Three Cups of Tea author under scrutiny

Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson has come under intense scrutinyHis books have inspired millions with their tales of generosity, both given and received, but following a scathing 60 Minutes segment that aired this past weekend, author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson finds himself at the center of a controversy. The investigative piece put together by the staff at CBS alleges that Mortenson has fabricated key parts of his stories and profited from his charitable organization, the Central Asia Institute.

For those not familiar with Mortenson’s story, back in 1993 he was climbing in the Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan. After a failed attempt to climb K2, he found himself lost, and wandering in a remote region of the country. Mortenson says that at one point he stumbled into the village of Korphe, where the villagers welcomed him warmly, sharing their food and water, and helping him to regain his bearings so he could find his way home. The mountaineer was so moved by their generosity that he vowed to repay their kindness by building them a school.

Fast forward a decade and Mortenson would write his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, which shared the details of his story with the world. He would follow it up with another bestseller, Stones into Schools, and then building CAI into a $20 million a year non-profit organization. The charity is credited with building a number of schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, enriching the lives many children in both countries. Mortenson has been lauded for his work the world over, and many people donate to his organization based on the stories they are told in his books.

But what if those stories weren’t exactly true? What if elements of them were exaggerated to enhance their dramatic value? What if the author too major liberties with his own exploits?That’s exactly what 60 Minutes alleges in their story. So does bestselling author, Jon Krakauer of Into Thin Air fame, who says of Mortenson’s tale “It’s a beautiful story. And it’s a lie.” Krakauer says that at first he supported Mortenson and bought into his amazing story, even donating some of his own money to CAI. But the more he got to know him, the more he began to question Mortenson’s recollection of events. Krakauer would later speak to other mountaineers who were with Mortenson on his 1993 expedition, and they say that much of what is described in Three Cups of Tea never took place, and that Mortenson didn’t even visit Korphe until several years later.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg however, as the 60 Minutes story goes on to say that other elements of Mortenson’s tale don’t add up either. For instance, the author says that he was once kidnapped by the Taliban, and even offered up a photograph of himself with gun toting men as evidence. But the investigative reporters at CBS discovered that that wasn’t true at all. In fact, the armed men who were seen in the photograph, were actually his security detail charged with protecting him while traveling in Pakistan.

Worse yet, there are lingering questions about how the Central Asia Institute spends the funds that are donated by fans of Mortenson and his books. The organization isn’t very fourthcoming with details on their operations, but it seems that they spent more money last year on promoting Mortenson than they did on building schools. 60 Minutes had a look at the financials and found hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on travel on private jets alone.

The laundry list of charges doesn’t end there however. There are some indications that the charitable organization has built far fewer schools than it claims, and that Mortenson uses it as vehicle for making money for himself.

Krakauer does say that Mortenson has done a lot of great work in Pakistan, and it is undeniable that he has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of children get an education there. But the fear is that all of that philanthropic work could come tumbling down because the author has been less than honest about his own story and has taken liberties with the funding of his organization. Krakauer seems baffled as to why Mortenson would feel the need to enhance his stories when he has done so much good in the public eye.

While Mortenson has enjoyed a lot of mainstream success and garnered a lot of fans from his inspiring tales, the questions about his background have been a not-so-well-kept secret in the mountaineering community for some time. While he is respected for the work he does in the Himalaya, his tall tales about his own exploits are taken with a large grain of salt. The question is, should the fact that Mortenson has taken liberties with his story over shadow the great things he has done for people in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The man has dedicated a good portion of his life to building schools and medical facilities for the poor mountain villages in the land he loves. A noble pursuit indeed.

Personally, I still respect Mortenson for those wonderful charitable acts and I hope these allegations to over shadow those deeds. But I also can’t help but wonder about some of his other motivations. Motivations that have brought him a great deal of fame and money.

What do you think? Check out the 60 Minutes segment by clicking here, and post your thoughts below.

[Photo credit: Central Asia Institute]

Hiker dies trekking to ‘Into the Wild’ bus

Last weekend, 29-year old Swiss hiker Claire Jane Ackermann died while crossing the Teklanika River along the Stampede Trail in Alaska. She was attempting to cross the stream, along with another hiker from France, in the hopes of reaching the Fairbanks bus made famous in the book and movie Into the Wild, a popular destination for trekkers in the region.

Ackermann and her male companion tied themselves to a guide rope that had been strung across the river earlier in the summer. But the water was swollen, and moving fast, with the late summer melt off, and when they both lost their footing, the powerful current forced them under. The unidentified man was able to cut his rope and drag himself to shore, where he dropped his backpack and turned back for Ackermann, who was already submerged. He returned to retrieve her, but after cutting her safety rope, the pair were washed downstream for half a mile. By the time they reached the safety of the shore, the Swiss woman was unresponsive, and all attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.

The bus that the two hikers were trying to reach is the same spot where Chris McCandless starved to death back in 1992. The 24-year old vagabond had traveled across the U.S., Canada, and parts of Mexico before hiking into the Alaskan backcountry, where he would eventually meet his fate while staying in Bus 142. The old vehicle was parked in the wilderness to serve as a shelter for backpackers, but Chris became trapped there when he was unable to cross the same river that claimed Ackermann’s life.

In 1996, bestselling author Jon Krakauer wrote the biography Into the Wild about McCandless, exploring the reasons why a young man from an upper class family would give up his comfortable life in order to wander across North America. Eventually that wanderlust would lead him into the Alaskan wilderness where he eventually perished. That book helped turned McCandless into a folk hero for many, sparking a trend of other hikers going in search of the infamous bus, and in 2007, the book was turned into a film, which brought even more attention to McCandless’ story, and spurred a surge in people looking to follow in his footsteps.

For many of the local residents, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before someone died making the trek to the bus. Since the release of the movie, traffic along the Stampede Trail has increased sharply, with most going in search of McCandless’ final resting place. The young traveler has been soundly criticized in some circles for going into the backcountry unprepared, and it seems that many of those that follow him are equally lacking in skills and gear. Perhaps this unfortunate story will get future hikers to respect the challenges of the trail a bit more fully, and approach the region with more caution.

Sherpas prepare to clean up Everest

With the spring climbing season on Mt. Everest in full swing, a special team of 20 Sherpas from Nepal is preparing to mount an expedition of their own. But rather than going to the summit, as most of the other climbers on the mountain are preparing to do, this team hopes to scour the peak, collecting tons of trash and other items from expeditions long past. They even hope to collect the bodies of dead climbers who have been left behind, and them down the mountain at last.

The team, which is led by Namgyal Sherpa, plans to focus on a portion of the mountain above 8000 meters, or 26,242 feet, which is commonly referred to as “The Death Zone.” This section of the mountain is especially dangerous because of the high altitude and extremely thin air, but surprisingly enough, there is still plenty of garbage to be removed, including spent air cylinders, old tents, fuel canisters, ropes, and more.

Namgyal, a seven time Everest summitteer himself, says that the plan is for the team to stay on the South Col for up to a week at a time, making multiple trips into the Death Zone and bringing down as much garbage as they can carry. They expect to collect as much as 6500 pounds of trash in this manner before proceeding down to Base Camp, where they’ll rest up in preparation for another climb. All told, they plan to make three such week-long clean-up missions before the monsoon arrives in early June, marking an end to the climbing season.

While conducting their clean-up duties, the Sherpas intend to bring down several bodies of dead climbers, including those of two rather high profile mountaineers. Namgyal says that they will be removing the body of American mountain guide Scott Fischer, who died on the mountain back in 1996. He also suspects that they’ll find the body of Rob Hall, a Kiwi guide who perished that same year. Fisher and Hall’s stories were made famous with the general public thanks to the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, which told the tale of that tragic day on Everest during which eight people lost their lives. The removal of Fisher and Hall’s bodies will close out a long and painful chapter in Everest history.

In recent years, the Nepali government has enforced strict rules on the climbers requiring them to carry all of their trash off of the mountain when they depart for home. Moving forward, that bodes well for the future of Everest, and thanks to the efforts of these dedicated Sherpa, a lot of old trash is being removed to clean up the mountain for future climbers as well.

Chris McCandless’ Bus an unlikely tourist attraction

Chris McCandless, the famous vagabond and subject of Sean Penn’s new film, Into the Wild, is perhaps best known for living out of an abandoned bus in the Alaskan Wilderness in the early 90s. He hiked to the middle of nowhere of his own accord, despite warnings from concerned locals, and lived off the land for a number of months. On September 6, 1992, two hikers found the bus, and on the outside, a note that read:

SOS. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?

Unfortunately they were too late. McCandless had been dead for two weeks.

The bus was strategically placed on the Stampede Trail to provide refuge for hunters better equipped for the Alaskan wilderness than McCandless. But since the publication of the book the movie was based on, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, wayward travellers, mostly young men, have been romanticizing McCandless’ story and re-enacting his journey. And now, amidst worries that even more fans will flock to the site, located about 25 miles from the town of Healy, locals are considering moving it.

Moving it is a problem of it’s own, since they can’t just drive it out of there. And it’s a shame to take away a refuge for legitimate hunters who are equipped for the wilderness, just because some lost souls have a morbid curiosity to see the deathbed of their ill-placed hero. Thoughts?