Greg Mortenson doesn’t hide his light under a bushel. He makes more than 160 public appearances annually, in all parts of the country and abroad, and frequently appears in the news. For each of the past three years he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama donated $100,000 of the award money from his own Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2009, to the Central Asia Institute (CAI)—the charity Mortenson launched fifteen years ago to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Visiting classrooms wherever he goes, Mortenson has persuaded 2,800 American schools to become fundraising partners; last year, schoolkids collecting “Pennies for Peace” boosted CAI revenues by $2.5 million. All told, his vigorous promotion of the Greg Mortenson brand generated $23 million in donations to CAI in 2010 alone.
On March 29 of this year, I attended a lecture Mortenson gave in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As he walked onto the stage in the sold-out arena, more than two thousand men, women, and children leapt to their feet to express their admiration with cheers, whistles, and deafening applause. “If we really want to help people, we have to empower people,” Mortenson pronounced. “And empowering people starts with education.” A book cover depicting Afghan girls engrossed in study was projected onto the screen above the stage. “So I wrote this book called Three Cups of Tea,” he deadpanned. “Some of you might have heard about it…”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Hoping to get an autograph from Mortenson, hundreds of fans were holding copies of his book, which had spent the previous four years and two months on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list, and showed every sign of remaining there well into the future. Some five million copies are now in print, including special editions for “young readers” and “very young readers” (kindergarten through fourth grade). Moreover, the multitudes who have bought Three Cups haven’t merely read it; they’ve embraced it with singular passion. Since its publication in 2006, people galvanized by this autobiographical account of Mortenson’s school-building adventures have donated more than $50 million to the Central Asia Institute. The book’s popularity stems from its forceful, uncomplicated theme—terrorism can be eradicated by educating children in impoverished societies—and its portrayal of Mortenson as a humble, Gandhi-like figure who has repeatedly risked life and limb to advance his humanitarian agenda.
Told in the third person by Mortenson’s co-author, David Oliver Relin, Three Cups begins with Mortenson hiking down Pakistan’s Baltoro Glacier in September 1993, having failed to climb K2, the second-highest peak on earth. A trauma nurse by profession, he’d been invited to join an expedition to K2 to serve as the team medic.1 After two months of punishing effort, however, Mortenson realized he lacked the strength to reach the summit, so he abandoned his attempt and left the expedition early. Exhausted and dejected, the thirty-five-year-old mountaineer reached into a pocket as he trudged down the trail and “fingered the necklace of amber beads that his little sister Christa had often worn. As a three-year-old in Tanzania, where Mortenson’s Minnesota-born parents had been Lutheran missionaries and teachers, Christa had contracted acute meningitis and never fully recovered. Greg, twelve years her senior, had appointed himself her protector.”
In July 1992, at age twenty-three, Christa had suffered a massive epileptic seizure, apparently stemming from her childhood health problems, and died. Ten months later, Mortenson had trekked into the Karakoram Range with Christa’s necklace, intending to leave it on K2’s 28,267-foot summit, which is considerably more difficult to reach than the crest of Mount Everest. Now the defeated Mortenson “wiped his eyes with his sleeve, disoriented by the unfamiliar tears…. After seventy-eight days of primal struggle at altitude on K2, he felt like a faint, shriveled caricature of himself.” He wasn’t even sure he had the strength to make it to Askole, the village at trail’s end, fifty miles down the valley.
A week into his homeward trek through Baltistan, as this corner of Pakistan is known, Mortenson became separated from Mouzafer Ali, the Balti porter he had hired to carry his heavy backpack. Without Mouzafer’s guidance, Mortenson took a wrong turn and lost his way. A few hours later, he arrived at a village he assumed was Askole. As Mortenson walked into the settlement, a throng of local youngsters, fascinated by the tall foreigner, gathered around him. “By the time he reached the village’s ceremonial entrance…he was leading a procession of fifty children.”
Just beyond, Mortenson was greeted warmly by “a wizened old man, with features so strong they might have been carved out of the canyon walls.” His name was Haji Ali, the village chieftain. He led Mortenson to his stone hut, “placed cushions at the spot of honor closest to the open hearth, and installed Mortenson there…. When Mortenson looked up, he saw the eyes of the fifty children who had followed him,” peering down from a large square opening in the roof. “Here, warm by the hearth, on soft pillows, snug in the crush of so much humanity, he felt the exhaustion he’d been holding at arm’s length surge up over him.”
At that moment, though, Haji Ali revealed to Mortenson that he wasn’t in Askole, as the American believed. Owing to his wrong turn, he’d blundered into a village called Korphe. “Adrenaline snapped Mortenson back upright. He’d never heard of Korphe…. Rousing himself, he explained that he had to get to Askole and meet a man named Mouzafer who was carrying all his belongings. Haji Ali gripped his guest by the shoulders with his powerful hands and pushed him back on the pillows.” Surrendering to fatigue, Mortenson closed his eyes and sank into a deep sleep.
In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson never indicates exactly how many days he spent in Korphe on that initial visit in 1993, but he implies it was a lengthy stay:
From his base in Haji Ali’s home, Mortenson settled into a routine. Each morning and afternoon he would walk briefly about Korphe, accompanied, as always, by children tugging at his hands…. Off the Baltoro, out of danger, he realized just how precious his own survival had been, and how weakened he’d become. He could barely make it down the switchback path that led to the river…. Wheezing his way back up to the village, he felt as infirm as the elderly men who sat for hours at a time under Korphe’s apricot trees, smoking from hookahs and eating apricot kernels. After an hour or two of poking about each day he’d succumb to exhaustion and return to stare at the sky from his nest of pillows by Haji Ali’s hearth.
During his protracted recuperation in Korphe, Mortenson became aware of the Baltis’ poverty, and “how close they lived to hunger.” He noticed the widespread malnutrition and disease, and learned that one out of every three Korphe children perished before their first birthday. “Mortenson couldn’t imagine discharging the debt he felt to his hosts in Korphe. But he was determined to try.” He gave away most of his possessions, including his camping stove and warm expedition clothing.
Each day, as he grew stronger, he spent long hours climbing the steep paths between Korphe’s homes, doing what little he could to beat back the avalanche of need…. He set broken bones and did what little he could with painkillers and antibiotics. Word of his work spread and the sick on the outskirts of Korphe began sending relatives to fetch “Dr. Greg,” as he would thereafter be known in northern Pakistan….
Often during his time in Korphe, Mortenson felt the presence of his little sister Christa, especially when he was with Korphe’s children…. They reminded [him] of the way Christa had to fight for the simplest things. Also the way she had of just persevering, no matter what life threw at her. He decided he wanted to do something for them…. Lying by the hearth before bed, Mortenson told Haji Ali he wanted to visit Korphe’s school.
The following morning, “after their familiar breakfast of chapattis and cha,”
Haji Ali led Mortenson up a steep path to a vast open ledge…. He was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling in the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson’s eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher…. Mortenson watched, his heart in his throat, as the students stood at rigid attention and began their ‘school day’ with Pakistan’s national anthem…. After the last note of the anthem had faded, the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with a stick they’d brought for that purpose.
“I felt like my heart was being torn out,” Mortenson declares in this passage. “There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa. I knew I had to do something.” As Mortenson stood beside Haji Ali that crisp autumn morning, gazing up at the towering peaks of the Karakoram,
climbing K2 to place a necklace on its summit suddenly felt beside the point. There was a much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister’s memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they’d shared their first cup of tea. “I’m going to build you a school,” he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2. “I will build a school,” Mortenson said. “I promise.”
This, in Mortenson’s dramatic telling, is how he came to dedicate his life to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He devotes nearly a third of the book to this transformative experience, which he says occurred in September 1993. It’s a compelling creation myth, one that he has repeated in thousands of public appearances and media interviews. The problem is, it’s precisely that: a myth.
Mortenson didn’t really stumble into Korphe after taking a wrong turn on his way down from K2. He wasn’t lovingly nursed back to health in the home of Haji Ali. He set no villagers’ broken bones. On that crisp September morning, shortly before returning to America, Mortenson did not put his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulders and promise to build a school. In fact, Mortenson would not even make the acquaintance of Haji Ali, or anyone else in Korphe, until more than a year later, in October 1994, under entirely different circumstances.
The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”