Scott Darsney Questions the Accuracy and Fairness of "Three Cups of Deceit"

Greg Mortenson’s 1993 climbing partner on K2 defends the founder of the Central Asia Institute, maintaining that both 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer presented distorted portraits of the person he knows.

Scott Darsney     Photo: Bill Stevenson/Aurora

Scott Darsney

Scott Darsney

Scott Darsney, the former climbing partner of Greg Mortenson, is speaking out in support of his onetime colleague. In an e-mail sent to Outside from Nepal--where Darsney has been in and out of contact since April 17, when the 60 Minutes broadcast on Mortenson aired--Darsney questions two factual points attributed to him in “Three Cups of Deceit,” Jon Krakauer's lengthy indictment of Mortenson, published by Byliner on April 18. In addition, Darsney's e-mail makes a more sweeping judgment about what he sees as a lack of context in recent attacks on Mortenson.

“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.”

Darsney had just returned to Kathmandu from Nepal's mountainous Khumbu region last week to find the world of adventure philanthropy in an uproar. Krakauer used Darsney's testimony to support one of his central allegations: that key events in Mortenson's 2006 memoir, Three Cups of Tea, were “born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.”

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson wrote that, having failed to summit K2 in September of 1993, he became separated from Darsney on the way down from the mountain and stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe, where he was nursed back to health over a period lasting at least several days. Before he left the village, Mortenson promised to return and build a school.

Relying on interviews with Darsney and others, Krakauer maintained that the Korphe story was entirely fabricated, that Mortenson and Darsney were together during the hike down from K2, and that Mortenson didn't go to Korphe for the first time until 1994. In an interview with Outside's Alex Heard last week, Mortenson admitted that many elements in the Three Cups of Tea version were false but insisted that he had stumbled into Korphe in 1993 and remained there for several hours.

Krakauer wrote of that 1993 retreat from the world's second-highest peak: “When they drove out of the mountains, Darsney assured me, Mortenson 'didn't know Korphe existed.'“ In his e-mail, Darsney disputes whether such certainty about the matter is supportable.

“Yes, I did say to Jon Krakauer that Greg didn't go to Korphe until 1994,” Darsney wrote to Heard,* who'd tried to contact him before the 60 Minutes broadcast. “However, on our way out, Greg got lost ... 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.”

Additionally, Darsney weighs in on Krakauer's debunking of Mortenson's climbing résumé. Krakauer wrote: “Scott Darsney, Greg's climbing partner on K2, confirms that Mortenson had never been to the Himalaya or Karakoram before going to K2.”

Darsney's response: “I must have misspoken, or Krakauer misheard. I meant the Karakoram, not the Himalaya in general. I am pretty sure that [the 1993 K2 climb] was Greg's first trip to Pakistan, but he had told me of his past trips to Baruntse and Annapurna IV before, for sure, and at the beginning of the 1993 trip.”

Below is the full text of Darsney’s e-mail.

Three Cups of Tea Is Not Diminished by One Cup of WikiLeaks

I have known Greg Mortenson for the past 18 years and have shared many cups of tea and many adventures with him over that time, first in Pakistan in 1993 and in several other countries since.

Greg is a very humble, quiet man who does not like to be constrained by time and by many of the ways of Western life and business. He can overcommit himself beyond belief, yet he will stop to help someone out with any problem or concern, no matter how small, whether it’s to help a person on the street with directions or to read a story to a child. People can be frustrated, including myself at times, with Greg’s lack of punctuality and transparency, but this is what makes Greg, well, Greg. He just happens to prioritize things in a different way from how the West views things, a lesson we could all learn from. Greg takes the time to build relationships over a long period, not in a 24-hour news cycle.

Like the bridge he built in Korphe, Greg has to build a bridge between two worlds: the West, with its donations to give, which requires knowledge, informed decisions, and lectures; and another very different world, which is about tribal and family alliances and customs built over long periods of time with faith and trust.

If Greg is misappropriating funds, then show me the luxury cars, fancy boats, and closets full of shoes. This is not a “ministry” or a business gone corrupt. Are there not other NGOs and nonprofits that stray now and then? Don’t they also spend more internally as they get bigger, especially when growing quickly? But their intent and purpose still stay on the course of the mission.

I saw Greg struggle for over seven years to get CAI off the ground. I visited with him several times in San Francisco, lying on the floor of crash pads while Greg told me of his setbacks. He has dedicated his whole self to this cause at risk to his family, his friends, and his health.

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.

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.

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.

Also, Greg recounted to me his imprisonment in Waziristan when I met him in Beijing. I don’t doubt that he was held against his will.

I have read accounts that I said Greg had never climbed in the Himalaya before. I must have misspoken, or Krakauer misheard. I meant the Karakoram, not the Himalaya in general. I am pretty sure that [the 1993 K2 climb] was Greg’s first trip to Pakistan, but he had told me of his past trips to Baruntse and Annapurna IV before, for sure, and at the beginning of the 1993 trip.

Jon Krakauer is a respected and acclaimed author. He is a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, but from what I have read so far, the research needs to continue (as I’m sure it will). This is what Krakauer does, and why he can be a compelling author and journalist, and why I enjoy reading his books. But this one gives me pause. Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian first, an author second—also with a compelling story to tell—and Three Cups of Tea was a first-time process for Greg.

I feel that the message, the good, and the outcomes far exceed some journalistic faux pas in the retelling of a story from ten years previous. Being a humanitarian and building schools (school does imply teachers, staffing, etc., not just an empty building) is what Greg Mortenson does. He continues to do it well. He inspires others to carry on. This is what he is best at. This whole thing is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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. If you also believe in faith, time, building bridges between cultures, and increasing education and awareness with long-term results beyond a three-month news cycle, you will continue—along with myself and others—to support Greg Mortenson and the CAI.

—Scott Darsney, Kathmandu, Nepal, April 22, 2011

*The original introduction to this story omitted one of Scott Darsney's statements about Greg Mortenson's claim that he entered the Pakistani village of Korphe in 1993: “Yes, I did say to Jon Krakauer that Greg didn't go to Korphe until 1994.”

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