Summary: Chapter 4: Self-Storage
After returning to California, Mortenson visits the storage unit in Berkeley where he has kept all his possessions. He picks up a stuffed animal and is carried away into thoughts of his past life. We learn that he was born in Minnesota, but his father wanted to see the world and make a difference, so the family moved to Tanzania, Africa, when he was three months old. He has fond memories of growing up there while his father built Tanzania’s first teaching hospital and his mother started a school. Mortenson thinks about Christa’s early illness and the graceful way she faced her hardships. The family returned to America when Mortenson was fourteen, and although he experienced some difficulties at first, he was comfortable with the multicultural environment of his high school and became a star athlete. There was little money in the family, so Mortenson joined the Army.
After two years in the service, during which he was stationed in Germany, he attended college on the GI bill and attained degrees in nursing and chemistry. Following his father’s death from cancer, Mortenson moved to California and soon took up climbing. He rapidly became an expert, learning all he could about the history of mountaineering. Christa visited him every year, and he went on several climbing expeditions. In 1992, he was injured in a fall on Mt. Sill, at nearly the same time that Christa died during a seizure. The following year, Mortenson was invited to serve as medic on a K2 expedition and made his plan to honor Christa with the climb. The chapter ends with Mortenson’s mind returning to the present, wondering how he will now fulfill his promise to Korphe.
Summary: Chapter 5: 580 Letters, One Check
Mortenson begins trying to raise funds, but he has no experience with fund-raising and no knowledge of computers. He starts by writing letters to famous people, explaining his project and asking for donations. Fortunately, he meets a Pakistani man who owns a computer store and teaches Mortenson how to type his letters on a word processor. Mortenson sends out 580 letters and makes sixteen grant applications but receives only one contribution: a $100 check from television news anchor Tom Brokaw. Mortenson’s mother, now a school principal, sends more than $600 collected by her students. During this time, Mortenson is working as an emergency room nurse and he begins a relationship with Marina Villard, an attractive resident who shares his interest in climbing. He enjoys spending time with her and her two daughters, but since he is living in his car and saving all his money for a return to Pakistan, problems arise in the relationship. Mortenson also becomes friends with another ER physician and climber, Tom Vaughan. Vaughan writes a small article about Mortenson’s project for a mountaineering journal and receives a note from wealthy scientist Jean Hoerni. Hoerni agrees to provide $12,000, the amount Mortenson estimates the school will cost. After selling all his belongings to pay his own expenses, Mortenson leaves for Pakistan.
Analysis: Chapter 4 and Chapter 5
Relin begins the section with a common literary device: using sensory details, such as sight and smell, to trigger a character’s memories. Relin describes Mortenson’s emotional response to the sight of his stored belongings and the smell of a stuffed animal. The experience triggers a flood of memories, and the narrative shifts abruptly into the past, allowing Relin to tell the whole story of Mortenson’s life up to that time and connect Mortenson’s past experieces with his present situation. We see that Mortenson’s family and upbringing provided many examples of service to others and that he watched his parents start and complete ambitious projects. We also notice that Mortenson himself is divided between his sense of responsibility (exemplified in his care for Christa and devotion to his father) and his desire to live an unrestricted life of adventure. These two aspects of his life collide when he takes a serious fall during a climb at the same time his sister is dying. Relin dramatizes this turning point with a detailed description of Mortenson’s fall and a startling visual image of Christa’s body, found stiff on hands and knees.
Chapters 4 and 5 reveal that while Mortenson is a good person, he can still be very immature. He focuses much of his attention on physical accomplishments and tends to become obsessed with his interests. For example, he not only spends much of his time mastering the skills of climbing, but also collects hundreds of books on the subject and spends most of his money on equipment and trips. Although he takes up a profession that involves serving others, he works only enough to support his climbing activities. He does experience a personal turning point in Korphe and makes a commitment to help the people there, but even this worthy objective is, in many ways, just another new obsession. He neglects his family-like relationship with Marina and her daughters to focus his life on getting back to Pakistan. Mortenson is also still sleeping in his car at age 36. Even though he now has a goal, his life at this point has not changed significantly from what it was before his experience in Korphe.
We also see that mountaineering has symbolic value for Mortenson. It represents an escape from ordinary life as well as signifying achievement. We learn that Mortenson felt attracted to Mount Kilimanjaro from an early age, but when he finally persuaded his father to let him climb the mountain, he became sick on the way up. Only when he stood on the summit did he experience the thrill he was seeking, and it appears that during his life after that, he constantly tried to recapture those mingled feelings of freedom and success. Beyond pursuing the activity of climbing, Mortenson wants to know everything he can about the history of human interaction with mountains. In these chapters we learn more about the climbing community and the importance it will have for Mortenson’s project. In particular, we hear about Sir Edmond Hillary’s Everest expedition and his project to build schools in Nepal, foreshadowing and inspiring Mortenson’s impulsive promise in Korphe.
Lastly, these chapters mark the introduction of Jean Hoerni, the first character in the book whose personality is developed in the narrative. Prior to this point, the characters have generally been outlined for the reader rather than depicted thoroughly. For example, we hear about Mortenson’s family and climbing associates from the narrator rather than observing their actions and interactions. They are mainly presented as people who influenced Mortenson’s life rather than as individual personalities. Even the Balti characters, Haji and Mouzafer, are depicted only through a few actions and comments. Yet everyone we meet is pleasant and helpful, so it is a surprise to the reader when Hoerni turns out to be such an eccentric, sharp-tongued character. His attitude obviously intimidates and confuses Mortenson, reinforcing our view of Mortenson as somewhat immature and naïve. When Hoerni cautions Mortenson not to “screw up,” we realize that Mortenson’s own nature may be an obstacle to the success of his project.