Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, and the AMC

Last night, we attended the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 133rd Annual Meeting in Danvers, Massachusetts. It was great to see our old friends and meet some new ones. There are folks we only see once a year at this event, but you greet them like you saw them yesterday. It was great to hear that despite the horrible financial crunch that hit in 2008, the AMC balanced its budget for the 21st consecutive year. Our club has wise leadership, amazing volunteers, and a strong business model. Many not-for-profit organizations are collapsing under the weight of the recession, but AMC’s long term strategy is sound.

The meeting last night was shocking in many ways. Given the recession, one would expect a low turnout for an event that costs $40/person. Amazingly, the event broke all records. It was one of the largest events that the club has ever hosted. More than 900 people turned out for the dinner. Half as many were there throughout the day for workshops and meetings, but the crowd swelled by cocktail hour. I wish I could say that folks were really fired up about AMC’s mission, the Maine Woods Initiative, and the environment.

But, I can’t. The real reason for the sold out event was the key note speaker. His name is Greg Mortenson, co-founder and Executive Director of the Central Asia Institute, and author of Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson’s book is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and remains on the list today. It has been a juggernaut. I first learned of Mortenson through ads for his book in AMC Outdoors, the clubs monthly magazine. He has advertised for months. Then, I read a story about him in Outside magazine. I confess, I haven’t read the book, but I’m familiar with his story and have read excerpts.

Not all authors are good speakers, but Greg was pretty good. He isn’t dynamic, but he is sincere. He came across as a regular guy with an incredible vision. The great photo images in his slide show made up for any weakness in his delivery. He had a very noble idea to educate children in these war torn countries, and he built a network that helped make his dream a reality. His own hardscrabble upbringing, brush with death (on K2), and the death of his sister have defined his life. His story, as told in Three Cups of Tea, is what powers the book forward and it is what drew 900 people to a Sheraton Hotel ballroom. I had no idea that this guy was so popular. Recently word got out that he was nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This news must have reached some of the attendees, but I first learned it last night.

I think it is great that 80% of those who came were AMCers. I hope the 20% that were guests join the club because Mortenson’s values and the values of our organization are very consistent. After all, his roots are in mountaineering, as are the club’s. The club’s recreation/education/conservation mission is a great combination. Like Mortenson, many AMCers are educators. He was the perfect speaker for a year when everyone could use a little “pick me up.” I’ll read the book for sure now. It’s moral of promoting peace through education (especially of girls) is resonating with a lot of people at a time when our new administration is promoting  a surge in Afghanistan to battle the growing insurgency in that country and neighboring Pakistan. Mortenson’s authentic story made the trip to Danvers even better.

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