Greg Mortenson has questions to answer, but not to Jon Krakauer
Everyone has a book that they like to recommend – not a classic or a life-changing piece of work, but a good, solid read that would appeal to nearly any reader, whether they regularly devour the Impac shortlist or read exactly two books a year, both by the pool in two weeks in August.
For me, this book was usually Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. This is a staple of airport bookshops the world over, and for obvious reasons: it tells the story of how Mortenson loses his his way after a failed attempt at the summit of K2, and is taken in by villagers in Pakistan. By way of thanks, he promises to build them a school, which is the first step on a new career for Mortenson as an international fund-raiser and activist.
His Central Asia Institute (CAI) says it has built 55 schools, as well as centres for women, in some of the world’s most conflicted regions, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, I liked the book so much I reviewed it for a now defunct column in Go, the travel supplement of this newspaper.
So, like many people, I was enormously disappointed to read how the veracity of Mortenson’s account is being challenged, and he has been accused of using the foundation as a personal cash cow. Most of the accusations come as a result of a 60 Minutes investigation (which you can watch here).
Mortenson has admitted that there are “compressions and omissions” in the book. It was written with David Oliver Relin, who did most of the writing based on interviews with Mortenson. That errors have crept in is perhaps not surprising; Mortenson strikes you as an extremely able and capable person, but not one who religiously keeps notes and diaries. Indeed, he told Outside magazine that the pair created “the narrative arc” and: “What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different.
“In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?”
60 Minutes has typically gone into great detail in its investigation. Mortenson can be forgiven for compressing details in the book for the sake of readability or simple human error, but the report raises more troubling questions. It claims to have checked 30 schools that Mortenseon’s CAI says it built or supported. Of these, half were empty, receiving no support or had been built by someone else.
However, one of Mortenson’s most vocal critics is Jon Krakauer, a writer and mountaineer most famous for Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. The latter book came about as a result of an article in Outside magazine in which Krakauer recounted an Everest climb he was on, during which several people died. Several teams were trying to summit Everest on the same day, and eight climbers died as a result of an atrocious blizzard.
In the book, Krakauer is particularly critical of Anatoli Boukreev, who led one of the teams. This is particularly odd, given that all of the paying clients on Boukreev’s team survived the ordeal, and Boukreev also rescued three climbers that night, in what is regarded as one of the most astonishing and selfless acts in climbing history. The Wall Street Journal called it: “One of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history performed single-handedly a few hours after climbing Everest without oxygen by a man some describe as the Tiger Woods of Himalayan climbing.” (This was, of course, written at a time when being Tiger Woods was considered a very good thing.)
Boukreev was deeply aggrieved at Krakauer’s account of events, and wrote his own book in response, simply called The Climb. Without the media profile of Krakauer, and also because of the fact that his English was less than fluent, his book did not receive the attention it deserved. And Boukreev is no longer around to defend himself – he died in an avalanche while attempting to climb the south face of Annapurna in the winter of 1997.
There’s no doubt that Mortenson has questions to answer, but Krakauer is not the best person to be asking them.