Three Cups of Tea, the sequel

  • Greg Mortenson, author of "Three Cups of Tea," with schoolchildren in Afghanistan

    Courtesy Central Asia Institute

One of the speakers at last year's Telluride Mountainfilm Festival in western Colorado was convicted this March of federal felonies. But Tim DeChristopher will be back again this year to talk about his disruption of federal gas leasing at an auction in Utah.

Not so Greg Mortenson, the embattled former mountain climber who has been accused of taking giant liberties with the truth in his inspiring book, "Three Cups of Tea," as well as with using donations intended to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan as his "own private ATM."

Festival organizers say that they have accepted Mortenson's offer to step down from his scheduled roles this year as a film judge and panel speaker. However, the door might still be open to the writer -- who spoke at last year's festival over the Memorial Day weekend  -- if he will agree to be publicly grilled at Mountainfilm about the charges leveled against him.

Mortenson says he first showed up at Mountainfilm in 1981, when he was a young climber and the festival was only three years old. The event has broadened over the decades, becoming more a festival of ideas, with mountains only occasionally the focus. Its motto is "Celebrating indomitable human spirit."

Mortenson's story seemed a perfect fit for that motto. Following a failed attempt to summit K2, a mountain on the Pakistani border, he said that he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Afterward, he vowed to build schools in Afghanistan, especially for girls. His efforts have won almost universal praise; President Obama even donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize award to Mortenson's Montana-based organization, the Central Asia Institute. Altogether, the organization has raised $60 million in a few short years based on Mortenson's compelling story and his many riveting talks at Telluride and other places.

But the recent "60 Minutes" segment about Mortenson's embellishments raises questions that even his staunchest defenders admit are serious. Jon Krakauer, author of "Into Thin Air" and more recently "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," told "60 Minutes" that Mortenson's story is a "beautiful story, and it's a lie."

Titling his just-published 75-page article about Mortenson, "Three Cups of Deceit," Krakauer said it now appears that Mortenson was never kidnapped by the Taliban. He also said that the Montana nonprofit founded by Mortenson claimed expenses for promoting his books, but never received any of the profits from book sales; Mortenson kept the royalties for himself. "Three Cups of Tea" has now sold 4 million copies. Perhaps even more damaging are Krakauer's allegations that Mortenson used the nonprofit organization to fund a lavish lifestyle that included the use of personal jets.

The American Institute of Philanthropy has also been sharply critical of Mortenson's organization. In 2009, it said the organization spent $4.6 million on "outreach," as compared to less than $4 million for construction, administration and other expenses directly related to schools. In the last week, Mortenson's admirers have defended him, but some more cautiously than others.

In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof wrote that he was inclined "to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty." And, he added, he was "willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world's most voiceless people."

Peter Kenworthy, executive director of Mountainfilm, said the first instinct of the festival organizers was to reach out to Mortenson, to let him know they were thinking of him. But now, after more fully assessing the evidence, Kenworthy said he's less inclined to think any good can come from Mortenson's presence. "I am afraid that if Greg were to come, it would be only a lose-lose situation," he said.

Kenworthy, who directs a $1.5 million nonprofit, said that all such organizations have a clear need for proper policies, procedures and process, and that it appears that Mortenson did things as a nonprofit director that were clearly verboten. The case of Tim DeChristopher is different, he said. "As long as we support what they're doing, that's fine. In Greg's case, it's not the kind of controversy we're looking for."

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in the Denver area where he is the editor of and has attended the Mountain Film Festival 20 times.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Guy Montag
Guy Montag
May 04, 2011 07:37 PM
Two weeks ago, Jon Krakauer published his e-book, Three Cups of Deceit, that accused Greg Mortenson of writing a “work of fiction presented as fact. … And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. … [his] books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods.” I haven’t had time to read Three Cups of Deceit, nor have I closely followed the Mortenson scandal, so I can’t provide informed commentary about the extent of Mortensen’s deceit.

However, I’ve first-hand knowledge of Jon Krakauer’s own deceit in his revised paperback edition of Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (released on July 27, 2010). Two weeks later, I posted “The [Untold] Tillman Story” where, as an aside, I briefly described the nature of Krakauer’s deceit in his paperback edition.

Last week, prompted by the 60 Minutes expose, I posted a draft of “Jon Krakauer’s Credibility Problem”* at which describes his deceit in detail (final version in-progress).

First, Krakauer falsely claimed in the Preface to his updated edition that, “Following publication of the first edition in September 2009, I discovered additional evidence of deceit by high-ranking Army officers.” In reality, just two days after his first edition was released, 200 pages of my material was literally handed to him at his Boulder CO book signing. This material described in detail how Gen. Stanley McChrystal played a central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s 2004 friendly-fire death in Afghanistan.

Second, and more important than his stealing credit for his “discovery,” Krakauer’s greater act of deceit was that of omission. In his revised edition, despite having been handed my detailed material, he failed to describe how President Obama and the Democratic Congress continued the Bush administration’s whitewash of Gen. McChrystal. After reading his book, you’d think the Democrats tried to do the right thing, but they were “stonewalled” by the Bush administration. What utter rubbish!

Jon Krakauer displayed his own hypocrisy when he “threw stones” at Mortenson for “deceit” in his books. Mortenson may well be guilty, but Krakauer’s own hands are certainly not clean and without sin in his revised edition of his Where Men Win Glory.

* a play on the title of Jon Krakauer’s own piece, “Gen. McChrystal’s Credibility Problem,” which appeared in The Daily Beast on October 14, 2009
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
May 11, 2011 11:24 AM
I've enjoyed many of Krakauer's books and might even still read his latest on Pat Tillman. Or I might not. Krakauer certainly does write about other's tragedies and short-comings, and he certainly does play the blame game. Many of his books have had serious and respectable detractors. His Everest book had a very public controversy with Anatoli Boukreev, one of the guides on Everest during the 1996 tragedy. Admittedly, Krakauer acquited himself well, but so did Boukreev. The jury is still out over Boukreev's criticism - and will stay out since Boukreev subsequently died in an avalanche a year and a half after Everest.

7 or so years ago I had the good fortune to be climbing the First Flatiron with a very accomplished, respected, and well-known mountaineer. He was discussing Krakauer's Everest book with me as we climbed. Krakauer had given him the manuscript to review. But after reading only a portion of it he gave it back and commented that it was just very seemingly untruthful and preposterous. Not even worth reading. Admittedly, my climbing partner wasn't on Everest during the '96 tragedies, but he falls into the category of 'been there, done that' which is why Krakauer gave him the manuscript in the first place.

I have another friend who came close to dying on Everest during 1996 and whom Krakauer writes about in Into Thin Air. She also disputes Krakauer's telling of the tragedy.

I have yet another very good friend (at this point, I've exhausted my list of friends!) who rangers for the Park Service and spent 10 years on Denali. He was well acquainted with Adrian Popovic, aka Adrian Nature, whom the Park Service credits with several first ski descents of Denali. The truth of one of Popovic's adventures - whom this Denali ranger is personally acquainted with - was dissed and distorted when Krakauer wrote about it, causing a great deal of pain to Popovic. So I think Krakauer has a pattern. Krakauer MAY actually be, as some say, "the finest in investigative mountaineering journalism". Or he may not. I honestly do not know.

60 Minutes has certainly had their own issues with accuracy, truth, and relevancy. I don't have a television, but I imagine they probably did a piece on Anna Nicole Smith. Isn't that their style of relevant journalism these days?

Nicholas Kristoff, a NYT columnist and friend of Mortenson writes what I would call a very balanced piece in his NYT column. He does publically call Mortenson - his friend - to task and asks him to explain. But he has also been to Afghanistan and seen at least some of Mortenson's schools and the girls who attend and benefit from them.[…]reg%20mortenson&st=cse.

Mortenson is an advisor to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in developing schools, and community relations. It’s just a real challenge to think that so many really smart folks, including the U.S. Army Afghanistan Command, got duped. So I think there is little doubt both that SOMETHING here isn't kosher, but also that Mortenson has done far more for the folks in a very challanging part of the world, and for peace in a region not known for peace, than all of his detractors combined. I am surprised at how quickly Mortenson seems to be loosing support. I had never contributed to CAI before this controversy, but I have now. For me, even if only 50% of my donation is actually going towards building schools, if that 50% is accomplishing many times more than anybody else is accomplishing with their 100%, that seems like a stellar investment. Peace through education. What a concept!

Jason Hatch
Jason Hatch
May 11, 2011 10:32 PM
The Greg Mortenson story regarding alleged financial misdeeds has become too focused on...Greg Mortenson. He should be answerable to the many donors, people that CAI was purportedly organized to help and the people of Montana, where CAI is based. But it would seem a missed opportunity if this was not used an opportunity of well-meaning donors to become discerning donors and demand strong fiscal protocols, a strong Board governance structure, less than 15% administrative cost, among other safeguards. Further, the CAI controversy, argues for scrutiny of the US based NGO international development organizations. Should US based donors be depending on US based organizations to do good in other countries, arriving as the white knight without local partners? And when tragedy strikes in Haiti, Japan, do organizations without relationship/organization in those countries opportunistically raise funds instead of redirecting to organizations already in place?

Philanthropy is very important. Yet Philanthropists need to ask questions before they cut the check and make sure their donations are not just for the good feeling it imparts, but that it also supports the mission that motivated them.

Philanthropy is critical to many
Cynthia Riegel
Cynthia Riegel
May 15, 2011 09:53 PM
If you've read Krakauer, you know he bends the truth and sensationalizes to sell. His books are enthralling but must be taken with a grain of salt. Funny that he is now criticizing Mortensen for doing the same. I found Three Cups of Tea as riveting as Krakauer's books but have come to accept that time and truth must be bent in order to entertain. Not only did Three Cups of Tea entertain its readers, it mobilized them. And most of the money donated as a result was very well spent. I can't help but wonder if Krakauer is jealous and has targeted his competition for another round of well written gossip.
Kate O'Hehir
Kate O'Hehir
May 18, 2011 09:02 PM
FYI: According to Alex Heard, Editorial Editor for Outside magazine, "Jon Krakauer and Outside are no longer affiliated," after Krakauer reacted angrily at the magazine for interviewing both Mortenson and then his climbing partner Darnsey, calling him a "stooge" in a voice mail for what he felt was Outside taking sides. Outside denies this, and Heard said, "Jon and I are not on speaking terms right now."

It has also come to light that Mansur Khan Mushad's uncle, Naimat Gull, who brought GM to the village was a fugitive, who had been sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping of a girl, and he was on the lam at the time he met Mortenson (according to McKenzie Funk, on the blog on the story. Mansur responded to that comment (but he was not answering Outside's emails) and it appears he inadvertently showed he had sent his response to Krakauer first before he posted his rebuttal as the word "Jon" is the first word in both paragraphs one and two.

We already know that Krakauer called Mansur right as "TCD" was coming on line to maximize the media frenzy around his story. Nearly everyone ran the "Pakistan Think Tank Director suing Mortenson," which has now been changed to "Pakistan Think Tank direction considering suing..." He will have to prove his uncle was not a criminal to prove his defamation suit, and even if he files in Pakistan and gets a judgement, that judgement would not be valid in the U.S. as we passed the "Libel Tourist" legislation to prevent this exact sort of thing from attempting to dampen U.S. writers first amendment rights of free speech. Saying someone from S. Wazinistan is a Taliban is like saying someone from Crawford, Texas is a republican...

The fact that Krakauer called him and encouraged him to sue could be argued in front of a jury that Krakauer showed malice in his attempt to discredit both Mortenson and CAI.

Mortenson said in an interview with Alex Heard, that this was personal, and mean-spirited and that he wouldn't respond to Krakauer now any more than he would meet him in a field without any clothes on. Not sure what he meant by that, but my interpretation is "don't bend over around Krakauer".
Kate O'Hehir
Kate O'Hehir
May 18, 2011 09:07 PM
P.S. Wayne Hare: I, too, did not donate until after this all broke, and I am glad to have contributed a small donation, I now get their publications and can see for myself what is up. They have published many financial documents that anyone can look at.
Vincent Mohair
Vincent Mohair
Mar 19, 2012 10:02 AM
Hey dudes, what's up!

U.S. District Court Judge Sam E. Haddon reinstated CAI as a defendant in a lawsuit that is also against Mortenson, Relin, and Penguin Books.

O'Hehir has been trying way too hard to defend Mortenson. She should let it go.
Kathryn O'Hehir
Kathryn O'Hehir
Nov 05, 2013 08:27 PM
Hey Vincent: Do you still think I tried to hard to defend Mortenson? Are you willing to defend Krakauer's involvement in pursing this non-issue to the grave? David Relin is dead because of this suit. You all happy now? Jon has a new bizarre death to write about, but I think he'll pass on this bizarre death since he has blood on his hands, he and Larry Drury, the money behind the "get Mortenson at all costs" machine. Looks like JK isn't GOD after all, huh? So everything word out JK's mouth is gospel? Do your research even if you are "in love" with your subject, do your own research.
Kathryn O'Hehir
Kathryn O'Hehir
Nov 05, 2013 08:29 PM
Vincent is no longer a recognized user. Hmmm, sounds like a JK minion to me.
Vincent Moh
Vincent Moh
Nov 09, 2013 08:04 AM
Kathryn O'Hehir: Number one, donation fraud is not a "non-issue" as you call it. Number two I find it very curious that you accuse someone who contradicts what you say as being a "JK [Krakauer] minion". There were plenty of people who criticized Mortenson for his schemes when he was exposed. Krakauer didn't need minions to do it.

Why did you bother replying over a year later? The story's been dormant. In April of last year Mortenson resigned from the charity's board and the Montana AG investigation was ended after he agreed to pay a settlement.
Kathryn O'Hehir
Kathryn O'Hehir
Apr 25, 2014 02:42 PM
Vincent, because Renlin is still dead, and the CAI lost 80% of donations to line Krakauer's pocket. He never gave away his royalties to the Random House version, so let's discuss who is the real liar, cheat and fraud. I don't Mrs. Renlin or the Mortenson consider it a non-issue. May no one in your family get sued to death for nothing. Get used to my name dude, I'm not going anywhere until true justice is served, so get behind the long line off teachers and students and supporters who stand behind me.