Mountainfilm 2010: Greg Mortenson’s Quest

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Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona
Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona (© Jay Graham /
Over the coming months, Outside will be posting interviews with adventurers, environmentalists, filmmakers, and others conducted by Mountainfilm. Many of the icons appearing at this year's festival have been featured in the pages of Outside. For more information on this year's festival, which begins on May 28, please check out Mountainfilm's Web Site.

Not so long ago, Greg Mortenson was a Bay Area mountaineer living out of his car. Today, he's an internationally known humanitarian who has committed his life to promoting education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His story of building schools, captured in the huge bestseller Three Cups of Tea, showed how single-minded effort and determination by anyone, could have a positive global impact.

Empowering and educating children is at the core of Mortenson’s work, and as of last year, Mortenson had established, or significantly supported, 131 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 58,000 children, including 44,000 girls.

Mortenson's most recent book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan is also a bestseller.

It's fair to say that you stumbled, almost literally, on to the path of activism and philanthropy. What do you think your personal experience says about the power of ordinary people to make extraordinary differences?
From early childhood, having grown up for 15 years on slopes of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where my father started a teaching hospital and my mother started school, I learned that service was a priority in our family. In many ways my whole childhood prepared me for this work I do. My two childhood heroes were Dr. Sir Edmund Hillary and Dr. Albert Schweitzer (who was a medical missionary in Congo and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952). Dr. Schweitzer’s most prominent writing is a tome called Reverence for Life. In it he says that those who are happiest are those who have been taught and learned to serve others. I did however stumble onto a lifelong commitment to establishing schools and providing education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When I went to K2 in ‘93 I considered myself a climbing bum and the least of my aspirations was to help people there. I was focused on one single goal to climb Kilimanjaro and to honor my sister who had died in 1992 from epilepsy.

How has the path you've taken changed you as a person?

Two things that I have learned from devoting 17 years of work in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan: the first is to listen to my heart and intuition more rather than solving problems in a western linear/logical way. Mountaineering had an effect on developing an intuitive sense. Second, I have found it’s OK to takes risks and fail and make mistakes. In the Balti language, which you find in northeastern Pakistan in the Karakorum Range (it is a form of classical Tibetan, as the Balti’s first migrated from Tibet to Ladakh and Baltistan 600-800 years ago during Tibetan Diaspora) there is no such word as failure. In English we have 50 ways to describe failure. In Balti failure means you have reached a fork in the path, it is a decision making moment.

Why do you think your efforts to build schools and educate children, especially girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan have so resonated with people who are so distanced geographically and culturally from Central Asia?
Part of the reason I believe that the story Three Cups of Tea and one average man’s efforts to establish schools in remote Afghanistan & Pakistan has touched people around the world not only in USA, is that there is an interest from a broad demographic of people: from liberals, republicans, prayer breakfasts, feminist groups. In addition I believe that it gives people hope when you have belief you can do anything. People feel inspired that anyone can make a difference, which is true!

How do you believe showcase events such as the Mountainfilm festival can positively affect causes such as Pennies for Peace?
I travel overseas and into the mountains with a dilapidated, gray Pelican case, which has a quote “The Last Best Place” on a sticker on the side. The quote comes from William Kittredge who wrote a 1988 Anthology of Montana based stories. So many of the places I go are the last best place. Places like Telluride and Mountainfilm bring together fairly a diverse and motley crew who love the mountains. To me the mountains symbolize not only the dramatic movement of the tectonic plates and the clashing of old and new and panoramic views, mountains bring out the resilience and the best in humans – the ability to adapt and survive and thrive in extreme conditions. If something can be done in the harsh environment of the mountains then certainly it can be done anywhere else in the world. Mountainfilm brings together not only people who love the mountains but people who are the real messengers and movers and shakers, where a bus can be created and a seed can be planted – whether it is an environmental issue, a human issue or a scientific or political issue. To me Telluride symbolizes how one ski can trigger a massive avalanche of good will and effort, and it only takes a misplaced ski.

With the knowledge that you have of the perils facing us and our world, how do you stay motivated and optimistic?
I’ve have a natural tendency to be happy. I told my wife if I am ever killed my gravestone should say, “he died a happy man.” Some of the greatest achievements in history were not formulated and conceived from the summit of a mountain or the highpoint of a life, but from the valleys of despair (such as Mandela and MLK incarcerated). I try to see the world through the eyes of a child that is unfettered by the trepidations, fear and anxiety through which adults, myopically lensed, see the world. I also feel it’s easy to do when one has found one’s life’s calling – then it’s easy to follow that candle. On my bathroom mirror for two decades I have a quote that says “when your heart speaks takes good notes” by Judith Campbell. When I look back at my life, the best decisions I have made were when I listened to my heart or intuition, and many of the worst decisions I made were when I based them on a very linear/logical basis. I have also been able to find solace in the quiet tranquility of mountains. That’s where I am able to get my courage. Many people try to find their way in life or their path by trying to plug in and connect with others, whereas for me, my strength and courage and hope is when I can be unplugged and find myself.

Cross-cultural understanding and bridges between the world's very disparate populations seem to be under as much threat as ever – maybe more. What do you think it will take to make the world a better place?
The strength of our planet and its people is not in its commonality or allegiance to a religion or ideology or politics, but in its great diversity. I feel what is desperately needed in this planet more than anything else is that we need to respect others, live in humility, and live a life of compassion. It seems that cultural sensitivity and learning is always the last thing we try to learn or study, but to me it should be a top priority whether it is in business, or diplomacy. Cultural sensitivity is simply key.

Check out our December 2008 profile of Greg Mortenson.

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