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A gift for an entire village

A failed mountaineer becomes a philanthropist after a village without a school saves his life.

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Thirteen years ago this month, Greg Mortenson, a towering American with a passion for mountaineering, found himself lost and alone in the glacial expanses of Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. After failing to reach the summit of K2, the world's second-highest peak, he wandered for weeks, emaciated and exhausted, finally staggering into the impoverished village of Korphe. Residents had never seen a foreigner, but they took him in, sharing their meager provisions and nurturing him back to health.

As he recuperated, Mr. Mortenson was appalled to find children practicing multiplication tables by scratching numbers on the frosty ground with a stick. They had no paper or pencils, and the village could not afford $1 a day for a teacher.

"I'm going to build you a school," Mortenson told them. "I promise."

That rash pledge marks the beginning of an extraordinary transformation from climbing bum to humanitarian, richly recounted in Three Cups of Tea. Returning to Berkeley, Calif., Mortenson lives in monkish frugality in his burgundy gas-guzzling Buick, nicknamed "La Bamba." To raise money, he works as an emergency-room nurse. He also mails 580 letters to politicians and celebrities, appealing for funds. That yields only one reply, a $100 check from Tom Brokaw, with a note wishing him well. Finally a $12,000 check from a wealthy scientist, Dr. Jean Hoerni, gives Mortenson hope to realize his dream.

If raising money is hard, transporting building materials to the remote site brings other challenges. For three days, Mortenson rides atop a rented truck precariously loaded with lumber, hammers, saws, and tin roofing. As the driver snakes along tortuous roads, Mortenson knows that any miscalculation could send the vehicle tumbling over cliffs.


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