According to an investigation by Steve Croft of CBS’ 60 Minutes, a number of stories in Greg Mortenson’s bestselling book may be false or exaggerated.
The heart of Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” is the story of a failed attempt in 1993 to climb the world’s second-highest peak, K2.
On the way down, Mortenson says, he got lost and stumbled, alone and exhausted, into a remote mountain village in Pakistan named Korphe.
According to the book’s narrative, the villagers cared for him and he promised to return to build a school there. In a remote village in Pakistan, “60 Minutes” found Mortenson’s porters on that failed expedition. They say Mortenson didn’t get lost and stumble into Korphe on his way down from K2. He visited the village a year later.
That’s what famous author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson’s charity, says he found out, too. “It’s a beautiful story. And it’s a lie,” says Krakauer. “I have spoken to one of his [Mortenson’s] companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said, ‘Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later,'” Krakauer tells Kroft.
Mortenson also claimed to have been kidnapped and held for eight days by the Taliban in Waziristan. In his new book, Stones into Schools, he included a photo of three of his supposed captors.
“60 Minutes” located three of the men in the photo, all of whom denied that they were Taliban and denied that they had kidnapped Mortenson. One the men in the photo is the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad, Mansur Khan Mahsud.
He tells Steve Kroft that he and the others in the photo were Mortenson’s protectors, not his kidnappers. “We treated him as a guest and took care of him,” says Mahsud. “This is totally false and he is lying.”
Kroft also talked to Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, who says that Mortenson’s foundation, The Central Asia Institute, spends most of the donations to promote his books. Jon Krakauer told 60 Minutes that he stopped donating after he learned from a former member of the Central Asia Institute board that that Mortenson uses the Central Asia Institute “as his private ATM machine.”
Kroft says he visited schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that Mortenson supposedly has built and funded. He found that “some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn’t exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.” But Mortenson blamed a “disgruntled employee” for not paying teachers and didn’t respond to the other accusations.
Mortenson has ignored CBS’s requests for an interview, but he defended himself in his hometown newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
“I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys,” Mortenson told the Chronicle in a phone interview Friday.
“I stand by the information conveyed in my book,” he wrote in a statement, “and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students.”
In the statement, Mortenson implied that the central story of his book was falsified.
The book told how Mortenson got lost on a 1993 climb of K2, the world’s second highest peak, and then stumbled exhausted into the remote village of Korphe, was cared for by villagers, and promised to return and build a school.
“I stand by the story of ‘Three Cups of Tea,'” Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, “The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993….What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”
According to records examined by the paper, the CAI pays Mortenson $180,000 per year. In 2009, the charity took in $14 million, of which it spent “$4.6 million on travel, guest lectures and educating Americans about the plight of Pakistani and Afghan children.” It spent $3.6 million on “schools overseas.” Mortenson told the Daily News that “as of now,” he will be paying his own travel expenses.
I haven’t read Mortenson’s books, mainly because they always sounded a little too good to be true to me. A blogger at Discover Magazine, Razib Kahn, wrote something similar based on actual knowledge:
I’ve been a bit skeptical of the details of Greg Mortenson’s story in his book Three Cups of Tea for years. It seems be to so predicated on contemporary biases about the basic universal goodness of human nature. I hoped everything was true, but it seemed too good to be true. Other people who worked in Afghan NGOs tended to tell a more gritty and gray story, so either Mortenson was embellishing, or he had a special magic touch. Since I don’t believe in magic touches, I wondered as to the nature of embellishment.
Kahn still says he’s not going to judge until he learns more.
A quick Google search shows that Mortenson has spoken at numerous colleges and universities as well as high schools and middle schools around the country. If any of this is true, a lot of young people are going to be very disillusioned.