a landscape of forbidding scarcity. The village chief, Haji Ali, took the frozen stranger into his home, where his family sheltered Mortenson, fed him and nursed him back to health.

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Mortenson was deeply moved by the kindness and generosity of these people who gave a stranger so much when they had so little. As he recuperated, he learned as much as he could of their language and customs. With all they lacked, the thing they wanted most was a school for their children. The national government had never built the school it had promised, and would not spend the single dollar a day it would cost to pay a teacher in the impoverished region. Without a building or a teacher, the children gathered every day in an open field, where the older children tried to relay whatever lessons they had learned from the last teacher to pass through the area. Without chalk or pencils, they scratched figures in the frozen earth with sharpened sticks.

Greg Mortenson had found a challenge more inspiring than any mountain. He promised the children of Korphe that he would return and build them a properly equipped school. Returning to California, he worked long shifts as an emergency room nurse, often living out of his car, while trying to raise the $12,000 he had estimated it would take to build the Korphe school.

After sending out 580 letters to celebrities and public figures known for their philanthropy, he received exactly one donation, from television newsman Tom Brokaw, a fellow South Dakota alumnus. His mother, who had become an elementary school principal, invited him to speak to her students. To his surprise, the students collected several hundred dollars in pennies for the cause. California's close-knit network of mountain-climbing enthusiasts might have been a fertile source of donations, but most of these American devotees of the Himalayas identified strongly with the Buddhist cultures of Tibet and Nepal, and had little interest in the Muslim people of Baltistan.

At last, a short article on Mortenson's effort, published in the newsletter of the American Himalayan Society, came to the attention of Dr. Jean Hoerni. The Swiss-born Hoerni was an accomplished mountaineer as well as a distinguished physicist, a pioneer of microprocessors and a founder of the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. He was also a millionaire many times over, with a wide-ranging array of philanthropic interests. Dr. Hoerni was familiar with Karakoram range and the bitter poverty of the Balti villages on its slopes. Initially skeptical, when he realized how little money Mortenson was looking for, Hoerni made a single donation that enabled Mortenson to buy all the materials he needed to build the school.

When Mortenson returned to Pakistan to purchase the supplies, he met representatives of other villages, clamoring for schools for their own people. In Korphe, he found that before the villagers could build a school, they would need a bridge to transport the building materials over the deep gorge of the Braldu River. It would take another trip to California to raise money for the bridge. Once Mortenson had purchased the supplies, the entire adult male population of the village helped carry the giant spools of steel cable, and the whole village participated in the construction of the bridge.

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With the completion of the Korphe Bridge, Mortenson had proved himself to Dr. Hoerni. Returning to San Francisco, he attended a meeting of the American Himalayan Society, honoring one of his lifelong heroes, Sir Edmund Hillary. The evening at the Fairmont Hotel was a turning point in Mortenson's life in more ways than one. In the hotel bar, Dr. Hoerni offered to pay Mortenson a stipend to live on while building the school.

At the same meeting, Mortenson met Dr. Tara Bishop, a clinical psychologist who was herself the daughter of a renowned Himalayan mountain climber. Six days after meeting for the first time, Greg Mortenson and Tara Bishop were married. Dr. Hoerni endowed a foundation, the Central Asia Institute, and named Mortenson its Executive Director, with an annual salary, so he could continue building schools in the region after the work in Korphe was done. Mortenson and Tara Bishop bought a small home in Bozeman, Montana, near Bishop's mother, a mountain setting that suited them well. For the next few years the basement of their home would serve as headquarters for the Central Asia Institute, while Mortenson spent most of each year in Pakistan.

As Executive Director of the new foundation, Mortenson made a study of Pakistan to determine which areas were in greatest need of schools. His eye fell on Waziristan in the North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan. The Waziri, members of the Pashtun ethnic group who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, were reputed to be deeply resistant to outside influence, but Mortenson had heard similar tales of the Balti before he came to know them.

Mortenson was also aware that militant fundamentalists, with financial support from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, were building religious academies or madrassas in Northern Pakistan to teach the austere "Wahhabi" school of Islam. From the city of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province, he could see bands of armed Afghan refugees, the Taliban, flooding back into Afghanistan to seize power from the tottering remnants of the former Soviet puppet government. Mortenson was trying to meet with Waziri leaders to discuss the possibility of building a secular school when he was kidnapped by Taliban supporters. He was held as a prisoner for eight days before his captors suddenly released him, showering him with donations for his school project.

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The Korphe School was completed in the autumn of 1996. Greg Mortenson hired a local teacher and returned to the U.S. with a picture of the completed school to show Jean Hoerni before his death that winter. Dr. Hoerni left a considerable sum to the Institute, enough for Mortenson to proceed with building more schools in Pakistan. After his experience in Waziristan, he decided to focus his efforts on Baltistan, where he was already well-known. It had taken three years, from proposal to completion, to build the Korphe School. Mortenson's second school, in Ranga, took only ten weeks. That spring, Mortenson completed two more schools, in Pakhora and Kuardu, as well as building additions to existing schools and hiring teachers for them all. For the next five years, he built on his existing relationships with contractors, suppliers, and most importantly, village chiefs, to build schools throughout the region.

Mortenson insisted that these schools teach the same curriculum taught in other schools in Pakistan, without any foreign interference or propaganda. Most controversially, he insisted that all schools be open to girls as well as boys. Most of the villagers were delighted to have their daughters educated, as well as their sons, but he did encounter occasional resistance. Some of his opponents may have had sincere religious objections, but others tried to extort bribes by denouncing Mortenson as an infidel who had come to subvert Islam and corrupt their daughters.

When Mortenson refused to bribe one local leader, the chief declared a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding his neighbors to cooperate with him. Mortenson's supporters appealed to Syed Abbas, the spiritual leader of Northern Pakistan's Shia Muslims, and to the Supreme Council of Shia clerics in Iran. Syed Abbas was impressed with Mortenson's sincerity and his genuine respect for the beliefs of the Balti people. He became one of Mortenson's most important supporters in the years ahead. The Shia council in Iran, after a thorough investigation, gave their approval to Mortenson's work and urged all pious Shia to cooperate.

Greg Mortenson Biography Photo
As the Taliban consolidated its dictatorial rule in Afghanistan, refugees streamed into Pakistan, and Mortenson struggled to establish makeshift schools in the teeming refugee camps. On September 11, 2001, Mortenson was in Pakistan when he received word of the terrorist attacks on the United States. For the next weeks, as the United States prepared to attack the terrorist group Al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors in Afghanistan, Mortenson spoke to any reporter who would listen. He called for dialogue between the West and Islam, and urged his countrymen to distinguish between an aberrant minority of terrorist fanatics and the billion peaceful adherents of the Muslim faith.

Returning to the United States, he found an avalanche of unopened mail, much of it seething with hatred for an American who had devoted his life to helping Muslim children. Mortenson crisscrossed the country, lecturing and giving slide shows to raise funds for the Central Asia Institute, whose resources were now stretched perilously thin. He encountered a few enthusiastic supporters, but with the nation's attention increasingly turned to an impending war in Iraq, Mortenson found few Americans willing to donate to children's education in Pakistan.

The Institute's fortunes changed in April 2003, when an article featuring Mortenson and his work were featured on the cover of Parade magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement with a circulation of over 34 million. The post office box in Bozeman overflowed with donations, enabling Mortenson to rent an office, hire full-time staff in Bozeman and give long overdue raises to his partners in Pakistan. More than that it enabled Mortenson to proceed with his plan to expand his work into Afghanistan, recently liberated from the Taliban.

In Pakistan, a few years before, Mortenson had received a party of Kyrgyz tribesmen, who had traveled on horseback from their homes in a remote corner of Afghanistan to entreat him to build their children a school. Mortenson had said that he would make an effort to help them when he had fulfilled his other obligations. In 2003, Afghanistan was still turbulent. The authority of the central government was largely restricted to the area around the capital, Kabul, while local warlords held power in the other provinces. Mortenson was determined to help the Kyrgyz by making contact with Sadhar Khan, the dominant commander in the Wakhan region

Greg Mortenson Biography Photo
Traveling north, by night, from Kabul in an open jeep, Mortenson and his companions found themselves caught in the crossfire between rival warlords. Abandoning the open jeep, Mortenson took cover in the back of a passing pickup truck, hiding under a heap of rancid goat hides on their way to the tannery. For eight suffocating hours he traveled north, arriving at last in the northern city of Baharak. He soon found Sadhar Khan, and drew up plans for a chain of schools and other improvement projects in the Wakhan corridor, devastated by the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

As in Pakistan, Mortenson began his project in Afghanistan by concentrating on a single region, winning the trust of local people, heeding their advice, and gradually extending his network to neighboring areas. As of 2009, the Central Asia Institute had built 130 schools in those two countries, as well as initiating a rural health education program in Mongolia and a teacher training project in Kyrgyzstan.

Greg Mortenson shared his extraordinary life story with author David Oliver Relin in the 2006 bestseller Three Cups of Tea. He has continued the story in a second book, Stones Into Schools, with a foreword by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. Mortenson and his wife Tara Bishop continue to make their home in Montana with their two children. Mortenson still travels to Central Asia each year, supervising the creation of libraries and teacher training programs and ensuring that the schools he las built will remain self-sustaining, locally controlled institutions. He spends much of the rest of the year touring the Untied States, lecturing and raising support for his life's work, building peace, one school at a time.




This page last revised on Nov 20, 2009 20:19 EST