When he launched the K2 expedition in honor of his younger sister Christa, a frequent travel companion until her death of an epileptic seizure on her 23rd birthday, "I was singular in my focus to reach the summit. It was linear and logical, and very Western," Mortenson says in Washington while juggling a family vacation with Pentagon and Capitol Hill briefings about his foundation's work.
"When I failed (less than 2,000 feet shy of the summit), it was humbling," he says. "But that failure opened my eyes to this incredibly beautiful area and the people who live there. If I'd reached my goal, none of it would have happened."
Too many adventure travelers, Mortenson says, "try to program too much. We become insular and encapsulated. … We have our Gore-Tex and our satellite phones and our antibiotics, and we're always following an agenda.
"I'm not saying you need to travel the way I do," says Mortenson, whose exploits have included surviving an eight-day armed kidnapping by the Taliban in Pakistan's northwest frontier tribal areas and escaping a firefight with feuding Afghan warlords by hiding under putrid animal hides in a truck heading for a leather-tanning factory.
His hard-earned advice: Travel light (he spends about four or five months a year in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan with little more than a battered L.L. Bean carry-on). Don't be afraid to make mistakes and get out of your comfort zone. And carve out a few unscheduled days to interact with residents, such as sharing family stories and a cup of tea with mountain porters or stopping at a local school.
"When Gen. Petraeus read Three Cups of Tea," Mortenson says, "he sent me an e-mail with three bullet points of what he'd gleaned from the book: Build relationships, listen more, and have more humility and respect. And you can put that all into a travel context, too."