In November 2008, Greg Mortenson flew down to Santa Fe from his home in Bozeman, Montana, for a fundraiser that Outside had helped organize to benefit the Central Asia Institute (CAI). The event took place in conjunction with our publication of “No Bachcheh Left Behind,” a feature about Mortenson and CAI in that year’s December issue. I met him for the first time in the lobby of our offices, at around 11 in the morning on the day of the event. Mortenson had just finished a local radio interview, and after we introduced ourselves, he gave an impromptu presentation to our assembled staff about his recent school-building efforts in Afghanistan. Afterward, I drove Mortenson to Santa Fe High School to speak to a group of students. I remember him scarfing down a sandwich in the back of my car, finishing just in time to hustle to our appointment.
His day was only starting. Mortenson spoke at two more local schools before dinner. I met him again at seven that evening at a large theater in downtown Santa Fe, where I introduced him to a sold-out crowd. He spoke for an hour, recounting his well-known story about getting lost after an attempt to climb K2 and wandering into the Pakistani village of Korphe, exhausted and alone. The locals had nursed him back to health, and in gratitude, he told the hushed crowd of nearly 1,000, he promised to return one day and build a school. The presentation ended with a standing ovation, and Mortenson signed books in the lobby for another two hours. Most of the people in line had brought their own copies of Three Cups of Tea. When he was finished, only a few new editions had sold, which must have disappointed the owners of the local bookstore that had supplied the books for the signing. Sensing this, Mortenson bought the remaining copies. He asked that they be distributed to the local homeless shelter and nursing homes. Then, presumably, he went back to his hotel and went to bed.
All of that is true. All of it, that is, except for the details of Mortenson’s visit to Korphe and, perhaps, his motivation for buying those books. Ever since 60 Minutes aired its Mortenson exposé and Jon Krakauer published his exhaustive CAI takedown, “Three Cups of Deceit,” through Byliner.com, it seems like everything that took place on that day three years ago is in question. After all, those reports did more
than raise a few doubts about CAI and its founder. They bludgeoned Mortenson, documenting numerous falsehoods in Three Cups of Tea and outlining the disturbing use of CAI funds to promote his two bestselling books. The book’s fabrications were cited in a class action filed in May. The alleged misappropriation of funds, meanwhile, is the subject of an ongoing inquiry of CAI by the Montana attorney general’s office.
The legal proceedings will take a long time to sort out. Until then, we’re left with what appear to be two diametrically opposed narratives. We can continue to believe in the mission of CAI, excusing Mortenson as a charismatic visionary who, alas, is also a disorganized dreamer who was unequipped for CAI’s meteoric rise. According to this narrative, he was brought down by a pair of mean-spirited journalists, one looking for TV ratings and the other for a big scoop to launch a new publishing venture. If we believe this version, the exhausting day I spent with Mortenson demonstrates his sincere and tireless effort to raise money for his cause and educate Americans about CAI’s mission to build schools.
The other option: to believe that Mortenson’s entire body of work is a sham. He fabricated his visit to Korphe and embellished countless other details in Three Cups of Tea—about his climbing résumé, about his kidnapping—because he knew the stories would help drive book sales. Those sales, in turn, created an ingenious feedback loop that bankrolled a perpetual donor-funded book tour that fed his “insatiable hunger for esteem,” as Krakauer wrote. In this story, the day I spent with Mortenson was all about selling books and burnishing his image, not informing the public about the need for educating girls in the developing world. The fact that he bought the remaining copies of Three Cups of Tea at retail after the event is proof that he was manipulating bestseller lists and, assuming CAI paid for those copies, diverting donations into his own pockets.
If it seems like I’m distorting the two sides, visit our Facebook page or Outsideonline.com. Since we began covering this mess, we’ve received hundreds of comments, and nearly every one of them can be neatly placed into one of these two camps. So which is it? Is Mortenson a saint who must be protected from apostates or a sinner who must be brought to justice?
Given this magazine’s long relationship with Mortenson, determining the answer hasn’t been easy. Well before he was a philanthropic phenomenon, Mortenson served as an unofficial Central Asia fixer for Outside when we were reporting stories in the region he’d come to know so well. In 2001, Mark Jenkins wrote a Hard Way column about Mortenson’s work, the first look at CAI in a national magazine and one of the first published accounts of his origin myth. Two years later, longtime Outside contributing editor Kevin Fedarko (the author of our 2008 Mortenson profile) wrote a story for Parade that put CAI on the map and yielded hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. In other words, we’re longtime believers in Mortenson’s mission. In 2009, I wrote a letter in this space about my plans to run a 50K to help raise money for CAI. Outside readers donated more than $6,000.
All of these factors undoubtedly contributed to Mortenson’s decision to grant an exclusive interview—apparently without telling his PR handlers or his lawyer—to Outside editorial director Alex Heard on the same weekend 60 Minutes dropped its bomb on CAI. And they most certainly contributed to the impression many people had—on both sides of the debate—that Outside was defending Mortenson, no matter how probing our questions were. That opinion only hardened when we ran a follow-up story on our website about Mortenson’s K2 climbing partner Scott Darsney, who took issue with how he’d been quoted in Krakauer’s report.