Can’t Get There From Here

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Last week, attempting to address accusations that he’d fabricated large portions of his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, author and Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson revised his story about stumbling lost into the Pakistani town of Korphe on his way home from K2 in 1993. In an exclusive interview with Outside, Mortenson conceded that he hadn’t spent several days in the village nursing his wounds, as recounted in his bestselling memoir, but insisted that he had wandered into Korphe on that 1993 trip and not a year later, as Jon Krakauer alleges in his blistering exposé “Three Cups of Deceit.”

“I was there a few hours,” Mortenson told Outside’s Alex Heard, “probably two or three hours, had tea, and I said, ‘I gotta go to Askole.’ They took me to a cable-pulley bridge over the Braldu River … Later, we rejoined Scott [Darsney] and the others, and we drove to Skardu.”

A few days after we posted our interview, Mortenson’s K2 climbing partner Scott Darsney weighed in on the controversy. In an e-mail published yesterday on Outside’s website, Darsney defended his friend’s record and appeared to bolster Mortenson’s revised Korphe story. Darsney confirmed that Mortenson had indeed gotten lost between the Korofong camp and Askole. “He’d ended up in a village on the wrong side of the Braldu River,” wrote Darsney. “It’s certainly plausible that this was Korphe.” Darsney also disputed Krakauer’s claim that Mortenson had never climbed in the Himalayas prior to their attempt on K2.

Today, however, Outside has learned that Mortenson’s revised Korphe account has serious problems. Even if Mortenson had got lost between Korofong and Askole, Outside now believes it would have been nearly impossible to end up in Korphe. What’s more, we’ve found a troubling lack of documentation regarding Mortenson’s climbing record in Nepal.

Outside was contacted by Masood Ahmad, a Colorado-based Pakistani tour operator who has run trips in the Baltoro region for years and who was in the area in 1993. Using satellite photos, Ahmad walked us through the geographical implausibility of Mortenson’s story.

The Korofong camp, from which Darsney and Mortenson departed on the morning Mortenson supposedly ended up in Korphe, is on the north side of the river, “at the snout of the Biafo Glacier,” as Mortenson told Outside. However, there is no bridge over the Braldu River between Korofong and Askole. The trail between Korofong and Askole does cross a bridge, but it goes over the Biafo River. If Mortenson had missed that bridge and wandered south, he would have had to swim the deep, wide, fast, and cold Braldu River to reach Korphe, an experience he likely wouldn’t have survived let alone failed to mention in his initial account.

Biafo Bridge

Ahmad also forwarded an e-mail from Krakauer in which the author pointed out a YouTube slide show given by Three Cups of Tea coauthor David Oliver Relin. “At 3:17 in the video, Relin shows a slide of a yak-hair bridge between two huge boulders,” Krakauer wrote. “Relin explains how this is the bridge over the Braldu River where Greg made his infamous wrong left turn, thereby ending up on the south bank of the Braldu and then stumbling into Korphe. Relin’s narration of this slide show is more or less the same story Greg gave to Outside magazine to explain how he ended up in Korphe. But the bridge in the video, a famous structure known as the Biafo Bridge that has been modified since Greg crossed it in 1993, does not cross the Braldu River at all.  This bridge crosses the outlet stream of the Biafo Glacier, about 4 miles east of Askole.”

Even without video confirmation of the bridge, there is no explanation for how Mortenson could have gotten from Korofong to the south side of the Braldu without going through Askole—where Darsney would have been waiting for him—or swimming the river. The following satellite image from Google Maps is overlaid with Mortenson’s account and annotated with the relevant landmarks.

Click on picture for a larger image

Equally troubling is the lack of any evidence backing up Mortenson’s claims about his Himalayan climbing record. As Krakauer pointed out in “Deceit,” the American Alpine Journal has no record of the “half a dozen successful Himalayan ascents” Mortenson claims in Three Cups of Tea. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily raise red flags, since the journal publishes only reports of ascents via new routes or of unclimbed or rarely climbed peaks.

Outside has also learned, however, that Mortenson doesn’t appear in Kathmandu archivist Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database. Outside’s Eric Hansen profiled Hawley in April; by all accounts, Hawley’s database is a thorough and exhaustive account of all Nepalese expeditions. Hawley, who is 87, meticulously contacts the leader of every permitted expedition. She has also recorded 138 illegal climbs, just under 2 percent of the 7,194 expeditions in her database.

Even today, climbers flying into Kathmandu know to expect a grilling from Hawley about their routes and team members. As Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, told Hansen, “You go to your hotel, and as you're checking in the phone is ringing and the man behind the desk says, ‘Hawley would like to talk to you.’ You’re barely putting your bags down.” In the early nineties, when there were far fewer expeditions to account for in Kathmandu, there’s little chance Hawley would have missed a single expedition, legal or not, let alone the six claimed by Mortenson, including successful summits of 24,688-foot Annapurna IV and 23,687-foot Baruntse.

In fact, well before any allegations of fabrication were leveled against Mortenson, Hawley’s assistant, Billi Bierling, read Three Cups of Tea and attempted to look up Mortenson in the Himalayan Database. It  had no record of him.

“I took the liberty to send him an e-mail and ask him about it and told him that it would be great if you could give us the information as it is not in our database,” Bierling wrote Outside in an e-mail from Everest Basecamp on April 27. “His agent got back to me pretty quickly telling me how amazed she was about my cool job and that she would get in touch with Greg and tell him to get in touch with me. It never happened.” Bierling says she later followed up but got no reply.

E-mailed requests by Outside to Mortenson’s K2 expedition leader, Dan Mazur, as well as to his handlers at the Central Asia Institute, have so far gone unanswered. Travel writer John Flinn verified joining Mortenson in 1990 for a climb of Nepal’s Island Peak, a 6,000-meter mountain popular with trekkers, but no other evidence of Mortenson’s Himalayan climbing record has surfaced.

–Grayson Schaffer

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