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Mountaineer turned activist to visit Aspen

Aspen Times Staff Report

In 1993, Himalayan mountaineer Greg Mortensen retreated from K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain located in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range.

“Physically exhausted, and having a hard time walking out,” Mortensen said he stumbled into the remote mountain village of Korphe, where the Muslim Balti people nursed him back to health and exposed him to something that he just couldn’t retreat from. His goal of climbing K2 – where fatigue and hypoxia forced him to give up about a thousand feet shy of the 28,250-foot summit some 78 days into the expedition – faded almost immediately, he said.

“I saw 83 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons. They shared five slate boards and (wrote with) sticks dipped in watered-down mud,” the 43-year-old Mortensen said. “I believed that K2 was pretty insignificant once I saw that.”

Mortensen returned home, sold his car and climbing gear and began fund raising, and eventually founding the Central Asia Institute, based in Bozeman, Montana. Since 1996, the nonprofit has raised more than $1.2 million for humanitarian projects in impoverished mountain regions of Pakistan, including the construction of 16 schools, the first of which was erected in Korphe. Mortensen, currently the director of the Central Asia Institute, now spends half the year in Pakistan, where he has gained the respect of army commanders, intelligence agencies, religious and community leaders for his hands-on approach to helping communities better themselves.

Mortensen will share his story, from climbing bum to grass-roots philanthropist, in Aspen Friday at 7 p.m. at the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Institute.

“A lot of Westerners had made false promises before, but nobody ever followed through,” he said. “That was what was different about me.”

In 1998, Mortensen received the American Alpine Club’s David Brower Award, the highest honor in the field of mountain conservation.

“I vowed I’d help them raise money for teachers’ salaries” and school construction, he said. “And I require matching donations of whatever resources a village can offer. I don’t care if it’s sand, wood, sweat equity or land.”

“I just really believe climbers should give something back to the local people,” he added.

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