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Restless Native

Ron Judd's take on Northwest people, places and events.

April 19, 2011 at 9:26 AM

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Three Cups of Bull: Greg Mortenson and the value of truth

Posted by Ron Judd

Feeling a bit betrayed by what now appears to be a web of lies that formed the basis of Greg Mortensen's bestselling "Three Cups of Tea" and the massive charity that grew from it?

Join the club.

In 2001, five years before Mortenson's story turned into a book that would rocket off the bestseller charts, he sold the same tale to me. And I bought it.

In my own feeble defense, Mortenson came to me with some automatic mountain-cred: an introduction by Seattle's Tom Hornbein, the legendary Mount Everest climber who then served as a member of the board of the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson's charity to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The reputation of Hornbein, the longtime head of the University of Washington's anesthesiology department, is rock-solid.

Mortenson, on the phone from Bozeman, related the tale that later would provide the magical opening to "Three Cups": The climber in 1993, after failing in an attempt to climb K2 in honor of his late sister, stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe. There, he said, generous villagers offered him the proverbial shirts off their backs and nursed him back to health.

Intensely moved, he promised to return and build a school there for children with whom he said he had connected in an almost spiritual way, evoking memories of his dead sister.

Mortenson, on his way then to the first of what would be many Seattle fundraisers, seemed humble, earnest, excited, passionate. Just enough in awe of the whole thing himself to sound credible.

He provided vivid detail of his now-apparently-fictional stay in Korphe -- right down to the goat's milk, yak butter and unleavened bread from kindly villagers.

"I was overwhelmed with their hospitality," he told me. "It was to the point of embarrassment."

Having dealt with a lot of climbers in my career, many of whom seem to have long ago purged any selflessness genes to create greater oxygen capacity, I was impressed. The column I wrote left no doubt. It began:

Most people who visit K2 bring home a prayer flag, a piece of stone, some natural memento of doing battle with the world's most harrowing mountain. Greg Mortenson brought home a conscience.

The fact that I wasn't alone on this precipice provides a little solace. But not much.

Mortenson must have liked the column. He put it on his charity's website, where it remains, a decade later. (Note to Greg: Do me a solid and take it down. You're making us both look bad.)

That fundraiser at REI, which I did not attend, was reported to be standing-room-only -- foreshadowing the rock-star/humanitarian guru status Mortenson would achieve later: Some readers of "Three Cups of Tea" have noted in book reviews on that the book was a literal religious experience, complete with tremors and other physical symptoms of spiritual enlightenment.

Not quite that abuzz, but still "profoundly moved" by Mortenson's tale, was noted nonfiction writer and former Seattle resident Jon Krakauer, who admired Mortenson's zeal for helping children in one of the world's harshest places. Krakauer even agreed to introduce Mortenson at a subsequent 2001 fundraiser at Seattle's Town Hall, saying his work "verges on the miraculous."

Over time, Krakauer says, he donated $75,000 of his own money to the cause.

Fast forward a decade, and Krakauer is on TV, launching the apparent Great Undoing of Greg Mortenson on "60 Minutes." The show reported that numerous events described in "Three Cups" are fictional. Some of Mortenson's accounts in the 2009 sequel, "Stones Into Schools," also are being questioned.

The investigation also revealed an apparent sloppy mixing of funds between Mortenson's charity and his own bank accounts -- always, it seems, to the benefit of the latter.

One of the easiest lessons in what will become a painful learning experience for a lot of us is this one: Hell hath no fury like Jon Krakauer scorned.

It's clear that Krakauer is the driving force here, in a true, pedal-to-metal way. Some of the most damning information about Mortenson's falsehoods and spending activities, it turns out, didn't even make it into the CBS report.

But they're out there now: Krakauer has posted, on the website, a 75-page, book-form treatise -- footnotes and all -- that amounts to an exhaustive journalistic investigation of Mortenson's written work and uncharitable behavior as head of a charity recently bringing in $20 million a year.

Krakauer's cheeky "Three Cups of Deceit," downloadable (for free, at least for now), is a must-read for anyone with a stake in what has become the day-after argument: Does fudging a few facts here and there really need to undo all the good this man has done?

Alas, even that question might be based on a false premise. Far more than a few facts are at issue here. Krakauer's treatise is nothing less than a stem-to-stern gutting of the Mortenson persona -- far more damning than the duplicity highlight reel that "60 Minutes" squeezed in.

"Mortenson's books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods," Krakauer writes in an opening salvo, blaming Mortenson's "apparently insatiable hunger for esteem."

He goes so far as to compare Mortenson's book with the work of the poster boy for modern fabrication, James Frey, suggesting that Mortenson's offenses are far more damaging than proven falsehoods contained in Frey's "A Million Little Pieces."

"Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn't use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them," Krakauer writes, noting that large sums of money have been donated to the Central Asia Institute by schoolchildren.

That's just the warm-up. Page after page of daggers follow, ranging from what now appears to be a false Mortenson account of being kidnapped by "Taliban extremists"  to serious questions about how many functioning schools have been built by the charity.

Among the bevy of charges levied by Krakauer, who says he withdrew financial support and began asking hard questions about Mortenson in 2004:

  •  As CBS reported, Mortenson appears to use charitable contributions to the Central Asia Institue (CAI) to cover the considerable expenses for a highly lucrative speaking tour, with most of the proceeds going into Mortenson's pocket. A private January memo from a tax attorney to the CAI board, quoted by Krakauer, says Mortenson might have to repay his own charity as much as $8 million to avoid breaking tax laws for the years 2007-09.

  • Even the book's seemingly miraculous run atop bestseller lists might be squishy. The charity itself routinely purchases large quantities of the book to be given away at Mortenson speaking engagements, Krakauer writes. Those books are purchased at full retail through traditional booksellers, rather than wholesale direct from the publisher, thus ensuring a royalty cut for Mortenson -- and a fake sales boost recorded in sales figures.

There's a lot more "there" there -- too much to detail here.

Downloads of the Krakauer piece are likely to come fast and furious from the Seattle area, because Northwesterners-- particularly in the climbing world -- were among Mortenson's biggest supporters, and crucial to getting his charity off the ground.

Hornbein was an early chairman of the Central Asia Institute's board. Krakauer now reports that his friend Hornbein's 2002 resignation from the board was a last resort after failed attempts to rein in Mortenson's questionable accounting for funds, among other things.

Another Seattle man literally helped create the charity. Mortenson's first benefactor was the late Jean Hoerni, a wealthy, Swiss-born physicist who pioneered modern microchip technology in the Silicon Valley, and donated $1 million to the cause before he died in 1997.

These were good deeds by good people. Many, many have followed as the Central Asia Institute, by all accounts a wonderful idea, has grown.

All of which makes it more infuriating to read Krakauer's assertion that Mortenson, at a time when he says he was developing a spiritual connection with the kindly villagers in Korphe, was likely chilling in a comfy Western motel in another town.

To Mortenson supporters, it's all too easy to swat away at Krakauer like an irritating gnat and dismiss the entire matter by asking The Big Question: In light of the good that Mortenson has done, do these little details really matter?

Damn right they do.

Mortenson's "nonfiction" tale, used to solicit tax-free millions from donors who include penny-saving small children, is repeated before sell-out crowds all across America as gospel.

The Korphe experience is the very heart of his story. It's what makes Mortenson's epiphany so fascinating, and made even typical skeptics such as myself want to believe it.

Korphe, you see, injects the element of fate into the plotline -- as if some unseen hand guided this purposeless drifter, his spirit flagging, to that time and place, and made Mortenson its messenger moving forward. It also establishes Mortenson's work as a repayment for unsolicited kindness supposedly shown first to him by others.

The truth, as it now appears, is that he did return and begin charity work in the region a year later, making his way to Korphe -- after reneging on his promise to build a school in a village he actually had visited, Khane.

But without the Korphe selflessness, most of the magic in "Three Cups" goes poof.

Mortenson has vigorously defended his book and his charity in an interview with Outside magazine, where he admits timing of events in the book was "compressed," and blames his co-author, David Relin, for mixing things up while he was tied up working 20-hour days to save the world.

"What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different," he tells Outside. "In order to be convenient, there were some omissions."

He also admits his "captors" in the "kidnapping" incident might not have been Taliban, after all. And he now says he truly did visit Korphe that one fateful day, but in an increasingly foggy memory (odd, for such a life-altering event), believes he only spent a few hours there.

He's calling it literary license. That's a clever euphemism for not real. I can't help notice that the version of the Korphe tale told in "Three Cups" is the exact same one Mortenson told me in 2001, while his memory was presumably fresher, and long before any co-writer came along to screw it all up. 

Tellingly, none of the denials from Mortenson, who reportedly is undergoing a heart procedure this week, have dealt with a fraction of the substantive charges levied by Krakauer and others, particularly regarding charity finances.

Krakauer concludes with an important point: There is no disputing -- not by Krakauer, not by me here, not by most people anywhere -- that Mortenson has done a lot of good work in a particularly hellish part of the world.

"He's been a tireless advocate for girls' education," Krakauer writes. "He's established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands of children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair."

Krakauer offers a theory as to why millions of people, like him, were sucked into Mortenson's seeming miracle: In a post 9/11 world, the story of one man making such a profound difference "soothed the national conscience."

"Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain. Although it doesn't excuse his dishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy."

What, then, becomes of the charity?

Mortenson already has proclaimed that his work will continue, and says he has changed his practices after requesting his own review of the operation by an attorney in January. Krakauer agrees it might not be too late to "salvage the wreckage" of the CAI -- but only if the organization severs its ties with Mortenson swiftly and completely.

But can the good work that Mortenson's charity has done -- and still could do -- ever be separated from a tainted creator whose supposed personal experience was so integral to its creation?

Mortenson himself says no, telling Outside: "CAI, Three Cups of Tea, and Greg Mortenson are pretty much all part of each other. As much as it would be great to separate everything, we're all intricately woven."

Given that, even some of the most passionate proponents of the charity now wonder if Mortenson already has taken his cause down with him.

"I feel as if I was stupidly conned," Hornbein wrote recently to Krakauer, reprinted in "Three Cups of Deceit."

"Part of me still wants to believe that there was/is something sincere in what he was setting about to do to change the world a bit for the better. Another part of me is just downright angry at his irresponsibility to the cause with which he was entrusted, the lives of so many whom he sucked in and, in effect, spit out ...

"With one hand Greg has created something potentially beautiful and caring (regardless of his motives). With the other he has murdered his creation by his duplicity."

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