Three Cups of Hoo-Boy

Literature, Social Issues

In Outside magazine‘s article “Greg Mortenson Speaks”, the interviewee addresses some of his critcs’ claims, but he doesn’t do so too thoroughly. He does admit to Three Cups of Tea containing some embellishments created by editors during the writing process, which he insists he protested. He maintains that he accidentally stumbled into Korphe after not being able to keep up with his K2 crew. He claims that he actually got separated from his team twice and that it was on the second incident that he stumbled into Korphe. He clarifies, however, that this was not an overnight stay, contrary to what he recounts in his book, nor did he promise to build them a school at that time. Mortenson says that he went to Korphe a second time in 1994 (the time that 60 Minutes/Krakauer said he visited Korphe for the first time), and it was then that he both promised and did establish a school.

Sadly, neither Mortenson nor the interviewer take the time to address more specific accusations Krakauer makes. (Before I get on with this, I want to apologize for not being able to cite page numbers. I grabbed the Kindle version of Jon Krakauer’s essay [which, oddly is the only way to obtain his essay and they force you to donate to charity to obtain it] and it appears to have disposed of such ancient methods of reference). For one, the alternate telling of Mortenson’s post-K2 adventures are provided to Krakauer by numerous sources. One of Mortenson’s climbing partners, Scott Darsney, told Krakauer that when they left that expedition, Darsney assured me, Mortenson didn’t know Korphe existed. Darsney did have more to say about his interview with Krakauer. He does directly respond to things that Krakauer says he told him with the intent of clearing up what Darsney feels were miscommunications between him and Krakauer. Darsney also disassociates himself from some of the conclusions that Krakauer reached from their conversation.

The most damning evidence of Mortenson’s deceit regarding his Korphe story, however, are two major pieces of evidence that I would not be surprised if it took Mortenson some time to respond to. For one, Krakauer refers to an essay Mortenson wrote for the American Himalayan Foundation newsletter, where Mortenson essentially tells the beginning of his Three Cups of Tea story, but the setting is a village called Khane instead of Korphe. On top of that, footnote 2 of Krakauer’s essay references a memo Mortenson sent to Jean Hoerni [Mortenson’s first and biggest donor] and the AHF board of directors in March 1995 that listed specific reasons for moving the Central Asia Institute’s first school’s location from Khane to Korphe. Khane is not mentioned in the quotation of the memo, but it explicitly refers to MOVING THE PROJECT SITE TO KORPHE [emphasis in source]. Mortenson must address this evidence.

On top of that, Krakauer lifts the veil off of a series of what I suppose you could call “little white lies” strewn throughout the book. One of the most interesting ones, where I can see some room for misunderstanding that can only portray Mortenson as something of an ignorant fellow, is an account in Three Cups of Tea in September of 2000 when Mortenson claims he heard that Mother Theresa died which prompted him to make a side trip while in Calcutta to visit her grave. Maybe he did this, but Krakauer makes clear that Mother Theresa died in 1997. So either this event did not happen, or Mortenson did make such a trip but was mistakenly informed that Mother Theresa died in 2000 when she really died three years earlier. And so now, of course, I’m quite curious to know if any average reader would gather from Mortenson’s account in his book that he really thought Mother Theresa died that year, or if he was actually talking about just having been informed she died (even though it happened years earlier) and then visited her deathbed, provided that her body is indeed so preserved.

Mortenson also claimed to have met the late and former king of Afghanistan, more formally known as Zaher (or Zahir) Shah on a commercial flight from Afghanistan to Kabul, Pakistan. He gives a very detailed and heart-warming account, in Three Cups of Tea, of their encounter. However, Krakauer was able to get a hold of Mostapha Zaher, the successor and grandson of Zaher Shah, who sent a message back to him saying in no uncertain terms:

I wish to categorically state, and in no uncertain terms, that my late grandfather had NEVER taken the mentioned flight PIA 737 from Islamabad to Kabul during the Holy Month Ramadhan of 2003. As a matter of fact, he has NEVER traveled on any PIA flights from 1973 to 2007, the year of his passing away [emphasis by Zaher]. The information provided by the person [Mortenson] is simply not factual.

Before Greg Mortenson even talks about the whole Taliban abduction story again, he will definitely want to specifically respond to these accusations. He has to say whether or not he wrote that AHF newsletter article and why he won’t talk about, or at the very least denies, he ever made the Korphe promise to Khane. Also, if he could clear up the myriad other claims of falsehood Krakauer attributes to Mortenson’s recollection of events, that would really show that he’s listening to the criticism and he’s responding to it directly so as to clarify things once and for all.

I’d like to comment a little more about Darsney’s interview and email. First off, his email is curiously titled: Three Cups of Tea Is Not Diminished by One Cup of WikiLeaks. I’m not sure what WikiLeaks has to do with any of this…

At one point, Darsney writes:

If Jon Krakauer and some of Greg’s detractors had taken the time to have three or more cups of tea with Greg and others–instead of one cup of tea with a select few who would discredit him–they would have found some minor problems and transgressions. But to the extent to call it all “lies” and “fraud”? No way. They would have come to very different conclusions. It takes a lot longer than one journalistic research cycle to have three cups of tea with someone.

The problem is that Krakauer totally tried to talk to Mortenson before he released his essay and even before the 60 Minutes exposé. The issue his critics claimed they ran into, and they provide some documentation, was Mortenson’s classic stonewalling, that is acting like he’d actually like to engage with them, but when the time comes he’s nowhere to be found. Hell, we all do this to an extent, but they made clear that they were going to make very serious claims against him and his organization and they wanted to give him the chance to talk. Mortenson, bizarrely, claims that Krakauer only once sent a message to him and lied about trying to get a hold of him for so long. Mortenson, also claims that 60 Minutes acted similarly. The truth is that Mortenson had plenty of time to meet with these people, and I think the factual record will reveal their attempts to contact him, as numerous people cite Mortenson’s stonewalling as a constant issue. In fact, the people who left his Institute, whom Krakauer interviewed, consistently cite this tendency of his, particularly when they tried to bring up the Institute’s financial practices to him.

On top of that, Darsney repeats a false claim that Mortenson in his limited statements has been very eager to disseminate. They claim that Mortenson’s detractors are trying to cast his entire organization as a sham. No, this is merely a line of rhetoric that is exploding from tabloid headlines, but it is nothing that Krakauer or 60 Minutes tries to advocate. I doubt Mortenson has even read Krakauer’s essay yet, to tell you the truth… if he did, or if Darsney paid attention to it, they’d realize that they are trying to not stain CAI‘s reputation. Krakauer is clear, though, about how upset he is of Mortenson’s deceits and what appears to be intentional ignoring of financial regulations for charities. Krakauer says in his essay that he himself had donated over $70,000 to the CAI, and so it is somewhat personal.

Luckily, Darsney does have this to say:

On the other hand, in light of these events, it is only fair that Greg be willing and available to have one cup of tea–if not more–with his naysayers as well. If Greg is unwilling or unable, then the court of public opinion may not be very understanding.

Mortenson absolutely must sit down with his critics, or at least other popular publications, and directly respond to the accusations. Again, I’d focus on Krakauer’s essay because it provides the most evidence.

Also from Darsney’s email:

Yes, I did say to Jon Krakauer that Greg didn’t go to Korphe until 1994. However, on our way out, Greg got lost a second time somewhere between the Biafo glacier region and Askole. About half a day later, Greg finally showed up in Askole saying he’d made a major wrong turn. He’d ended up in a village on the wrong side of the Braldu River. It’s certainly plausible that this was Korphe.

It is quite strange that Darsney would tell Krakauer with such certitude that Mortenson had not even heard of Korphe until 1994, and then insist in this email that it’s possible, or plausible anyway, he may have ended up there before they met him in Askole. I can’t help but to think, however, that in the moment Darsney told Krakauer this, that Darsney was relying on other encounters, perhaps future ones with Mortenson, that betrayed that he was unaware of the village Korphe until Mortenson went there in 1994. Hopefully, time and more honesty will tell…

One more interesting quote from Darsney’s email:

If you are a stickler for minutiae, strict detail, and exact accountability, all of this may be troubling for you, and perhaps some extra oversight and introspection will be good and welcomed by Greg and the Central Asia Institute.

Yeah, if you happen to be one of those people who actually cares about facts and detail, the information you are taking in about Greg Mortenson may totally shock you in a bad way. The thing is, Krakauer and 60 Minutes make clear that numerous CAI employees were diligently trying to apply basic financial over watch to their institute’s coffers, but their executive director regularly sabotaged their efforts. And so, yes… accountability…

Please also take a look at an Outside magazine blog post by Grayson Schaffer where he points out other grave issues with Mortenson’s revised Korphe story and with Mortenson’s claims to have climbed Himalayan mountains. Also, Schaffer talks about how Krakauer expressed to a certain Pakistan guide based in Colorado via email how Mortenson’s revised visit to Korphe may not be so plausible.

I’ll try to keep updated about this. By the way, thank you everyone for your patience with this site…

The essay in question:

Krakauer, Jon (2011). Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 1189-1195). Byliner. Kindle Edition.

What say you?