Sunday, August 18, 2013

Getting to know Greg Mortenson.. Three cups of tea.

Greg grew up in Tanzania, when his parents joined the Lutheran Missionary Society and were posted there. His father Dempsey's greatest achievement was raising money for and founding Tanzania's first teaching hospital, Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre and similarly his mother Jerene worked with single mindedness to establish Moshi International School. Greg grew up happily oblivious to race. At eleven he scaled his first serious mountain.

Greg remembered that at the inauguration of the completed hospital his father gave equal credit to the Africans and instead of saying 'Look what we have done for you'. Greg said, 'My dad got blasted by the expats for that' and added he felt so proud of his father. 'He taught me, he taught all of us, that if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything.' 

His parents finished their work and decided to go back to US. Greg who had an International School experience, had to adjust to a local school culture. Apparently it was difficult as it is not easy to make new friends at that age. He was once beaten up in school with a statement 'You ain't no African'. He settled down, but in one way he remained out of sorts with American life. His mother said, 'Greg has never been on time in his life....always operated on African time.' 

Life was not easy for them, his father had no savings and could not afford to send him to a private school. Joined the Army and soon he was promoted, but he was too quiet to order his fellow soldiers around. His best friends were blacks, so he wasn't lonely again. After being honorably discharged, he worked his way through college. His father was doing a lowly, uninspiring job and his mother was doing her Ph.D in education. So money was tight for them. He even secretly sent portions of his earnings to his father.

When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Greg drove down every weekend to be with his father. As a chemistry and nursing student, he knew his father's condition was terminal. Determined that his father should enjoy what little time he had, persuaded the doctors to discontinue radiation. He even thought of dropping out of school to take care of his father full-time. But his father told him 'Don't you dare.' In September he visited his father for the last time. At his father's funeral, he gave his father a sendoff in Swahili, calling him 'Father, brother, friend.'

He was accepted to medical school, but gave up as he could not imagine waiting for five years before earning money. Mortenson was very attached to and protective of his youngest sister, Christa, who was diagnosed as epileptic when eight. After his father's death, he began to obsess about losing Christa. So he returned home for a year to spend time with her. Later he began a graduate program in neurophysiology, thinking idealistically that with some inspired hard work he might be able to find a cure for her. But gave up when he found out more about epilepsy.

The previous year he had learned fundamentals of rock climbing with two college friends. He felt the tug of the hills. Also, he needed a change after a regimented childhood in his mother's highly structured home. He had his grandmother's old Buick and drove off to California. He took a job as trauma nurse, working overnight and holidays, so that he could take off when the mountains called. The next four years his life was all about climbing. He miraculously survived on Mount Sill when he fell eight hundred vertical feet until he managed to stop himself. His girlfriend of the time drove him to the nearest emergency room. He called home and what he heard hurt him more than his fall. At the same hour when Greg was crashing down Mount Sill, his mother went to wake up Christa and found she had died of a massive seizure. He attended the funeral with his arm in a sling.

In California, Mortenson felt more meaninglessly adrift than he could ever remember. An invitation from Dan Mazur to join him for an expedition to K2 as a medic, felt like a life-line. Here was a path, a means by which he could get back on course and at the same time properly honor his sister. He would dedicate this climb to Christa's memory.

Now that I am aware of the onslaught on Greg Mortenson, I looked for some clues to his personality. I guess it is not easy with such a brief introduction. To my Asian mind his dropping out of Medical School was a surprise. I had imagined a GI would get help if he wanted to study.  But we do not know the details here. It is very clear that he is very impulsive, emotional and a loner! Probably he never consulted his mother about quitting the med school.  

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