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Greg Mortenson's Saga Not Over Yet: ExWeb Interview with "3000 Cups of Tea" Producers

Posted: Apr 15, 2014 07:35 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) For over a decade Greg Mortenson's impossible dream was encouraged by a community of grassroots supporters and friends. International top mountaineers, websites like ExplorersWeb and adventurers such as Jennifer and Jeff rallied behind Greg even before the big donations were there. Mortenson went on to build his first school in Pakistan from pennies and scrap. Like a Mother Teresa working with the poor right on their own turf; Greg spent lots of his time in Pakistan with the people he wanted to help.


When "Three Cups of Tea" became a best seller Greg recognized the opportunity and embarked on a frantic speech trail. Cash began to roll in and Greg added schools at a crazy pace. By 2011 close to 200 had been established.  


The mountaineer never made it a secret that he built schools for girls; a dangerous and provocative idea back then and still today. There was a fatwa on his head but it wasn't militant Islamists who finally destroyed Greg.


The hit came as he was weakened by his rapidly growing schedule and a failing heart. A "60 Minutes" report, a lawsuit, and a write-up by Jon Krakauer ("Into Thin Air") went after Greg in an almost simultaneous attack.


CBS reached almost 15 million viewers picturing him as a liar and a con, the conformist mainstream media did the rest: Greg Mortenson was crucified long before the judge had dismissed a class action lawsuit against him as “flimsy, speculative and without merit”.


Donations to CAI dropped by 80% the following year. 


Jennifer Jordan (author of "Savage Summit” and “The Last Man on the Mountain") and Jeff Rhoads (climbed Everest twice in a week with Tashi Thsering in 1998) decided to check the validity behind the accusations against Greg. The resulting documentary took a year of research. We caught up with the couple on a recent interviewing swing through Phoenix. Here goes.


ExplorersWeb: We were all surprised by the 60-Minutes piece on Greg. What was your own initial reaction and how has it changed since you started researching the facts? 

Jennifer: I watched the “60 Minutes” segment feeling horror and heartbreak; horror because of the irreparable damage being done to not only a man but to his invaluable mission of building schools and educating girls and boys (and their mothers), and heartbreak because no matter the truth or falsehood of the allegations, Mortenson’s epitaph was being written by his enemies.

Jeff and I were also confused: we had seen the schools and met the man, so none of what we were watching made sense. We decided to find out for ourselves what had happened.

ExplorersWeb:  What made you decide to do the documentary?  Where did you go and who did you talk to? How long have you been working on this?

Jennifer: In 2000 and again in 2002 Jeff and I made the arduous, week-long journey into base camp at the foot of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to research future books and shoot a documentary for National Geographic. Those treks took us through scores of remote mountain villages, many of which had only one building with four plumb walls standing among the mud and stone huts. Those buildings turned out to be Central Asia Institute schools.

Then “60 Minutes” charged that many of those schools didn’t exist and that the Institute’s founder, Greg Mortenson, had used the foundation as his “personal ATM.” Having helped us with both of our expeditions through the troubled and fractious Northern Territories of Pakistan, Mortenson had become a friend and colleague.

We decided to find out for ourselves what had happened -- with Mortenson, with his schools, and perhaps, with the state of American journalism.

“3000 Cups of Tea” is the result of that investigation.

We have been working on the film since January 2013, traveled to four countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, ten states, and interviewed upwards of 30 people – and counting. We are still actively gathering information.

ExplorersWeb:  What's the essence of your findings? How many of the major allegations made by Krakauer and 60 minutes were you able to verify?

Jennifer: We are still investigating this story. So far, our findings are indicating that the majority of the allegations are grossly misrepresented to make him appear in the worst possible light, or are outright false. Yes, Greg is a bad manager and accountant, and he is the first to admit that, but he is also a tireless humanitarian with a crucially important mission.

ExplorersWeb:  Why do you think your experience is so different from Krakauer/60?

Jennifer:  I have no idea why they chose to focus on the small handful of schools not operating at 100% efficiency (what is in that area of the world?) versus the over 200 schools in three countries which are thriving. You'd have to ask them.

ExplorersWeb:  There is an interesting scenario here with climbers, board members and media all being close friends (Hornbein buddy with Outside mag writer Krakauer, etc.) How close were all involved and was this an orchestrated coup d'etat?

Jennifer:  You'd have to ask Hornbein that. I have no idea if he had a hand in Krakauer's taking this to 60 Minutes. 

ExplorersWeb: Following the money - Greg's organization grew to a considerable size. Who is in charge of the funds today?

Jennifer:  The newly appointed Board of Directors and Executive Director. 

ExplorersWeb: What's the current CAI action in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are there schools for girls being built by the fund today?

Jennifer:  At this point, the Institute is focusing on serving the schools already built. They have suffered an 80% loss in donations so new school construction will have to wait.

Thankfully, Greg was able to single-handedly raise over $25 million for a sustainability fund. That money, sadly, has been drastically reduced by legal fees and new administration costs. But, it is keeping the schools going for now.

ExplorersWeb: Greg braved a fatwa, who is fronting such threats at his organization today?

Jennifer:  To my knowledge, there has not been a fatwa issued in some years. But, best to ask the CAI this one.

ExplorersWeb:  Mother Teresa was frequently accused of ulterior motives - of exploiting the image of Calcutta to gain personal fame and spread her religion, of dealing with shady donations, of using the money for the wrong things, helping the wrong people, etc. Her reply was that either she could spend time defending herself or she could go out and bring in more of the poor. How much effort has Greg spent on his self-defense and what's your take on the court's ruling?

Jennifer: Greg has spent just about all of his personal finances and is currently in debt to the tune of $400,000. Thankfully, he has not lost an iota of energy or commitment to the girls and boys on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are counting on him and the CAI to provide education in their remote villages.

My take on the class action suit is that it was frivolous from the start and justly thrown out (with prejudice) by both judges who heard the case.

ExplorersWeb:  How is Greg and his family doing today? What are his plans?

Jennifer: He and his family are strong and moving forward. His plans are to continue to provide education and training to untold thousands in PAK and AFGH who are relying on him.

Exweb: Working on the documentary full time for over a year, how did you finance it?

Jennifer: Carefully, frugally, and both of us working without pay for over a year. It has cost us dearly, but we are committed to following this story where it leads.

Exweb: What do you need now to get this documentary out?

Jennifer: We need about $40,000 in the short term to finish a rough cut edit of the film to show potential broadcasters. We’ve had some real interest and we are excited about moving forward.


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3000 cups of tea

3000 cups of tea trailer




Apr 16, 2011 Editorial: Three Cups of Tea and Krakauer's Beef


Apr 5, 2012 Greg Mortenson: results of investigation to be released 


Apr 30, 2012 Newsbreak: Lawsuit against ‘Three Cups’ author Greg Mortenson dismissed









Greg with kids outside of Skardu, Pakistan 2013
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
Greg with three of his 1993 K2 porters and the son of Korphe village leader, Haji Ali, Khaplu, Pakistan 2013
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
CAI's Marzighon/Khaplu school, Hushe Valley, 2013
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
Trailer 3000 cups of Tea
courtesy Jennifer Jordan, SOURCE
Greg and his team built 191 schools like the Khanday School in Hushe Valley
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
Greg with the class at CAI's Nar School in the Hushe Valley 2013
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
Jennifer purifying water in the Braldu Valley
courtesy Skyline Ventures Productions, SOURCE
Jennifer and Jeff. Click for full image.
courtesy Jennifer Jordan, SOURCE