Mountains of Change
Climber and author Greg Mortenson should be resting on his laurels and celebrating. “Three Cups of Tea” (written with journalist David Oliver Relin), which chronicles his quest to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan after local villagers saved him from a life-threatening descent down K2, sits at number six on the New York Times’ bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. Most first-time writers would jump for joy at sitting on the bestseller list for 18 weeks. But to Mortenson, the celebrated book is just the means to an end.
“I never expected the book to do that well – I wrote the book to bring awareness to our work and girl’s education,” he says by phone form his Bozeman home. “Education is something that all people value, and ultimately I’m doing this for the kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The publisher wants me to write another book, but doing this is 24/7, 365 days a year. I’m in it to bring thriving schools to children – girls, especially – in extreme areas.”Mortenson spoke this past February in Beaver Creek, but the event quickly sold out. Vail Valley fans who missed the talk will get another chance on June 14, when Mortenson takes part in a fundraiser and book signing in Breckenridge. NBC Nightly News is flying out a film crew to document Mortenson’s work with the Central Asia Institute, so even more people will hear his message of spreading peace and ending terrorism through education.Catch the messageMortenson’s zeal for healing Central Asia spreads exponentially everywhere he goes: The events in Breckenridge are hosted by Mountain to Mountain, a partner organization formed by Breckenridge pilates instructor Shannon Galpin. She was so taken with Mortenson’s story and work with the Central Asia Institute that she immediately made up her mind to join his crusade. In only six months, Mountain to Mountain has arranged speaking events, charity races and raised thousands of dollars to support the cause.”It was pretty much instantaneous – (reading the book) was a complete fluke, but I flew through it last spring, and by Thanksgiving I was trying to create an organization that would partner with charities on the ground,” Galpin says. “We got amazing support from the Breckenridge community and from sponsors for our fundraisers. This is more than a full-time job; I had no experience fundraising, but I kind of found what I want to be when I grow up.”
Galpin lived and worked in Europe and Lebanon, but even her friends and family didn’t see a paradigm shift like this coming.”I think they just sort of shook their heads and said, ‘off you go,”‘ she says. “I make impulse decisions. I go from the gut and with what feels right. This is the area that I’m so inspired to work with, and everybody else is just along for the ride.”Galpin fully attributes her meteoric success with starting in a mountain community, where close-knit, culturally-aware people live in close proximity and have a vested interest in connecting with other mountain cultures.”I would not have gotten so far without being in a mountian community,” she says. “People living in the Colorado mountains are fairly globally aware, and they’re typically involved ith skiing and climbing in foreign countries. It’s a choice to be here and we all realize how lucky we are, so we’re open to giving back. They either have the time or the money, and they give one or the other.”Mortenson agrees that mountain cultures would naturally seek each other out, even though they’re thousands of miles away and culturally alien to one another.”Regardless of where you are, mountain people understand mountain people, and they want relate to and help them,” he says. “It’s inspiring and exciting because mountain communities are reaching out – it’s appealing to get behind education in the mountains, even if it’s a whole world away.”Kids careMountain communities are quick to spring into action to build schools in the mountains of Central Asia, but schoolchildren might be even quicker. Mortenson’s Pennies For Peace brought in $40,000 dollars last year, solely through the donation of pennies by kids in elementary schools across the country. That’s enough to build two schools in Pakistan.”Kids don’t need to be mountain kids to understand – they realize these are just kids who want to learn, and they want to do something,” says Pennies For Peace executive director Christiane Leitinger. “Even inner-city kids from areas of great poverty have done a lot. I just got a check for $800 from inner-city kids. They identified with being the underdog, and they wanted to help these kids.”Leitinger, who runs Pennies For Peace as an extension of Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute from Evergreen, has known Mortenson for years and thinks the power of his story benefits from his reserved, humble personality.”I don’t think he’s gotten more comfortable in front of people – he’s by nature a shy, humble person but he understands that telling this story is what will bring awareness to what he’s doing,” she says. “Who wants to talk to a representative, anyway? You want to talk to the real deal, the guy who’s been kidnapped and had two fatwahs against him. People are drawn to his quiet humility, and he tells his story beautifully – I’ve seen it so many times over the years, but I’m in tears every time.”
“It’s very humbling and I’m certainly very honored, but sometimes it’s almost hard for me to accept the generosity because I used to have to work so hard to raise a hundred dollars,” Mortenson says. “It’s most exciting when people do it on their own – anybody can make a difference, it just takes a penny or a seed of hope. Beaver Creek recently raised over $50,000. Breckenridge has been amazing – Shannon is very, very persistent, and I wish I could be there for the 10 (mile) and 5K race. The whole community, from the organic grocery store to boutique shops to the service industry has been totally inspiring – she got the whole community going.”Joaquin Phoenix as Greg Mortenson?The Central Asia Institute has built 58 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan so far and is in the process of building 12 more. His incredible philanthropic efforts have drawn inevitable attention from Hollywood – but Mortenson isn’t ready to bite just yet.”Probably two dozen Hollywood producers have contacted me, but I worry they might not be sensitive to the issues, so I’ve turned down quite a lot of offers,” he says. “Maybe at some point it’ll feel right, but they can take their time. I think one of them is probably pretty upset with me.” Mortenson estimates he’s taken 34 trips and spent 65 months in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it’s kept him from his wife and kids, though he does bring them as often as he can. The self-confessed “climbing bum” gave up serious peak bagging after K2 to pursue his mission of hope, but the mountain crags still call to him.”I still miss climbing, but this gives me far more emotional and spiritual fullfilment – I went for the mountains, but the people bring me back again and again,” he says. “I always look up and see these great routes, but there’s far more important work to get done.”Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado