When Karnath was elected, in 2009, she became only the second female president in club history, and part of her mandate was to proceed with modernization. Defending her tenure, Karnath points to a refurbished Manhattan headquarters, a new website, and a 20 percent increase in membership since 2008. Most significantly, though, she says she’s raised buckets of money from corporate sponsors, stabilizing a financially tenuous organization in the midst of a recession.
“I’m thrilled with this president,” says Jeff Blumenfeld, the club’s director of communications and editor of Expedition News. “Years ago there’d be pots and pans out to catch rainwater in the building. This president came in and worked exceptionally hard to raise money to renovate it.”
The child of globe-trotting parents, Karnath joined the club in 1989 and was elected to the board in 2006. Her adventure bona fides were modest compared with, say, Walsh’s: a plane-hopping expedition to the North Pole, a trip to establish a white-stork sanctuary in Germany, a survey of flora and fauna in Borneo. What she had instead was extensive experience as an investment banker at firms like Credit Suisse. The fact that she was only 48 when she was elected also helped. The board has reelected her both years since she became president—and no one has even bothered to run against her.
“I’ve raised the money,” Karnath says. “I’ve increased the membership numbers. I’ve done all this in a very short amount of time. This whole story is really about transition. We’re transitioning into the 21st century. Some people adapt to change faster than others.”
She framed the Flag and Honors episode as a temporary flap, saying that all committee members had been invited back to their posts—but also noting that a little turnover might be good for the place. “Some of those people will be staying on that committee,” she says, “and some will be leaving.”
According to her supporters, she’s a strong leader who gets things done and ruffles a few feathers along the way. “We do have a couple of people who have trouble having a female boss,” says McLaren. “Particularly one that’s attractive, articulate, and capable. None of this would be a problem if some of these men would spend two weeks in a boot camp and learn something called respect.”
THE ST. LOUIS FIASCO was only the beginning. On December 20, someone tipped off a New York Post reporter that the club had censured and fined Josh Bernstein, who allegedly had accepted high-priced sponsor tickets from Rolex and Eddie Bauer to two galas, including the club’s 2011 annual dinner. (Members paid $375 to attend the March dinner; a seat at the Eddie Bauer table, where Bernstein sat, ran more than $1,000. Bernstein paid $375, and his wife, Lily Snyder, paid nothing.) The story described a feud between Bernstein and Karnath for control of the club. Ken Kamler, a board member and microsurgeon who aided victims during the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, was quoted as saying, “Josh is a real explorer, and Lorie Karnath is not, and she is threatened.”
Some club sponsors were furious to see their names in a tabloid: the day after the Post story ran, the CEO of one sponsor wrote a scathing letter to Karnath and the club’s leadership. Another sponsor wrote an e-mail supporting Bernstein, who has been prominently involved in the club since his TV career lost steam in 2008. He and Karnath have repeatedly clashed over his desire to use the club’s headquarters for photo and television shoots; the previous president, Dan Bennett, let Bernstein film in the building without paying the club’s usage fee, and Bernstein chafed when Karnath demanded that he file proper paperwork. While Bernstein denies eyeing Karnath’s job—he told me he’s not running for president this year—he did respond to the charge that he accepted improper gifts.