His 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]