Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, Page 3

Jon Krakauer

  But the photo shows Mortenson smiling broadly as he sits t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 15





  : nf


  Greg Mortenson (standing, center, holding an ak-47 rifle) with some of the men he would falsely accuse of having kidnapped him for eight days in july 1996.

  Mansur khan Mahsud is on the far right.

  on the deputy inspector general’s Western-style bed, replete with a mattress and clean linens.

  In another photograph, Mortenson is strolling across a

  field above Kot Langerkhel on a lovely July afternoon, accompanied by Naimat Gul Mahsud, Naimat Gul’s young nephew, and his servant. A handwritten note from Sangi Marjan, the commissioner of education, attests to a pleasant visit with Mortenson during the period Mortenson claims to have been held captive. According to Mansur Khan, Mortenson was

  introduced to everyone he met as “a professor at an American medical college.” Villagers came from throughout Ladha to receive treatment from him, and he became quite a popular figure.

  It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of personal reputation to Pashtuns in general, and members of the Mahsud tribe in particular. Upholding one’s honor, and the honor of one’s clan, is the preeminent tenet of Pashtunwali, the overarching moral code that has shaped Mahsud culture and j o n k r a k a u e r






  : nf


  "instead of telling the world about our frustration, deprivation, illiteracy, and tradition of hospitality," says naimut Gul Mahsud (with Mortenson en route to the alleged kidnapping in 1996), "he invented a false story...."

  identity for centuries. By offering to act as Mortenson’s host and guardian in South Waziristan, Naimat Gul obligated his branch of the Mahsud tribe to protect Mortenson from physical injury and personal affront. The village of Kot Langerkhel took this responsibility quite seriously. Mahsud tribesmen, armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, volunteered to ac-company Mortenson whenever he traveled beyond the center of the village. “I myself accompanied Greg two or three times during his visit to different areas in South Waziristan Agency,” says Mansur Khan, who was twenty-five years old at the time.In Stones into Schools—Mortenson’s second book, published in 2009—there is a color photograph of thirteen men holding Kalashnikovs. The caption identifies them as “Waziri tribesmen who abducted Greg Mortenson near Razmak, North Waziristan. Greg was detained there for eight days in July 1996.” But according to Mansur Khan, who is one of the individuals depicted, all the men in the photo are members t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 17

  of the Mahsud tribe, not Wazirs (who are sworn enemies of the Mahsuds), and they were Mortenson’s guardians, not his abductors. “This picture was taken in Ladha, not in Razmak, North Waziristan Agency,” Mansur Khan scoffs. “This was a leisure trip to show Greg different places in Ladha.”

  Unpublished photographs taken at the same time and place, date-stamped “7-21-96,” show Mortenson clutching an AK-47

  and wearing a rack of ammunition across his chest, hamming it up beside Mansur Khan and other Mahsud tribesmen who volunteered to serve as Mortenson’s bodyguards—most of

  whom appear in the Stones into Schools photo as well.

  A preponderance of evidence indicates that Mortenson

  manufactured his account of being kidnapped by the Tal-

  iban out of whole cloth, apparently for the same reason he’s invented so many other anecdotes of personal derring-do in his books and public appearances: to inflate the myth of Greg Mortenson, “the astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign

  in the Taliban’s backyard,” as the back cover of Three Cups of Tea puts it. The likelihood that anyone in the United States would ever discover the truth about what happened in an exceedingly isolated Pakistani village must have seemed infinitesimal to Mortenson.

  The truth, says Mansur Khan Mahsud, is that “in 1996

  there were no Taliban operating anywhere near Ladha. The Taliban didn’t come until 2001.” Although a ruthless faction known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban now holds sway over much

  of South Waziristan, Mansur Khan points out that it was only after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, post–9/11, that large numbers of Taliban fled across the Durand Line into the tribal areas of Pakistan, seeking refuge from American drones and bombers.

  The fact is, almost every person Mortenson encountered

  during his visit to Ladha treated him graciously. Only once was Mortenson made to feel less than completely welcome: Near the end of July, the South Waziristan Political Agent heard that a foreigner was vacationing in Kot Langerkhel, prompting government authorities to ask Naimat Gul Mah-j o n k r a k a u e r


  sud to escort Mortenson out of the banned tribal areas as soon as possible. A few days later, Naimat Gul drove Mortenson to Peshawar International Airport and put him on a

  plane for Islamabad.

  When the residents of Ladha bid goodbye to Morten-

  son, they did so with affection, and they believed the feeling was mutual. “Years later,” says Naimat Gul, “when I scanned through the book Three Cups of Tea and read that Greg had been abducted and threatened with guns, I was shocked.

  Instead of telling the world about our frustration, deprivation, illiteracy, and tradition of hospitality, he invented a false story about being abducted by savages. I do not understand why he did this.”3

  t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 19

  Part II


  to no one

  “[T]he duties of speaking, promoting,

  and fund-raising into which I have been thrust…

  have often made me feel like a man caught

  in the act of conducting an il icit affair with the

  dark side of his own personality.

  — 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

  in the fall of 1993, when Mortenson arrived home from K2, he immediately started soliciting donations for his “Khane school project.” A year later, he had managed to raise just $723. “If it hadn’t been for Jean,” muses Jennifer Wilson, referring to Jean Hoerni, her late husband, “Greg would still be a nurse.” In September 1994, Hoerni gave Mortenson the $12,000 he needed to build his first school, thereby launching his career as a humanitarian. Hoerni was a brilliant theoreti-cal physicist who in the late 1950s played a pivotal role in the invention of the planar transistor, a new type of semiconduc-tor that enabled the mass production of silicon chips—thereby transforming not only the electronics industry but also life as we know it. According to Stanford University historian Michael Riordan, “Hoerni’s elegant idea helped to establish Silicon Valley as the microelectronics epicenter of the world.”

  It also made Hoerni a wealthy man.

  Hoerni had moved to California in 1952 at the age of

  twenty-eight, but he was born and raised in Switzerland, where he had developed a lifelong passion for mountains and mountaineering. Around 1990, Hoerni met Jennifer Wilson, their friendship gradually evolved into something more serious, and in the summer of 1993 he invited her on a twenty-eight-day, two-hundred-mile trek through the Himalaya, in the northern Indian regions of Zanskar and Ladakh. “I had never even been camping before,” says Wilson, a business-woman who grew up in Iowa. “It was a completely new experience for me. It was amazing.” Four months after returning from India, Wilson and Hoerni got married. He was sixty-nine; she was forty-five.

  In the fall of 1994, Hoerni happened to read Mortenson’s article in the American Himalayan Foundation newsletter about his quixotic scheme to build a school in Baltistan. Having trekked up the Baltoro Glacier to K2 on two occasions, Hoerni was familiar with the region, and the venture piqued h
is imagination. “I was in the kitchen,” Wilson remembers.

  “Jean came in and said, ‘Look at this article about this guy who is trying to build a school. Americans don’t care about Muslims; they only care about Buddhist Sherpas in Nepal.

  j o n k r a k a u e r


  No one is going to contribute to this. I’m going to call this guy.’” Hoerni, who was living in Seattle, had a brief phone conversation with Mortenson, and then wrote him a $12,000

  check. After the call, Wilson recalls, “Jean actually said,

  ‘This guy may just take off with my money. But I’m going to take a chance on him.’ It was really an act of faith.” As soon as the check cleared the bank, Mortenson departed for Pakistan to build his first school.

  In December 1996, when Mortenson reported to Hoerni

  that the school was finally finished, Hoerni didn’t care that it had been built in Korphe instead of Khane; he was simply happy that it had been completed while he was still around to hear about it. Eighteen months earlier, he and Wilson had been hiking up a mountain in the Swiss Jura, Wilson says, “and Jean couldn’t keep up with me. That was unprec-edented.” Although Hoerni was seventy at the time, up until that moment he had been as strong as a man many years his junior; the previous summer he had trekked over an 18,400-foot Tibetan pass at a blistering pace. Concerned about his persistent, uncharacteristic fatigue, Wilson persuaded Hoerni to make an appointment to see his brother, Marc, who was a doctor in Geneva. A blood test revealed that Jean had acute leukemia. He was expected to die within a few months.

  Nevertheless, for about a year after his diagnosis,

  Hoerni managed to remain active. “We weren’t able to hike as vigorously,” says Wilson, “but he was still able to hike.

  The doctors were kind of astonished.” In July 1996, however, while Mortenson was sojourning in South Waziristan,

  Hoerni underwent emergency surgery to remove his spleen.

  He nearly died on the operating table. Upon his release from the hospital, his skin remained ashen and he grew

  increasingly frail.

  Back in 1995, nearly a year after Hoerni had given

  Mortenson the $12,000 he needed to start working in Pakistan, he paid for Mortenson to fly to Seattle so they could meet face to face. “They bonded immediately,” says Wilson.

  Hoerni admired Mortenson’s chutzpa, his willingness to

  think big. Both men loved the mountains. Both were vision-t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 23

  aries, rule breakers, and risk takers—perennial outsiders who had scant regard for societal conventions.

  Hoerni treated Mortenson like a son, and his affection

  was reciprocated, according to Wilson: “Greg told me that Jean became kind of a father figure to him, perhaps because his own father had died.” In the wake of their Seattle rendezvous, Hoerni was so enamored of Mortenson and his humanitarian goals that he gave him $250,000 to build five more schools in Pakistan, even though the Korphe project had barely gotten off the ground. In order to make this donation tax-deductible, Hoerni channeled it to Mortenson through a special account at the American Himalayan Foundation, designated the Hoerni/Pakistan Fund. Then, just a year later in the autumn of 1996, when it became obvious to Hoerni that his death was imminent, he established a stand-alone, tax-exempt charity for Mortenson, endowing it with an additional million dollars. Thus did the Central Asia Institute come into existence.

  As 1996 drew to a close and Hoerni’s decline acceler-

  ated, Mortenson flew to Seattle to spend a few days with his benefactor before the end. During this farewell visit, Mortenson made good use of his nursing skills to make Hoerni as comfortable as possible, and Hoerni seemed grateful for his presence. On January 12, 1997, not long after Mortenson returned to Montana, Jean Hoerni died, with his wife and daughters at his bedside.

  ★ ★ ★

  one of mortenson’s childhood heroes was Mother Teresa.

  According to Three Cups of Tea (page 236), Mortenson “admired her determination to serve the world’s most neglected populations.” A hospice for the terminally ill that she opened in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1968 captured Greg’s imagination as a ten-year-old growing up in the village of Moshi, 275

  miles to the north, and his respect for Mother Teresa became greater still when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Mortenson came to regard her as a role model, even j o n k r a k a u e r


  after she faced withering criticism over the shoddy medical care her hospices provided and for lying to donors about how their contributions were used. According to Three Cups, Mortenson had heard the criticism of the woman…. He’d read her defense of her practice of taking donations from unsavory sources, like drug dealers, corporate criminals, and corrupt politicians hoping to purchase their own path to salvation. After his own struggle to raise funds for the children of Pakistan, he felt he understood what had driven her to famously dismiss her critics by saying, “I don’t care where the money comes from. It’s all washed clean in the service of God.”

  Mortenson’s 1993 trip to K2 had ignited in him a power-

  ful ambition to improve the lives of villagers in the mountains of northeastern Pakistan, an ambition inspired in part by Mother Teresa.4 Hoerni’s generosity granted Mortenson an extraordinary opportunity to realize this dream. By

  the end of 2000, he had built more than twenty schools, with dozens more in the pipeline, an impressive feat by any measure. “We can construct and maintain a school for a

  generation that will educate thousands of children for less than $20,000,” he asserted in interviews and public presenta-tions. But in truth, CAI was spending $50,000 or more—

  sometimes a lot more—just to build a single school, and the funds coming in were significantly less than the funds going out. Four years after Hoerni’s death, Mortenson had already burned through most of Hoerni’s money, and CAI teetered on the brink of insolvency.

  “Greg had no sense of what it takes to run a business,”

  says Jennifer Wilson, who joined CAI’s board of directors shortly after Hoerni passed away. “Jean was able to make Greg do things and hold him accountable, but after Jean was gone, Greg wouldn’t answer to anyone…. Tom Vaughan was a sweetheart, but Greg could always find his way around him.”

  Vaughan, a genial San Francisco pulmonologist and

  mountaineer who died in 2009, served as chairman of the CAI board. “Even when he was home, we often wouldn’t hear t h r e e c u p s o f d e c e i t 25

  from Greg for weeks,” Vaughan laments in Three Cups, in one of the rare criticisms of Mortenson that appears in the book.

  “And he wouldn’t return phone calls or emails. The board had a discussion about trying to make Greg account for how he spent his time, but we realized that would never work.

  Greg just does whatever he wants.” Most of the directors, like Vaughan, were frustrated by Mortenson’s passive-aggressive disposition, and his disdain for routine business practices.

  In late 1999, with Mortenson’s encouragement, Tom

  Hornbein had been asked to join CAI’s board to boost fundraising and provide the organization with some badly needed discipline. Thirty-six years earlier, Hornbein had made the first ascent of the formidable West Ridge of Mount Everest, still widely considered one of the greatest accomplishments in mountaineering history. President John F. Kennedy awarded the Hubbard Medal to Hornbein and his Everest teammates (one of whom was Mortenson’s future father-in-law, Barry Bishop). In a distinguished career after Everest, Hornbein served as chairman of the anesthesiology department at the University of Washington School of Medicine, where he

  earned a reputation as a demanding but compassionate jefe.

  “Tom Hornbein was really fun to work with,” Jennifer

  Wilson remembers of their years together on the CAI board.

  “He and I agreed on so many levels, especially about the need to hold Greg accoun
table and somehow get him to be more businesslike.”

  But the harder Hornbein, Wilson, and other CAI direc-

  tors tried to persuade Mortenson to heed their edicts about providing receipts, documenting expenses, and conforming to IRS regulations, the more intransigent he became. By 2001, when Hornbein succeeded Tom Vaughan as chairman of the

  CAI board, relations between Mortenson and the rest of the board were nearing the flash point. In an email to Mortenson dated September 20, 2001, Hornbein warned,

  I write to share with you my continuing concerns about our relationship in our roles as Director and Board chair…. The underlying issues are ones of communication between the two j o n k r a k a u e r


  of us, and trust…. Whatever the stigma, if you and I are not able to work out a more facile, productive communication, I doubt my ability to fulfill my responsibility to you and the CAI Board…. We exist, whether you consider us a pain-in-theass at times or not. Unless you would wish to and are capable of being a one man show (as it was in the beginning), then you are stuck with and need us.

  When he sent this email, Hornbein was feverishly

  organizing a major fundraiser for CAI, to be held twelve days hence at Seattle’s Town Hall, and he asked me to serve as Mortenson’s opening act. I’d met Greg four or five times by then, and I was enormously impressed by what he’d done in Pakistan. When Greg explained to me that it had all begun with a promise he’d made to the people of Korphe in 1993, after he’d accidentally wandered into their village and they’d nursed him back to health, I was profoundly moved. Over the previous three years I’d donated more than $55,000 to CAI, and I’d committed to donating another $20,000 in 2002. I told Hornbein I would be honored to introduce Greg at the fundraiser.

  The event did not begin well. Mortenson arrived an

  hour late. When Hornbein admonished him for keeping the packed house waiting, Greg sulked and threatened to fly home without speaking. Only after much inveigling did Greg eventually consent to go on stage. When things finally got under way, I concluded my introduction by telling the audience, “What Greg has accomplished, with very little money, verges on the miraculous.” As he shambled up to the podium and gave me a hug, the auditorium filled with thunderous applause. Greg’s presentation knocked the crowd’s socks off, and the fundraiser turned out to be a notable success.