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Karakoram '99

Climb of Courage

Greg Mortenson first went to northern Pakistan's Karakoram mountains in 1993 to climb K2. For Greg, it was the culmination of a climbing career that began in 1969, when he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,360 feet) at age eleven.

To make a long story short, the expedition put two members on K2's summit after 78 arduous days. The climb left Greg "physically emaciated and emotionally wasted." Fortunately, Greg and his climbing partner, Scott Darsney, were befriended by two porters who took them to a village to recuperate. They were plied with goat's milk and hospitality and soon their strength returned.

Greg's eyes were also opened up to the harsh reality and unforgiving way of life the indigenous Balti villagers face. The Baltis, who first migrated to the Karakoram 800 years ago from Tibet, are no strangers to adversity. In winter, they crawl into tiny basement dugouts and spend six months huddled together, barely kept warm by smoky yak dung fires.

Medical care is nonexistent. Broken bones go untended, burns are left untreated and diseases due to malnutrition are common parts of village life. Blindness and deafness prevail due to untreated chronic infections. Most staggering of all is the 35% infant mortality rate under age one, mostly caused by diarrhea induced dehydration.

Yet, despite this adversity, the Baltis seem to not only accept their destiny, but embrace it. They are also acutely aware of their land's environmental constraints, which a recent influx of foreigners and the nearby India - Pakistan war has incisively changed.

Climbers and trekkers have also altered the socioeconomic status of the region over the last 20 years. Baltis provide the backbone for mountaineering expeditions, ferrying massive loads of gear to base camps. Men leave home during the most critical periods of planting and harvesting to seek out elusive jobs as porters. Now, labor intensive jobs are the brunt of village women and children. Centuries-old, self-sustainable, methodologies that rely on local renewable resources have been lost by the way of expedition and trekking trails in pursuit of cash.

The villagers asked Greg and Scott to visit their school. On an open hillside, they saw 80 children who sat in the dirt, diligently doing their lessons without a teacher, as the village could not afford a teacher's $1 daily pay.

Ironically, only miles away, Pakistan and India spend over $1,000,000 daily on the Siachen Glacier war. When the students asked Greg to help them build a school, he agreed. Little did he know it would change his life forever.

Fundraising was first. Greg's ardor did not immediately translate into dollars. He wrote 580 personal letters to climbers, celebrities and influential people. Only one person, Tom Brokaw, responded. Several more appeals and slideshows yielded only $2,500. To continue, Greg sold everything he owned, including his car and climbing gear.

Then Greg's luck turned. Dr. Jean Hoerni, a climber and microchip pioneer was impressed with Greg's tenacity. Jean offered to fund the entire project. High-altitude construction in such a inhospitable place is not an easy task. First a 282-foot suspension bridge had to be build to get supplies to Korphe. A enthusiastic community rallied to build the bridge in only eight weeks.

A successful first mission encouraged Greg's enthusiasm and respect for the Baltis. He learned Balti, an archaic Tibetan tongue without script, which gave him valuable insight into their culture.

Unforeseen challenges ensued. For years, Pakistani intelligence agents followed Greg everywhere, until his altruistic motives were finally accepted. Greg also endured intense discourse with Shiite Muslim religious scholars under the direct auspices of Iranian Ayatollahs. Through candid debates and dialogue that lasted over three years, Greg patiently gained their trust and acceptance.

Greg's undaunted efforts paid off after three years when Korphe school was completed in 1996. Since then, Greg has dedicated his full-time efforts to assist underserved mountain communities through Central Asia Institute, a non-profit foundation he established in 1996.

By 1999, Greg raised funds for, and established a phenomenal track record of, over 80 successful projects to include: building 11 schools, six potable water systems, planting thousands of trees, establishing two women's vocational training centers, building a comprehensive latrine system on the Baltoro Glacier and setting up environmental education workshops for teachers. Greg attributes the success of these projects to the Balti people themselves.

"Over time, I've learned that only community, grassroots level projects work, initiated by the villagers themselves and run entirely by local committees" Mortenson said.

In 1997, Greg and Brent Bishop initiated Pakistan's first porter training program. The program emphasizes conservation, hygiene and sanitation, first aid and crevasse rescue. To date, over 800 porters have attended the program. They also provided support to remove, over two years, 15,800 pounds of garbage from Karakoram base camps through a incentive program entirely managed by local porters.

In 1998, most foreigners left Pakistan after Pakistan and India's nuclear tests, U.S. Afghanistan bombings and Ned Gillette's tragic murder. However, Greg quietly remained in Pakistan to make peace with Mullahs, start three new girl's schools and build porter latrines on the Baltoro Glacier.

Louis Reichardt, the first American to summit K2 and AAC's previous president, is a staunch supporter of Greg's work. "I have the utmost respect for Greg and his projects. He has selflessly devoted his entire efforts to begin work where no one had tried before and reached a summit far more significant than any 8,000 meter peak."

Alex Lowe, America's preeminent alpinist and Greg's nearby neighbor in Bozeman, Montana, shares Reichardt's respect for Greg. "While most of us are trying to scale new peaks, Greg has quietly been moving even greater mountains on his own. What he has accomplished, with pure tenacity and determination, is incredible."

When I asked Greg why he keeps going back to the Karakoram, he replied, "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."

Geoff Tabin, MD
Dr. Tabin is an University of Vermont opthamalogist. He has summitted Everest and several other significant peaks in the Himalayas and Andes. Tabin is author of "Blind Corners, Adventures on Seven Continents" (1993: Globe Press). Tabin has helped start several rural eye care programs in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Currently, he is working with Greg Mortenson to set up a comprehensive locally run eye care program for the Karakoram area.

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