Greg Mortenson and Three (Deceitful) Cups of Tea

The summer before senior year of high school, instead of being assigned to read classic literature like A Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice, I was assigned to read the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Anyone who despairs of the individual’s power to change lives has to read the story of Greg Mortenson, a homeless mountaineer who, following a 1993 climb of Pakistan’s treacherous K2, was inspired by a chance encounter with impoverished mountain villagers and promised to build them a school. Over the next decade he built fifty-five schools—especially for girls—that offer a balanced education in one of the most isolated and dangerous regions on earth. As it chronicles Mortenson’s quest, which has brought him into conflict with both enraged Islamists and uncomprehending Americans, Three Cups of Tea combines adventure with a celebration of the humanitarian spirit.1

My class – nay, my whole high school – fell in love with Mortenson and the work that he did in rural Pakistan to educate impoverished village children, particularly girls. The argument that education was the answer to alleviate religious extremism in a notoriously volatile region was one that anyone could get behind, and get behind it we did. In Three Cups of Tea, Being the idealistic let’s-save-the-world types that only 17 and 18 year olds can be, we sought to raise money to build our own school. We ended up donating our fundraised money to a school we had an existing relationship with in Africa.

Even though we didn’t donate the funds to the Central Asia Institute, my school community still held Greg Mortenson in the highest regard. He was my high school’s speaker of the year that year. I have a faint memory of there being some commotion and a lot of anxiety on my teacher’s part because there was something about a flight delay or some other logistical issue that prevented him from getting to my school on time, pushing the event back by hours. Ultimately, though, a small group of students (myself included) were invited to meet with Mortenson privately before he was scheduled to give his speech.

I sat next to him in that event as we listened to him talk about his experiences in Central Asia and building schools for those impoverished children. I remember being awed by him both figuratively and literally; he was a giant mountain man (seriously, I remember thinking his hands were humongous) who had done gigantic, mountainous things. We told him how we saw him as an inspiration, how he inspired us to raise money and do what we could to better the education of children in a less fortunate place in the world. His speech later that night moved us all once again, and he ended it with an inspirational quote about how even in the darkness, there are stars. That night, I saw that quote pop up in my Facebook news feed over and over again.

In the year or two following my senior year of high school, I’d see Three Cups of Tea in the bookstore or hear someone mention Mortenson’s name. I would think back to how he inspired my senior class to do more than just sit in a room and talk about how to change the world, we actually did something and put money where our mouths were. I’d remember that time my class went to a book signing he did at a local bookstore months before we knew he would be our senior class speaker and how captivated the audience was by Mortenson’s remarkably story.

Then Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer came out.

Greg Mortenson has built a global reputation as a selfless humanitarian and children’s crusader, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also not what he appears to be. As acclaimed author Jon Krakauer discovered, Mortenson has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers like Krakauer himself.

This is the tragic tale of good intentions gone very wrong.2

I’m not sure how big, if any, of a news splash Three Cups of Deceit made in the States when it was released along with the accompanying 60 Minutes expose. I was backpacking in Southeast Asia at the time and hadn’t a clue what was going on in the world (I didn’t know Bin Laden had been killed till days after the fact, nor did I realize that Will and Kate had gotten married till weeks later). But at my hostel in Kunming, China, I was browsing the Kindle bookstore when I noticed Three Cups of Deceit pop up on my screen. Curious, I downloaded it. After I had read it, I felt sick to my stomach.

I can’t honestly say I had any strong affection for Mortenson personally (a girl in my class said “Greg Mortenson” when asked who her hero was, which was definitely not the case for me) but I did respect him. That’s what cuts the most after all the allegations of his mishandling of funds, the outright fabrication of his stories, the unearthing of irrefutable evidence pointing to the fact that Mortenson built himself up on a bed of lies: I respected a liar and a cheat. A con man who conned us all.

Among the many, many people who donated to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute were people I personally knew. My friends’ parents, my teachers, friends of friends. Even my own family made a donation. We had all believed in him! We felt that even though we couldn’t personally change the world like how he (allegedly, in retrospect) was, the least we could do was support him in those efforts with any way that we could. And support him we did, like so many others did, too. He inspired my senior class to raise the money for that school in Africa, and I’m just thankful that we didn’t end up sending the money to the Central Asia Institute.

Mortenson was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize for three times, for goodness sakes! Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour and Krakauer himself were once admirers and supporters of Mortenson too! It wasn’t just my high school community, or Mortenson’s own community that he fooled. He got us all, and he got us good.

When I thought of Greg Mortenson in high school, I saw him as someone I respected whose positive work I could hope to one day emulate. Now, though, his dizzying fall from grace is what I see as a metaphor for growing up. You believe in the world only to realize that everything horrible they say about it is true, that it’s rotten to the core with corruption and misdeeds and deceit, that greed and selfishness trump all. So in response to Krakauer’s recent article on The Daily Beast about whether or not it is time to forgive Greg Mortenson, my answer is an unequivocal no. I am not one to forgive easily in the best of times but I don’t think I can ever forgive a man who not once has made himself accountable for any of his mistakes.

  1. Source: Amazon. []
  2. Source: Amazon. []


  1. says

    Your definition of growing up is incredibly harsh. I never read Three Cups of Tea or paid Mortenson any attention, so I have nothing to say about whether he should be forgiven, but I can unequivocally say that his book did some good. I don’t know if that good is offset by the amounts of money he stole or any misconceptions about Pakistan that he spread, but he inspired your classmates to donate more to a school in Africa and that’s good. Also, people will be more weary of potential frauds like Mortenson in the future. That’s good too.

    • says

      I suppose my description of growing up is harsher then necessary but as I’ve gotten older there’s definitely been a growing sense of jadedness and disillusionment with how things are in the world. My evolving view of Mortenson as different news emerged not only plays into that overall sense but is also a good individual example.

      • Charity Dell says

        Your view is REALISTIC, given what we typically encounter in the work place, academic world, politics, etc. However, the biggest problem I see with Mortenson is the fact that his shenanigans made ALL non-profits and NGO’s (non-government organizations) look bad; plus, he slandered good people in Pakistan. Unfortunately, every country has its charlatans, quacks, rip-off artists, con-people and megalomaniacs with their “I-want-to-be-seen-and heard” mentality, coupled with the “Nobody-tells-ME-what-to-do” Syndrome. These IM/NS folks typically will start charities and run them, because they can both APPEAR GOOD (and thus garner publicity) and DO WHATEVER THEY WANT (because Nobody-tells-me-what-to-do). The “do-whatever-I-want” mentality quickly leads to all forms of graft and corruption, because after all, I am DOING GOOD, so I “have-a-right” to help myself to whatever finances the charity raised. This lack of accountability ALWAYS leads to problems for non-profit organizations, and feeds the Megalomaniac Monsters who prey upon their own organizations. Still, you can find good organizations that carry out GOOD work all over the world on such websites as There are also good listings of non-profit management agencies on the internet, plus lists of reputable charities and charity watch-dog websites. Don’t let the Mortensons of the world get you down….there are many of us out here involved in good forms of volunteer work in the United States and abroad. For example, you can do volunteer work with good language schools in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe–while you study the language, you also work with children, the environment, help develop websites, etc. You can also do work with reputable NGO’s on a short-term basis–either here, in your own community, within the United States, or abroad.

  2. says

    Honestly, in the past year or so I’ve become really jaded about charity, ESPECIALLY when it pertains to development. I thought about majoring in IDS but decided against it because there are so many issues with corruption, neocolonialism, and uneven power dynamics. (And I definitely side-eye people who get through a degree in development without some amount of disillusionment.) Sadly, this doesn’t really surprise me, as awful as it is. People often blindly support charity/humanitarian work because it seems so wholly good – why wouldn’t you? But, yeah, often it’s not what it seems. Obviously this is a pretty extreme scenario, but there are a lot of issues with people/organizations who work with developing countries. : I hate that I’m so cynical about this stuff (and I’m young, too, I’m supposed to be blindly optimistic :p), but there are a lot of issues like this.

    I wouldn’t forgive him either.

  3. Eve says

    Alright, I know he lied through his teeth to America and that he might seem like a jerk for it, but before you put it on a website for all to see and for all to think awful things about him because of your opinions, you should get your facts right! Greg has proven that he has built over 55 schools, helped hundreds of kids and has been the backbone for the CAI the whole time. So what if he said a few things that werent true, aren’t those kids more important than that? Isnt Pakistan getting at least some help for it from America? I think that even with the lies and conceit, he shouldn’t be persecuted about something everybody does. Everybody lies.

    • says

      Have you even read any of Krakauer’s work about Mortenson and the extent of the fabrication and embellishment of Mortenson’s story? Sure, Mortenson built those 55 schools but they’re not doing much good for the kids if they’re empty of students and teachers. Quote from The Daily Beast article I linked to in my post: “[L]ocal villagers portrayed Greg and CAI as cowboys who parachuted in and didn’t listen. Now they had schools in the wrong places and no one to teach the kids …”

    • Long Road says

      Ethics & Integrity ARE important. The true leaders are ones that do not go along with “something everybody does”. “Everybody” does NOT lie. Greg’s lies are actually more unforgivable. Every dollar he recklessly and deliberately spends on self-promotion and ego aggrandizement is a dollar not applied towards programs of CAI. Yes, the “kids are more important than that”. The true facts of Greg’s failings and cons far outweigh any good he claims.

      An important lesson for people to learn when giving to any nonprofit is to ask questions. Specific questions on program work. What kind of detail is provided? Nonprofit 101 ~ from the first penny that is collected it is their responsibility to monitor programs, obtaining and maintaining specific data, documenting results and freely providing information to their donors. After 15 years in existence and millions spent, CAI had zero documentation of its’ actual program work. Yet people lauded the accomplishments and gave! After the scandal came out an incredibly lame attempt to make up for 15 years of nothing, there was a posting on CAI’s website documenting their “schools” (even by CAI’s own admission was pulled together in a few months). Astoundingly, the gullible lauded such amazing “accomplishments” and continued to give!

      In the end, the lesson to learn is that good people are good in all facets of their lives. They live with honor and don’t make excuses or blame others for their failings ~ they take responsibility for their own behavior and refuse to cover up the deception of others. They don’t take the spotlight for themselves. They treat people with respect and are genuinely kind.

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