You never know who may be sitting next to you on an airplane. While my daughter and I were traveling on a long flight from Salt Lake City to Boston a few months ago, we exchanged pleasantries with a woman in the aisle seat. She was headed east, she said, to interview a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing for a book she’s writing.
Daughter and I, meanwhile, were bound for New England to check out college campuses.
“Where are you from?” the woman in the aisle chair, who turned out to be fellow journalist, asked.
Immediately, she replied, “Do you know Greg Mortenson?”
Pause. Hmm. Interesting question.
“Judging by the expression on your face you look like you do.”
Another pause. Not sure what she’s getting at.
“Should I take that for a ‘yes’?”
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I’ve been friends with Greg for a long time. I wrote two pieces in the Christian Science Monitor years ago about his school building in Pakistan and Afghanistan, probably the first one that ever appeared in a national newspaper. His wife and my wife are in the same women’s book club. Do I know him? Yes, I guess you could say I do. Why, how do you know him?”
“My name is Jennifer Jordan and I’m making a documentary film about Greg.”
Here, I will only offer this. Apart from these paragraphs in front of you now, I’ve not written another story on Greg and there are no imminent plans. Anyone living in Bozeman these last several years knows the story of Greg: his heroic feats in building schools for thousands of young kids in a war-torn part of the world that few Americans knew anything about—or cared a whit for—until the U.S. military invaded the region after 9/11, ostensibly “to win the war on terror.”
Mortenson, through the group he founded, Central Asia Institute, more than any other private citizen connected the dots showing that much of the anti-American sentiment in that region results from poverty, ignorance (i.e. lack of educational opportunities, especially for young girls), a history of our own disregard, and corresponding religious extremism.
Mortensen’s mantra—that it’s far more effective and economical arming kids with pencils, books, teachers and schools than dropping bombs on their towns in confronting terrorist breeding grounds—gained enormous traction. No one disputes the premise. And it’s one that resonated even with top U.S. military commanders. Mortenson’s international best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea,” was mandatory reading for soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan.
And then there is the sad other part, Mortenson’s fall from grace based on a “60 Minutes” expose and a stinging long-form magazine critique, “Three Cups of Deceit,” from climber and best-selling author Jon Krakauer. Krakauer, who had once contributed to the Central Asia Institute and considered Mortenson a good friend, claimed that he had been betrayed.
Others, who rallied in Mortenson’s defense, argued that Krakauer’s journalism went beyond hard-hitting reporting in the public interest. In their minds, he seemed hell-bent on destroying the man himself and didn’t back down even when it became clear the attacks on Mortenson had exacted incredible collateral damage on innocent people in Mortenson’s life and good people who worked for him.
In ways I didn’t think possible, I and others in our town watched as the response to a very public take-down of Greg splintered friendship groups. And it left behind a lack of resolution. Central Asia Institute is still standing and the organization continues to build schools in Central Asia, but the trauma of what went down has not gone away.
Enter Salt Lake journalist-filmmaker Jordan, who informed me on the plane that she and husband Jeff Rhoads are “telling the whole story” and “setting the record straight” about Mortenson in their documentary “3000 Cups of Tea.”
Jordan has penned two books that climbers might know: “Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, the World’s Most Feared Mountain,” published in 2005, and “The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2,” published in 2010.
An acknowledged fan of CAI and Greg’s work, she is determined to see her documentary through to completion, hoping soon to show “3000 Cups of Tea” at film festivals and perhaps in wider release. At the website, Seed&Spark she is trying to raise funds for post-production and distribution. You can see a short trailer there as well.
Todd Wilkinson, a longtime journalist based in Bozeman, is the author of a forthcoming book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek—An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone.” He wrote this story for This Is Bozeman, an online journal described as “a landing place for smart, meaningful, purposeful conversation about things that matter. It is a site started by people who love Bozeman; Greater Yellowstone; Montana and her neighbors in the Northern Rockies; the West; the US of A; and Planet Earth.”