Study Guide

Three Cups of Tea Man and the Natural World

By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Man and the Natural World

To climbers, who call [K2] "The Savage Peak," it remains the ultimate test, a pyramid of razored granite so steep that snow can't cling to its knife-edged ridges. (1.14)

There's no other way to describe trying to climb K2 than a man versus nature smackdown. The word choice in this sentence proves it: razored, knife-edged, and Savage Peak. Yeah, this climb is gonna hurt.

The effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude had sapped Mortenson of the ability to act and think decisively. (1.18)

Okay, so maybe that's why Mortenson perhaps made this whole section up. If that's the case, though, what's his excuse for the rest of the book?

After thirty minutes, [Mortenson] spotted a cigarette butt, then a cairn. (2.14)

Hmm… if we were tackling one of the highest mountains in the world, we're not quite sure if we'd smoke along the way. Maybe the cairn is marking the burial site of the smoking hiker.

They spotlit the progress of a small man sitting in a rickety box suspended on a cable over the gorge, pulling himself toward them. (8.85)

The people of the mountain village of the Karakoram are resourceful, but only to satisfy their immediate needs. They can move single people across the chasms with their cable box, but they can't move supplies… yet.

To find ibex, they'd have to climb high. (10.56)

Even hunting in the mountains isn't simple. They have to hike high just to find food—they can't just go to the 7-11 and buy a shrink-wrapped package of ibex jerky. Nom nom.

Mortenson marveled at how efficiently he'd been able to summon these men from the far corners of northern Pakistan, even though their distant valleys didn't have phones. (15.25)

The people of these regions don't need modern conveniences. They have feet and mouths and the ability to walk and talk, thank you very much. And this is how they conquer the nature that surrounds them: with their own strength and wits.

When winter clasped the high valley of the Karakoram in its annual lingering embrace, Mortenson returned home. (15.85)

Mortenson may be able to triumph over nature many times—scaling incredibly high peaks, for instance—but he is no match for the harsh winter in this region of Pakistan. No work can be done during these times, making the construction of the schools seem incredibly slow when so many breaks have to be taken.

"Brolmo is a good place. Or it was. We stayed as long as we could, hiding in the caves by day, and working the fields at night. […] We knew our women and children would die if we didn't do something, so we walked over the mountains to Skardu." (17.62)

People are able to find little pockets of safety in the harsh landscape. However, when those safe havens are endangered, such as by the bombs of war, people have to venture into the harsh wilderness. It's hard to find safety when the safe zones are spread so far apart.

"We stepped outside, into snow at the top of a mountain pass. […] There was a moon, so we could see clearly enough. And I tried to get a bearing on which side of the pass we were on, so we could start hiking down." (23.45)

When Mortenson's truck fails, he falls back on his skill at surviving in the wilderness with only his strength and his wits. Unfortunately, the sharp cliffs of Afghanistan are too daunting for him to attempt to scale down.

"Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahedeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile. […] We must turn these stones into schools." (23.112)

The schools represent not only man's triumph over the culture of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also a triumph of nature. It's no easy feat to construct these buildings in such remote regions.