Many people have read Greg Mortenson’s hugely popular book Three Cups of Tea. In fact, some may have done so because of my praise for the book when it was published five years ago.
Since that time, fellow mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer, has cast a shadow over the book. Krakauer, (author of Into the Thin Air and Into the Wild) recently went on the TV show 60 Minutes to discredit Mortenson. Krakauer has followed up with a full expose bitterly titled, Three Cups of Deceit. In this book, he argues that much of Three Cups of Tea and Mortenson’s latest book, Stones to Schools is an outright lie.
Three Cups of Tea has become a major phenomenon. The book begins with a compelling story: Mortenson loses his way while descending formidable mountain K2, and stumbles into a remote Pakistani village, Korphe. He is struck by the extreme poverty: the village schoolchildren, without a building, scratch their work into the dirt with sticks.
Moved, Mortenson promises to return to Korphe one day to build a school. He does so. And in the years since, Mortenson has established a major fundraising organization, The Central Asia Institute, and built scores of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, according to Krakauer, the story of Korphe is completely false. On the K2 descent Mortenson was not alone, he convalesced in a different village, and only visited Korphe a year after his climbing ordeal.
Krakauer goes on to discredit many of Mortenson’s best-known stories such as his claim that he was a kidnapping victim. Krakauer was infuriated by claims of fraudulent accounting at the Central Asia Institute.
Krakauer’s anger is understandable. For one thing, Krakauer himself donated substantial amounts to the organization. Still, Krakauer may not be the right person to write this book. Because the book is dripping with bitterness, it’s hard to trust him. In addition, the veracity of Krakauer’s own books have been questioned – especially an unflattering portrait of a Russian climber in Into Thin Air.
It’s hard to know who to believe. Some sources have since reported that they were misquoted in Three Cups of Deceit. Nonetheless, Krakauer has presented enough evidence to significantly undermine Mortenson’s credibility.
Three Cups of Deceit is worth a look, but it raises as many questions as it answers: Why did Krakauer write a book rather than air his grievances privately? Why hasn’t Mortenson spoken out? In this literary slug fest, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Mortenson is madly writing a book in response to the allegations. One thing is sure: as long as we’re buying books about the Three Cups fiasco, the last word has yet to be written.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.