Wildly irresponsible though this may be, I nonetheless nominate Greg Mortenson as the speaker who best exemplifies Telluride Mountainfilm, the annual festival held over Memorial Day weekend.
In 2006, when he first appeared at the festival, Mortenson had just released ”Three Cups of Tea.” In that book, Mortenson tells about being cared for by Pakistanis after his failed attempted to climb K2 and his mission to repay that debt by founding schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are now 55 schools.
Few of us in the audience at Telluride had heard of him. His passion was electrifying, the world of ideas suddenly global as we sat in the cramped rows of the Sheridan Opera House, Telluride’s prime venue.
That is what, after 20 years of attendance, I have come to expect at Mountainfilm. Always, there will be the unexpected. Always, the stories of individual action prevail, on film and in the flesh. Sometimes, as in the case of Mortenson, they even involve mountains.
Mortensen will return this year, possibly to chat about Asia with Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also speaking will be George Packer, a correspondent for the New Yorker who has reported on the U.S. war in Iraq.
Actually, if planning bears fruit, dozens of people will speak and 75 or more films will be shown.
But always there are surprises.
David Holbrooke, the festival director and son of the ambassador, says he is excited to present Mel Goldstein, a social anthropologist who specializes in Tibetan society, history and contemporary politics.
And he points to a film, “The Last Train Home,” about the world’s largest annual migration, when millions of people in China leave cities and head to the countryside for a holiday.
And yes, there will be films about mountains and mountaineers. Ed Viestures, considered the greatest high-elevation climber from North America, will be there. He climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks – without supplemental oxygen. “The Wildest Dream,” a film about the quest of climber Conrad Aiker (himself a frequent attendee at Mountain Film) to unravel the mystery of George Mallory’s so-close but unsuccessful climb of Everest in 1924, will be shown.
In recent years, Mountainfilm has partnered with National Geographic, particularly in creating the agenda for the Moving Mountains Symposium. The topics have been huge: water, energy, and food. Speakers solicited to explore the big ideas have national stature.
This year, the “extinction crisis” takes center stage. Scientists estimate that half of all existing species on the planet will be gone by the end of the 21st century. Thomas Lovejoy, a scheduled speaker, calls this the Holocene Extinction. They list it as the Earth’s sixth major extinction—but the first to be caused by humans.
Not since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago have we had an extinction of this magnitude, said Holbrooke, the festival director. But not all is grim. He notes an enormous amount of exciting work being done to combat the crisis, much of which will be highlighted at Mountainfilm 2010.
Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., will be there – but to talk about her current project, called “What is Missing. It, too, addresses the biodiversity loss.
The festival has expanded significantly in the 21 years of my acquaintance. There are more films, more speakers, more themes. Galleries in Telluride have been pressed into service, their wall space devoted to the photographs and photographers that have always been a part of the festival.
Attendance has also grown. Last year, 2,000 people participated, a 10 percent increase form the prior year. Too many shows were sold-out. Ken Burns debuted his new series on the national parks, but only those willing to linger in lengthy lines saw them. To remedy that, a new venue has been added, to restore balance.
But if lines have grown, the level of intimacy remains extraordinary. Last year, I was in the second level of the Sheridan Opera House of the Saturday night show, one vacant seat next to me. That vacant seat was filled by a columnist for the New York Times, Nickolas Kristof, his young daughter bouncing on his knee. They had been out for a hike.
I obviously took note of having a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer next to me. But he didn’t act like he was anything special. And, in fact, he wasn’t necessarily the most interesting person there – at the festival, or even that night.
The most interesting presentation may have come from somebody who you have never heard of, and for which I have no more room to write. But that’s Mountainfilm – bereft of much pretension, full of surprises, and deeply satisfying for its broad world of ideas and its celebration of the indomitable spirit.
That’s why Mortenson strikes me as the essence. He’s of the mountains, yes, but his indomitable spirit exemplifies the do-gooder impulse that underlies this festival. I am excited at the prospect of a live conversation between Holbrooke, America’s premier diplomat in that hardscrabble part of the world, and Mortenson, conceivably America’s most effective agent of foreign policy.
Mortensen is the optimistic agrarian, planting seeds of hope in the rural provinces of Pakistan and Afghanistan – essentially the same soil from which militant Islamism was nourished. What can constitute more indomitable human spirit that this venture? It’s big – bigger even than climbing the world’s highest, coldest, deadliest mountains.
Allen Best writes about water, energy, and transportation from a base in Denver, and also issues a monthly newsletter called Mountain Town News. Visit him at www.allen.best.net.