Greg Mortenson (born December 27, 1957) is an American humanitarian, professional speaker, writer, and former mountaineer. He is a co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Central Asia Institute and the founder of the educational charity Pennies for Peace.
Since 1993, he has been working in Pakistan, and later in Afghanistan and Tajikistan to promote education, and build schools, especially for girls.
Mortenson is the co-author of The New York Times Bestsellers, Three Cups of Tea, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 220 weeks. Three Cups of Tea has been published in over 29 languages. He is also the author of Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mortsenson was born in 1957 in St. Cloud, Minnesota. His father, Irvin “Dempsey” and mother, Jerene, went with the Lutheran Church to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1958 to be teachers in at a girl’s school in the Usambara mountains. In 1961, Dempsey became a fundraiser and development director for the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, the first teaching hospital in Tanzania. Jerene was the founding principal of International School Moshi. Spending his early childhood and adolescence in Tanzania, Mortenson learned to speak fluent Swahili.
In the early 1970s, when he was 15 years old, Mortenson and his family left Tanzania and moved back to Minnesota. He attended Ramsey High School in Roseville, Minnesota, from 1973 to 1975, where he graduated.
After high school, Mortenson served in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1975 to 1977 and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. Following his discharge, he attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, from 1977 to 1979 on an athletic (football) scholarship. In 1978, Concordia College’s football team won the NAIA Division III national championship with a 7-0 win over Findlay, Ohio. Mortenson graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and an associate’s degree in nursing.
Humanitarian work and career
Origins in K2
Mortenson describes the origins of his humanitarian work in his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea. He states he traveled to northern Pakistan in 1993 to climb the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, as a memorial to his sister, Christa. After more than 70 days on the mountain located in the Karakoram range, Mortenson failed to reach the summit. Earlier, Mortenson and fellow climber, Scott Darsney, were also involved in a 75-hour life-saving rescue of a fifth climber, Etienne Fine, which put them in a weakened state. After the rescue, he descended the mountain and set out with local Balti porter Mouzafer Ali to the nearest city.
According to the account in Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson stated he took a wrong turn on the trail and ended up in the small village of Korphe. Physically exhausted, ill, and alone at the time of his arrival there, Mortenson was cared for by some of Korphe’s residents while he recovered. As a gesture of gratitude to the community for their assistance to him, Mortenson said he would build a school for the village after he noticed local students attending school in an outdoor location and writing out their lessons in the dirt. Mortenson has since stated in a 2011 interview that the timing in the Korphe account in Three Cups of Tea is inaccurate and that the events actually took place over a longer period of time and during separate trips.
Literacy in Central Asia
Mortenson has written and spoken widely about the importance of education and literacy for girls worldwide. He has further stated that girls’ education is the most important investment all countries can make to create stability, bring socio-economic reform, decrease infant mortality and population explosion, as well as improving health, hygiene, and sanitation standards. Mortenson’s view is that “fighting terrorism” perpetuates a cycle of violence where there should instead be a global priority to “promote peace” through education and literacy, with an emphasis on educating girls.
Mortenson emphasizes that providing children with schooling offers the best weapon against injustice and social stagnancy, and has been quoted frequently as saying, “You can drop bombs, hand out condoms, build roads or put in electricity, but unless the girls are educated, a society won’t change.”
The former mountain climber is quick to highlight the many benefits of providing girls with at least a fifth-grade level of education: a drop in maternal and infant mortality rates, a decrease in population rates, and healthier and more educated families, as mothers pass on the importance of education to the next generation.”
Mortenson describes dangerous encounters during his travels in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea describes his travels in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province including his escape from a 2003 firefight between Afghan opium warlords, how he was subject to two fatwās by conservative Islamist clerics for educating girls, and receiving hate mail and threats from fellow Americans for helping educate Muslim children.
According to op-ed columnist and friend of Mortenson’s, Nicholas D. Kristof, the schools built by CAI have local support and have been able to avoid retribution by the Taliban and other groups opposed to girls’ education because of community “buy-in”, which involves getting villages to donate land, subsidized or free labor (“sweat equity”), wood and resources.
As of 2014, CAI reports it has established or significantly supported over 300 projects, including 191 schools, in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikstan.
Advice solicited by US Military in Afghanistan
Due to attention paid to Mortenson’s books first by their wives, US military leaders in Afghanistan have sought Mortenson’s advice on how to work with the elders of local Afghan communities since 2007. Seeking his knowledge on dealing with Afghan elders, the military has also included Mortenson as an active participant in meetings between the elders and US military commanders. He has not, however, accepted any payment for his services, nor does he have any contractual or other formal relationship with the US military.
Central Asia Institute
After experiencing frustration in his efforts to raise money for the school, Mortenson convinced Silicon Valley computer pioneer Jean Hoerni to fund the building of the Korphe school. Following Mortenson’s success in building the school, Hoerni invited him to serve as the first executive director of Central Asia Institute. The mission of the non-profit organization is to promote education and literacy, especially for girls, in remote mountain regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
From 2006 through 2011, Greg Mortenson promoted his book as well as fundraising and promoting girls education through public speaking events at schools throughout the United States. Travel expenses for his speaking engagements were paid for by Central Asia Institute through the end of 2010. Mortenson personally kept monies received in exchange for his service as a public speaker as well as royalties from the sale of his book. In 2009, the total cost of his book promotion, fundraising, and awareness-building for girls education paid for by CAI amounted to $4.6 million.
In April 2012, after a year long investigation by the Montana attorney general, Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million to the CAI. The Montana inquiry had found that he had misspent over $6 million of the organization’s money, although no criminality was found. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said: “Mr Mortenson may not have intentionally deceived the board or his employees, but his disregard for and attitude about basic record-keeping and accounting for his activities essentially had the same effect.”
Bullock also wrote in the report that “CAI’s mission is worthwhile and important,” and “Its accomplishments, driven by the vision and dedication of Mortenson, are significant – as even their harshest critics acknowledge.”
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Mortenson was required to resign as executive director and could no longer serve as a voting member of CAI’s board.
However, he was allowed to remain with CAI as an employee.
Mortenson and David Oliver Relin are co-authors of the New York Times bestselling book Three Cups of Tea. Listen to the Wind, a 32-page book for ages 4–8 was written by Greg Mortenson and illustrated by Susan Roth and recounts a short version of Three Cups of Tea. As detailed in a New York Times article, Relin “suffered emotionally and financially as basic facts in the book were called into question” and ultimately committed suicide on November 15, 2012. In 2009, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan was written by Greg Mortenson as a sequel to Three Cups of Tea.
In April 2011, CBS 60 Minutes and author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of fabrication in his non-fiction books and of financial improprieties at his charity, Central Asia Institute. After a one year investigation by Montana Attorney General, Steve Bullock, Mortsenson was cleared of the allegations, and no charges of fraud or criminal activity were filed. The Attorney General sought restitution for book royalties, speaking and travel fees, promotional costs, and inappropriate personal bills Mortenson charged to the CAI. He was ordered to reinstate $1 million to the charity, including credits for payments made. In October 2013, Mortenson and CAI completed the terms and repayments of the 2012 settlement with Bullock.
60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer
On the April 17, 2011, broadcast of CBS News’ 60 Minutes, correspondent Steve Kroft alleged inaccuracies in Mortenson’s books Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as financial improprieties in the operation of the Central Asia Institute.
60 Minutes made the following allegations:
- The story recounted in Three Cups of Tea about Mortenson getting lost and separated on the way down from K2 did not occur.
- The story recounted in Stones into Schools about Mortenson’s capture by the Taliban did not occur.
- Schools that Central Asia Institute claims to have built either have not been built, are abandoned, currently used for other purposes, or not supported by CAI after they were built.
- The amount of money Central Asia Institute spends on Mortenson’s promotion and travel is excessive.
60 Minutes asked Mortenson for an interview prior to their broadcast, but Mortenson did not respond to their requests, although he answered their questions in writing. In an April 2011 Outside magazine interview, Greg Mortenson insisted that Krakauer contacted him only once and inaccurately claimed that he had been trying to get a hold of the leader of CAI for some time. Mortenson states that although he arranged to meet with Krakauer, the interview was eventually cancelled “once I realized how deep and dirty this whole thing was”.
Mortenson wrote a statement in response to the allegations made against him that was published in the Bozeman Chronicle: “I stand by the information conveyed in my book, and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students.” Mortenson further stated, “The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993…”
Jon Krakauer, a former financial supporter of CAI, has also questioned Mortenson’s accounts separately and was interviewed for the 60 Minutes segment. The day after the broadcast, Krakauer released his allegations in a lengthy online article, Three Cups of Deceit – How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.
As a response to Krakauer’s allegations, CAI produced a comprehensive ‘Master Project List’ on work CAI has completed, or currently working on. The list was released in December 2011.
In January 2014, Mortenson was interviewed on Today by Tom Brokaw. He apologized and acknowledged that he had let a lot of people down, and said “I failed in many ways, and it’s an important lesson.”
In May 2011, Jean Price and Michele Reinhart, and Dan Donovan, a Great Falls attorney, filed a class action lawsuit against Mortenson on behalf of readers, asking federal judge James Malloy in Missoula to place all proceeds from the purchases of Mortenson’s books into a trust to be used for humanitarian purposes. Several named plaintiffs dropped the lawsuit after confessing they had never read the books. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in federal court in May 2012. U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon chided the plaintiffs for presenting arguments that he called imprecise, flimsy, and speculative. An appeals suit was dropped by the 9th District Federal Circuit Court on October 10, 2013.
On October 6, 2013, after a lengthy lawsuit filed by Central Asia Institute, Philadelphia Insurance company was ordered by Magistrate Judge Jeremy Lynch to repay Central Asia Institute $1.2 million to pay for legal costs involved in the lawsuits and investigations.