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Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way

Jon Krakauer

  b y l I n e r o r I g I n a l s


  Cups of


  j o n k r a k au e r

  Also by Jon Krakauer

  Eiger Dreams

  Into the Wild

  Into Thin Air

  Under the Banner of Heaven

  Where Men Win Glory

  Copyright © 2011 by Jon Krakauer

  All rights reserved

  Cover photograph: The school at Bozai Gumbaz,

  Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan, February 10, 2011

  Cover photograph by: © Matthieu Paley/ ISBN: 978-1-61452-001-6

  Byliner, Inc.

  San Francisco, California

  For press inquiries, please contact [email protected]

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


  Cups of


  How Greg Mortenson,

  Humanitarian Hero,

  Lost His Way

  j o n k r a k au e r

  b y l i n e r o r i g i n a l s


  Bozai Gumbaz


  kaschsh Gaz



  Wakhan corridor





















  greg Mortenson: Executive director and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI); co-author of Three Cups of Tea; author of Stones into Schools

  David oliver relin: Co-author of Three Cups of Tea Christa Mortenson: Greg’s youngest sister, who died in 1992

  Mouzafer ali: Resident of Pakistan’s Baltistan region whom Mortenson hired to carry his backpack from the base of K2

  to the village of Askole in September 1993

  Haji ali: Chieftain of a Balti village called Korphe, located across the Braldu River from Askole

  scott Darsney: Greg Mortenson’s climbing partner on K2 in 1993

  yakub: Friend of Mouzafer Ali whom Darsney hired to carry his backpack from the base of K2 to the village of Askole in 1993

  akhmalu: Expedition cook for Greg Mortenson and his teammates on K2 in 1993; shortly after the expedition ended, Mortenson visited Akhmalu’s village, Khane, and promised to build a school there

  erica stone: Executive director of the American Himalayan Foundation

  Jean Hoerni: Theoretical physicist and co-founder of CAI who gave Greg Mortenson $12,000 in 1994 to build his first school in Pakistan, and in 1996 donated $1 million to CAI Mohammed ali Changazi: Tour operator and trekking agent who managed the logistics for Mortenson’s 1993 K2 expedition; adopted son of Haji Ali

  tara bishop: Greg Mortenson’s wife, a clinical psychologist; the daughter of Barry Bishop

  naimat gul Mahsud: A member of the Mahsud tribe who met Mortenson in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in July 1996 and, at Mortenson’s request, drove him to Ladha, South

  Waziristan, the Mahsud ancestral homeland, where he was Mortenson’s host

  Mansur Khan Mahsud: Director of research at the FATA Research Centre who accompanied Mortenson on sightseeing excursions in South Waziristan in July 1996, during the period Mortenson claims the Taliban held him captive

  sangi Marjan: Commissioner of education in Ladha, South Waziristan, who met with Mortenson in July 1996 to discuss education in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)

  Hussein Mohammed: Pseudonym of a member of the

  Mahsud tribe who is acquainted with Naimat Gul Mahsud

  Jennifer Wilson: Jean Hoerni’s third wife, who served on the CAI board of directors from 1997 to 2001

  tom Vaughan: Chairman of CAI’s board of directors, 1997–2001

  tom Hornbein: American physician and mountaineer renowned for making the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963; invited to join the CAI board in 1999, he became its chairman in 2001 and resigned in 2002

  barry bishop: Tara Bishop’s father; Tom Hornbein’s teammate on Everest in 1963

  gordon Wiltsie: Eminent photographer and mountaineer, member of the CAI board of directors, 1998–2002

  sally Uhlmann: Businesswoman and member of the CAI board of directors, 2000–2002

  King Zaher shah: King of Afghanistan 1933–1973, who died in 2007

  sadhar Khan: Powerful warlord, or qomandan, in the northern Afghanistan province of Badakhshan

  Mostapha Zaher: Grandson of King Zaher Shah

  Debbie raynor: Chief financial officer of CAI, 2003–2004

  Daniel borochoff: President of the American Institute of

  Philanthropy, a charity watchdog organization ghulam Parvi: CAI’s program manager in Pakistan, 1996–

  June 2010

  tanya rosen: Wildlife researcher and international lawyer who has conducted extensive research in Baltistan

  Kate DeClerk: CAI’s international program director, 2003–


  Mike bryan: Journalist Mortenson hired to ghostwrite an early draft of Stones into Schools

  Kevin Fedarko: Journalist who wrote “He Fights Terror With Books,” the 2003 Parade magazine article that established Mortenson’s reputation; second ghostwriter of Stones into Schools

  roshan Khan: Kyrgyz horseman whom Mortenson purportedly promised, in 1999, to build a school in Bozai Gumbaz abdul rashid Khan: Supreme leader of the Afghan Kyrgyz people whom Mortenson met in the Afghan city of Baharak in 2005; father of Roshan Khan

  ted Callahan: American anthropologist and mountaineer Mortenson hired in 2006 to write a report about the feasibil-ity of building a school for Kyrgyz nomads in northeastern Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor

  sarfraz Khan: Pakistani who oversees CAI’s programs in northern Pakistan and northern Afghanistan

  Whitney azoy: Cultural anthropologist who has spent many years working in Afghanistan; Ted Callahan’s friend and mentor

  Colonel ilyas Mirza: Retired Pakistani military officer who serves as CAI’s chief operations director in Islamabad

  Haji osman: Kyrgyz chieftain in the Afghan Pamir near the Bozai Gumbaz school

  ghial beg: Headman of an Afghan village named Kret in the Wakhan Corridor, where CAI built a school

  Part I




  “When it comes right down to it

  I am nothing more than a fel ow who took

  a wrong turn in the mountains and

  never quite managed to find his way home.

  — g r e g M o r t e n s o n ,


  S t o n e S i n t o S c h o o l S

  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 Paki
stan 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 Morten-

  son 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 autobiographi-cal account of Mortenson’s school-building adventures have j o n k r a k a u e r


  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 separat-ed from Mouzafer Ali, the Balti porter he had hired to carry t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 3

  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 wiz-

  ened 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 j o n k r a k a u e r


  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, Morten-

  son 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 pos-sessions, 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 anti-biotics. 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-t h r e e c u p s o
f d e c e i t 5

  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 multipli-cation 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 transfor-mative 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.

  j o n k r a k a u e r


  Mortenson didn’t really stumble into Korphe after taking a wrong turn on his way down from K2. He wasn’t