WHEN AMERICAN CLIMBER Greg Mortenson stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe in 1993—lost, starving, and separated from his expedition mates after an unsuccessful attempt to summit K2—he had no idea that the three days he’d spend recuperating there would change his life forever. To thank the locals who nursed him back to health, Mortenson vowed to build the impoverished village its first primary school. Since then Mortenson, through his nonprofit Central Asia Institute, has founded 55 secular schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan—experiences he recounts in Three Cups of Tea (Viking, $26). Eric Hansen caught up with the 48-year-old in one of his rare moments at home, in Bozeman, Montana.
OUTSIDE: You had no fundraising or building experience when you started out. But in Pakistan, that proved to be a strength.
MORTENSON: In tribal society, you have to learn to slow down and focus on the process, not the product. That’s the “three cups of tea” in my book title. The first time you share tea you’re a stranger, the second an honored guest, the third they’ll do anything for you. I needed to listen more than I talked; I learned to lead from behind. Still, it took me a decade to go from misguided do-gooder to humanitarian.
You’ve had quite a few adventures along the way. What was your scariest moment in Pakistan?
Day three of being kidnapped by armed militants, in 1996. I started having images of them taking me outside at night, making me kneel, and putting a bullet through my skull. (This was before beheadings.) My wife was seven months pregnant at the time.
Obviously, you survived.
I decided I wasn’t going to give in. I was going to fight back by befriending my captors. These two fierce-looking armed guards were smoking hashish around the clock in a small room, and I asked them for a Koran. They were intrigued. They brought one—and a mullah who could read it to me. Suddenly the men became friendly. I got a blanket—and lamb instead of bread and dal. Eventually, on day eight, they let me go.
And you went right back to building your secular schools—which, unlike the Islamic madrassas throughout Pakistan, welcome girls as well as boys.
Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages. But girls stay home and pass on what they’ve learned. Their communities show a profound change in quality of health, with reduced infant mortality. Women now can read newspapers, understand their legal rights, and not be exploited as much.
Are the madrassas still popular?
They’re thriving. After the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, which destroyed 9,400 schools, the Taliban were some of the first people on the ground with first aid. They set up dozens of rescue camps; in some, they set up madrassas that serve their own agenda.
You’ve been tackling some pretty big issues for a guy who started out as an adventure traveler.
People think I’m exceptional, but a lot of climbers and kayakers have been doing little projects—building climbing walls in villages, latrines on glaciers—for a long time. You don’t have to dedicate your whole life to it. Little things, even one pencil, can make a difference.