Greg Mortenson was a member of a 1993 climbing expedition to the Karakorams in Pakistan with the goal of climbing K2, the world's second highest mountain. The team he was with managed to put two members on the summit, but Greg was not one of them. The seventy-eight days that the expedition spent on the mountain, however, had left Greg in a dangerous condition, emotionally and physically drained. He had lost 40 pounds and was seriously weakened.
Greg and his climbing partner Scott Darsney were fortunate enough to be taken in by two Balti porters, Mouzafer and Yakoub. Mortenson and Darsney were nursed back to health in the Balti village of Korphe by a combination of goat's milk and warm hospitality. During this time Greg became aware of many facts of Balti life. Living conditions were harsh. The high arid atmosphere of the villages made it difficult for them to grow the seasonal crops that they depended on along with grazing goats and yaks. There was almost no medical care, and malnutrition was way of life. Diseases and injuries often went untreated, and the infant mortality rate was very high, caused mostly by diarrhea-induced dehydration. The school consisted of an open hillside where 80 children scratched letters in the dirt. The teacher for the school didn't come every day, as the village couldn't always afford the $1 daily pay.
Greg returned to the states inspired and disturbed by the Baltis who had taken him in so readily despite their own poverty. He wrote 580 personal letters to corporations, climbers and celebrities asking for help to help the Baltis. Only one person, Tom Brokaw, responded. Mortenson then sold his car, his climbing equipment, and cashed in his retirement to help build a school for the Baltis. Finally, Dr. Jean Hoerni, a climber and microchip pioneer, impressed by Mortenson's resolve, offered funding, and the Central Asia Institute was born.
Three years after he left K2, the school in Korphe was finished. Since then over 100 projects have been completed by the Institute. Included are eleven schools, five potable water systems, thousands of trees planted, two women's vocational training centers, a locally run eye clinic, and an environmental education workshop for teachers. All of the projects are initiated, managed and sustained entirely by local village communities. Greg and his brother-in-law Brent Bishop have begun Pakistan's first porter training program which teaches conservation, hygiene and sanitation, first aid, and crevasse rescue. Over 600 porters have attended the training. The two also began a began a Karakoram basecamp cleanup that is entirely managed and supervised by local Baltis. This is done at a fraction of the cost of foreign "cleanup" expeditions. Over a period of two years the Baltis removed a staggering 15,800 pounds of garbage.
When asked why he spends half of each year in Pakistan assisting with projects for the Institute, Greg said "The Balti inspire me. They are proud and happy people, despite all their hardships. Everest, Nepal, and Tibet receive the support of hundreds of organizations. The Baltis have none, yet many thousands of climbers and trekkers enjoy this region annually. It's time they receive recognition and support for sharing their spectacular mountain home with us and providing the backbone for our adventures."
The Central Asia Institute can be contacted at 617 South Fifth Avenue, Bozeman, MT 59715; Phone 406-5857841; Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: I am in no way connected with the Institute, nor do I know Greg Mortenson. I saw his story on the National Geographic Channel and was inspired by it to find out more.