1. The Man with Two Toes
AT 3:34 P.M. ON DECEMBER 28, 2002, WE ARRIVED at the South Pole, becoming the fastest and youngest team in history to complete the journey. The Pole had filled my dreams ever since I was a young boy, when my mother gave me a book about the adventures of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. I was immediately captivated by Scott's heroic story, and my imagination ran wild trying to picture this otherworldly place called Antarctica. From that moment I knew my life wouldn't be complete until I had stood on that hallowed patch of snow at the bottom of the world.
Now that I actually was standing there, beside the red-and-white barber's pole that marks the exact position of 90° south, I felt strangely unfulfilled. While I was overjoyed and proud to have realized my childhood dream, I wasn't sure what my dreams were anymore. I needed a fresh challenge to get my teeth into but I wasn't sure where to start looking for it.
On my return home I was gradually overcome by a feeling of lassitude, unsure of where my life was going. For weeks I drifted around London, jumping fromone idea to another. Friends commented on how vacant I had become. The question on everybody's lips seemed to be, "So, what are you going to do next?"
Things got so desperate that I even considered dusting off my calculator and retaking my professional accountancy exams. Still, going back to my former life as an accountant, or in fact to any job that involved putting on a suit and tie and sitting behind a desk all day, now filled me with dread. London life, which I had thrived on before going to Antarctica, had suddenly become claustrophobic and boring. I had to escape.
In early 2003 I headed straight for the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps. I had worked there as a ski guide three years earlier, and it was the place I thought of as my second home. I figured that being up in the mountains, detached from the real world, skiing, climbing, and writing the book about our South Pole adventure would be the perfect way to sort out my head. Unsurprisingly, my decision didn't go down well with my parents, with Dad in particular growing increasingly worried about my total lack of a career plan.
One afternoon toward the end of the winter, I was enjoying a drink with some old climbing friends on the sun-drenched terrace of Chez Dany, a picture-postcard, chalet-style restaurant nestling in the woods above Verbier. A man approached me whom I recognized instantly from my first ski season as Mark Dearlove. Little did I know that the next ten minutes would change my life forever.
Mark and a few work colleagues had come out to Verbier in 2000 for a few days' skiing. As well as guiding for them on the mountain, I had also had the job of collecting a bleary-eyed Mark and his team from the Farm nightclub in the early hours of the morning and driving them back to their chalet. I never managed much sleep during their visit but I did remember them as being an entertaining bunch, so it was great to catch up with Mark again. While chatting about my time in Antarctica, Mark told me that he had been in the office the day the news broke of our arrival at the South Pole.
"There are TV monitors all over the trading floor, which we alwayshave tuned in to Sky News. When your face appeared on one of the bulletins, one of the team pointed to the screen and said, 'Bloody hell, it's Tom from Verbier! He's just become the youngest Brit to ski to the South Pole!' Soon everyone was on their feet cheering."
Then came the bombshell. "Anyway, seeing what a great reaction your success had on the team, I think it would be great if we could get Barclays Capital to consider sponsoring your next trip. Where are you off to next?"
I was speechless. I had no idea where I was off to next. Our journey to the South Pole had been the tenth major expedition that I had put together. I had begun my outdoor career as a mountaineer, leading expeditions to the Alps, Africa, the Andes, New Zealand, and a previously unexplored range of virgin peaks in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The toughest and most challenging part of each of those expeditions hadn't been the extreme altitude, the precipitous rock faces, or the mountain storms. It was trying to secure the sponsorship. Convincing an organization to pay for me and my friends to go gallivanting off to some far-flung corner of the globe was an exhausting, demoralizing, and hapless task.
Over the years I had written thousands of sponsorship letters, sent countless e-mails and faxes, and tried to arrange meetings with whichever company would listen to me. Some had tenuous connections with the cold (things got so desperate that even Fox's Glacier Mints got a letter); others did not. Most of my pleas for cash fell on deaf ears, and as a result, some of those early expeditions had to be aborted. Of the ones that I did miraculously find the money for, sponsorship was usually only forthcoming at the eleventh hour after much stress and a truckload of postage stamps.
The South Pole had been a massive undertaking. The physical effort of the journey, during which we each walked more than one and a half million paces, had taken a huge toll on me both physically and mentally. Nevertheless, that effort was nothing compared to the hard slog of raising the funds, so much so that I did not even know if I could ever face putting myself through the whole expedition process again. I hadn't lost my passionfor adventure; in fact by spending a winter in the mountains it was now probably stronger than ever, but I just wasn't sure I had the energy anymore for the often fruitless quest for sponsors.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life as an adventurer, I had a potential sponsor (and in Barclays Capital a sponsor that wasn't short of a penny) talking positively, and voluntarily, about funding my next venture. It was the sort of situation any expedition leader would give his right arm for. The only problem was, I had no expeditions in the pipeline. After an awkward silence, I mumbled, "Ummm, well, I'm ummm, thinking of maybe errr, going to the North Pole."
"Excellent news," replied Mark. "Unfortunately, I don't have much of a say in these things, but I'll set up a dinner with a couple of key guys at the bank. Then it will be up to you to tell them about your plans and convince them that your mission will succeed."
As I walked back to my apartment that evening I kept asking myself, "What on earth have you just got yourself into?" To this day I have no idea what prompted me to give Mark the answer I did. Maybe it was the third glass of Dôle Blanche doing the talking, but up until that moment the thought of going to the North Pole had only ever been a pipe dream. I could have just as easily said, "I'm going to be an accountant again in London," and my life would have continued down a very different path.
For many polar adventurers, it is almost a rite of passage that after a successful expedition to the South Pole, they should don the skis again and set off for the other pole. I had always wondered what it must be like at the North Pole, but I had never even toyed with the idea of one day mounting my own expedition up there. With the ski season almost over, my escapist existence in the mountains was drawing to an end, and I had resigned myself to a return to normality and a search for some form of employment. Quite suddenly those plans had been thrown out the window.
I knew very little about the North Pole, but what I did know filled me with sheer terror. Unlike the South Pole, which is located ten thousand feet above sea level in the heart of Antarctica, the fifth largest continent on the planet, the North Pole lies in the middle of the sea, the frozen ArcticOcean. It had defeated such legendary figures as Reinhold Messner and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and those explorers who had been fortunate to escape the clutches of the North with their lives often came home with a few less fingers or toes than they started out with. No wonder, then, that the North Pole was often referred to as the "Horizontal Everest."
What seemed to make North Pole expeditions particularly grisly was that they traditionally took place during the bitterly cold winter months before the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean had started to break up. As if things weren't hard enough, there was precious little daylight, making pressure ridges and areas of open water all the more treacherous to negotiate. And then there were the polar bears. As far as I could make out, the Arctic was a sinister place where most days were a battle for survival. Messner, the greatest mountaineer of them all, described the frozen ocean as "ten times more difficult than Everest." It made our route to the South Pole seem like a simple nursery slope.
My stomach was so tied up in knots that following my conversation with Mark, I hardly slept a wink. Most of this could be put down to blind panic, but despite the obvious dangers, my natural wanderlust sparked into life. I was intrigued by the Arctic and wondered if I had what it took to survive up there. Yes, I was filled with fear and trepidation, but I was totally exhilarated, too. At last I had found a new dream to follow. There was no getting away from it, the North Pole was beckoning, and the sooner I started learning about what I was letting myself in for the better.
The romance of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration has stirred my imagination ever since I can remember. I had been very conscious of the link between our journey to the South Pole in 2002 and the giants whose footsteps we followed. Our expedition had deliberately coincided with the centennial of the relatively unknown Discovery Expedition (Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton's joint attempt to reach the South Pole in 1902), and I had spent many hours lying awake in the tent at night trying to comprehend what they must have endured. Despite unimaginable hardship, inadequate equipment, and paltry provisions, they had battled on with astonishing courage, tenacity, a sense of humor, and a British stiffupper lip. Their spirit had been a source of great inspiration to me as we hauled our own sleds across Antarctica's frozen wastes.
Now that I had decided to go to the North Pole, I knew that it would help my mental preparation for the long journey ahead if I could build a similar connection with the heroes of the North. The only problem (as our tent-bound Christmas Eve 2002 chat with Paul had made glaringly obvious) was that I didn't know much about them. As a child I remember reading about Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin embarking on an "expotition" to the North Pole, but my knowledge of Arctic exploration didn't stretch much beyond that.
The reason for this could be that we Brits can be somewhat short sighted when it comes to our polar history. While our Antarctic explorers have become household names in Britain, few people have heard of the likes of Edward Parry, George Nares, and Wally Herbert, who in their day were at the forefront of Arctic exploration. On the other hand, Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912 has now almost become part of the national curriculum, and in boardrooms throughout the country, Shackleton's achievements are used as a shining example of successful corporate leadership. This anomaly has often struck me as a bit strange, especially when one thinks that the North Pole is almost on our doorstep while the South Pole is nearly ten thousand miles away on the bottom of the world.
Eager to find out more about the Arctic explorers of yesteryear, on my return from the Alps I visited the library at the Royal Geographical Society in London, the home of British exploration, to begin my research. I wanted to understand what had made these men tick and hoped that reading about their experiences would broaden my knowledge of the frozen Arctic Ocean. I also wanted to learn more about this extraordinary character called Robert Peary. Little did I know that from the moment I walked through the old timber doors of the RGS that day, my life would be totally consumed by this incredible man and his final expedition to the roof of the world.
People might wonder why it matters who the first person was to reach the North Pole. I believe it's one of the most momentous achievements inthe history of the human race. We've inhabited the earth for two hundred thousand years, and there are now over six billion of us crowded onto this giant rock in the center of the solar system. Yet we only managed to conquer our planet's true summit during the last century, and I believe the people who first reached that northernmost place should be celebrated for eternity.
As I trawled through the polar history books, I was almost dumbfounded by the early polar adventures and misadventures I read about. Some were extraordinarily brave, others downright suicidal, but over the course of many centuries, generations of explorers had helped unlock the door to the frozen Arctic. Pioneers like Leif Erikson, William Baffin, Fridjtof Nansen, and Umberto Cagni had been responsible for nudging humankind's limit of discovery ever northward so that by the time Peary made his first concerted bid to reach the top of the world in 1902, the final 206 miles of the map were all that remained untouched. Nevertheless, those were to prove the hardest, most fought-over miles of all, and it would be another seven years of superhuman effort before the ultimate prize could finally be claimed.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the North Pole had defeated almost every industrialized nation. Attention then turned south, with the hope that Antarctica would prove a less fearsome adversary than the frozen North. The British were among the first on the scene, when the young torpedo lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott, commanding the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904, made the first concerted bid to reach the South Pole. The Germans, Belgians, Norwegians, French, Japanese, and Australians all followed suit as the world turned its back on the Arctic and headed south. Yet one man still refused to give up on his dream of conquering the North Pole--Robert Edwin Peary.
ON A COLD OCTOBER DAY IN 1898, THE NORWEGIAN OTTO SVERDRUP was sitting in his tent on Ellesmere Island's east coast. Sverdrup was just starting out on a four-year expedition to map one hundred thousand square miles of uncharted islands and waterways in the Canadian HighArctic. He was preparing his dinner when a tall, powerfully built, barrel-chested man dressed from head to toe in animal furs strolled into camp. Peary's exploits in the Arctic were already becoming legendary, and Sverdrup recognized him instantly from his chiselled jaw, steely gray eyes, weathered face, and gravity-defying walrus moustache.
"Are you Sverdrup?" Peary asked.
The affable Sverdrup greeted him warmly and invited him in for coffee.
Peary declined, saying, "My ship is frozen in. There is no way of getting through Robeson Channel. It has frozen fast."
What Peary failed to tell Sverdrup was that he was planning an assault on the North Pole the following spring and hoped to use the American explorer Adolphus Greely's old huts at Fort Conger as his base camp. Before Sverdrup had the chance to talk to him more, Peary turned around and left. A baffled Sverdrup later wrote that Peary had barely had the time to remove his mittens.
Sverdrup had no intention of going anywhere near the Pole, but so convinced was Peary that Sverdrup posed a threat to his own polar ambitions, that on returning to his ship he yelled, "Sverdrup may at this minute be planning to beat me to Fort Conger! ... I can't let him do it! I'll get to Conger before Sverdrup if it kills me!" It very nearly did.
This bizarre encounter with Sverdrup was an eye-opening introduction for me to Peary's extraordinary character. Never before had I come across a polar explorer who seemed so fiercely determined in the pursuit of his goal as Robert Peary. Some of the words that Peary's biographers used to describe him included single-minded, creative, paranoid, resolute, competitive, ruthless, meticulously prepared, arrogant, brilliant, egocentric, fearless, and controversial.
As I slowly discovered, however, these qualities helped explain why he was able to push on where others had failed, and why he was able to return to the Arctic again and again in his never-ending quest for the North Pole, a quest that he hoped would one day propel him to immortality. During the debate about Peary's attainment of the Pole, notwithstanding whether the polar fraternity loathed him or admired him, theyalmost universally seemed to regard him as one of the most formidable polar explorers that ever lived.
"I Must Have Fame"
Born in 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania, to a family of humble merchants, Robert Peary was brought up alone by his mother after his father died when he was just two years old. As a child he spoke with a lisp, a source of much ridicule from his classmates, but he worked hard to overcome it and by adulthood he had managed to disguise it by speaking slowly and clearly. Only when he lost his temper would the lisp reveal itself again.
Despite being a keen sportsman, hunter, and sailor, Peary was always somewhat of a loner, although fiercely ambitious. In an early letter to his mother Peary wrote, "I feel myself overmastered by a resistless desire to do something. I do not wish to live and die without accomplishing anything or without being known beyond a narrow circle of friends. I wish to acquire a name which can be an open sesame to circles of culture and refinement anywhere, a name which shall make my Mother proud and which shall make me feel that I am peer to anyone I may meet."
It was fascinating to gain such a personal and revealing insight into the forces that drove Peary. I am often asked why I choose to take part in dangerous challenges, and part of me can identify with some of what Peary was saying. Like Peary, I've always been a dreamer, with an insatiable urge to do something different with my life. Ever since my childhood, Dad has always told me to "Carpe diem," literally "Seize the day," with the result that I have always had a single-minded determination to fulfill my destiny, whatever it might be.
I find that expeditions, whether they be sledding to a Pole, sailing across an ocean, climbing up or skiing down a mountain, allow me to escape from modern life's many constraints and give me a more balanced view of the world. They offer me a unique sense of freedom that I would never find sitting behind an office desk.
But while I, too, hoped that my parents would be proud of my expeditions, I have never viewed my travels as a means of becoming rich andfamous. It's flattering to be recognized for one's achievements, but that is completely different from deliberately seeking fame. Our South Pole exploits in 2002 generated a great deal of press interest, something we had actively promoted to keep our sponsors satisfied, but I would be horrified if my friends thought that my fifteen minutes in the media spotlight had changed me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a warm glow of pride the first time I saw my photo in the newspapers, but the reality is that the novelty wears off very quickly.
After graduating with top honors as a civil engineer from Bowdoin College in Maine, Peary joined the U.S. Navy and was soon posted to Central America. With a team of 150 men under his control, the twenty-seven-year-old Peary was given the task of conducting a detailed survey of the jungles and swamps of Nicaragua for a possible shipping canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a discovery he hoped would give him the fame he yearned for. Sadly, all Peary's hard work was to no avail as neighboring Panama eventually emerged as the preferred choice of route.
Following his return to the United States, Peary was in a Washington, D.C., bookstore where "I picked up a copy on the Inland Ice of Greenland. A chord, which as a boy, had vibrated intensely in me at the reading of Kane's wonderful book,4 was touched again. I read all I could on the subject ... and felt that I must see for myself what the truth was of this great mysterious interior."
In 1886 Peary took a summer's leave from the Navy to attempt the first crossing of the Greenland ice cap, a trip he hoped would be a springboard for a future assault on the Pole. After twenty-six days he turned back, having made little more than a hundred nautical miles and climbed to an altitude of seventy-five hundred feet.
As he would demonstrate throughout his expedition career, Peary was a master of giving the press a story that sold newspapers. He portrayed his defeat as a resounding success by claiming that he had penetrated the ice cap "a greater distance than any white man previously." This boast was extremely tenuous. Although Peary had beaten the Swedish explorer ErikNordenskiöld's record by a few miles, two of the Swede's Sami companions (often referred to as Lapps) had actually gone farther than Peary, but because they weren't white men, Peary ignored their achievement.
"My last trip has brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world. I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future," he wrote home, adding, "Remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now and sip the delicious drafts while yet I have youth and strength to enjoy it to the utmost ... I want my fame now."
I found Peary's words quite extraordinary, but his dream of fame had to wait when news arrived that the great Norwegian explorer Fridjtof Nansen had made the first successful Greenland traverse in 1888. Peary was infuriated, claiming that Nansen had in effect stolen his plan. The fact that Nansen had actually been preparing his expedition for six years seemed irrelevant.
Peary married his beautiful fiancée, Josephine, the following summer and immediately began preparations for a traverse of the unexplored and much wider northern half of Greenland. It was still not known how far north Greenland extended, and Peary believed that his expedition might reveal a land route extending all the way to the North Pole.
This time he prepared meticulously, the journals of all those Arctic explorers who had preceded him providing invaluable background reading. He concluded, "The old method of large parties and several ships has been run into the ground. The English, with true John Bull obstinacy, still stick to the old plan. The new plan of a small party depending largely on native assistance ... deserves to be recorded as the American plan, and a successful expedition ... will put us far ahead in the race."
Peary was already proving himself an inventive thinker, although his next idea was particularly original. He wrote, "If colonisation is to be a success in the polar regions, let white men take with them native wives, then from this union may spring a race combining the hardness of the mothers with the intelligence of the fathers. Such a race would surelyreach the Pole if their fathers did not." This was no joke, either, as he was to father at least two half-Inuit children on subsequent expeditions to the Arctic.5
By June 1891 Peary had raised ten thousand dollars for the venture and set sail from New York with seven companions, one of whom was his wife, Jo. This was highly controversial but Peary, just like the Inuit, believed that women were vital for team morale on a long trip. No Western woman had ever traveled so far north. Although I never put the question to her, I know that if I had asked my girlfriend, Mary, whether she fancied spending a few months on the ice with me, I would have got a resounding "No thank you!"
Another key member of the team was Matthew Henson, the black American Peary had met by chance back in 1887 while shopping for a sunhat for his travels in Nicaragua and impulsively employed as his personal assistant for his Central American fieldwork. Standing at just five-feet-six, Henson was wiry, hard working, well read, and extremely bright, and the two would go on to forge one of the strongest partnerships in polar history. Over the course of more than two decades, Henson was Peary's most loyal traveling companion, Peary later commenting, "I cannot get along without him."
The journey did not get off to the best of starts when the ship's rudder, having glanced off an iceberg, swung violently and broke Peary's right leg. Peary contemplated returning home, but Frederick Cook, the young expedition doctor who would one day become his fiercest rival in the race for the North Pole, did an expert job of resetting the leg, and Peary went on to make a full recovery.
After overwintering on the west Greenland coast, Peary set off on his "White March" over the inland ice alongside the expert Norwegian skier Eivind Astrup and a team of dogs. Nine weeks of hard sledding later, the two men arrived at what Peary thought was the northernmost point of Greenland on July 4, 1892. Appropriately, he named it Independence Bay.
Peary had failed to find a land route to the Pole but he had proven that Greenland was an island--or so he thought. Although his mistake would not be uncovered for another twenty years, the vast mountainous landmass that he could see in the distance (and named Peary Land) wasn't the separate island he believed it to be, but a seventy-five-mile-long peninsula jutting out from Greenland's north coast.
Nonetheless, the expedition was a spectacular success. Peary and Astrup had completed the longest (both in terms of distance--1,100 miles, and time--85 days), fastest, and most efficient sledding journey in Arctic history. It had also given Peary an invaluable lesson in the Inuit way of life. The men were protected from the cold by their warm, lightweight deerskin parkas, polar bear fur pants, and waterproof sealskin boots.
Peary learned how to build igloos and drive a dog team. When he could, he lived off the land. He understood the value of laying caches of fresh meat during the hunting seasons so that scurvy would never cripple his teams. And by providing the Inuit with western inventions like knives, boats, needles, and metal tools, Peary was able to win their trust and respect, something the early explorers had failed to do. He called them "my Eskimos," sometimes even "my children." To them, he was simply "Pear-yarksuah," literally "The Big Peary."
Find a Way or Make One
When Peary returned home, he at last received the fame he had so desperately craved. He was in every newspaper, was recognized in the street, and even his former rival Nansen joined the chorus of adulation, signing a congratulatory letter to Peary as "Your Admirer." Peary went on a grueling lecture tour across America, giving 165 speeches in 103 days.
Now that I had set my mind on going to the North Pole, I, too, had in effect become a professional explorer. With barely a penny to my name, I urgently needed to find a way of earning a living until the expedition got under way and so, like Peary, I, too, joined the corporate lecture circuit. As a schoolboy, I used to be terrified of public speaking, not helped by my voice, which didn't break until I was seventeen. With a few talksunder my belt my confidence grew, however, and I now find it really energizing and humbling to speak in front of an audience about my expeditions. My props aren't a match for Peary's, though. He would transform his stage into an Inuit camp, with Henson joining Peary on stage, decked out in full Arctic furs. He also brought with him five dogs from his Greenland crossing that howled in unison at the climax of his speech. The whole performance must have brought the house down.
With appearance fees of up to two thousand dollars a show, Peary had saved enough to fund a third expedition, which sailed for Greenland in the summer of 1893. He was still employed by the Navy and again had to go through the tricky conversation of asking his superiors for more time off. However, Peary was fast becoming an A-list celebrity, and much to the aggravation of his fellow naval officers, he now had influential friends in high places who could pull the strings necessary for him to secure another long leave of absence.
Astrup, Henson, and a heavily pregnant Jo joined him again, but not Cook, who resigned from his position as team doctor after his leader disallowed him from publishing a medical report about expedition life. Peary actually got on quite well with Cook in those early years, but Peary's unquenchable thirst for fame meant that he couldn't let anyone take even the thinnest ray of the limelight away from him.
Other than the birth of Marie, the Pearys' first child, the two-year expedition achieved little. Peary and Henson made the strange decision to repeat his 1892 traverse to Independence Bay, although this time they took a slightly different route. The whole trip would have dealt Peary's credibility as an explorer a major dent had he not brought three large meteorites from the Greenland coast home with him on his ship. One of the stones weighed a world-record thirty-four tons and they proved to be hugely popular attractions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they remain today.
Peary's other Arctic treasures were on display for far less time. Of the six Inuit men and women from Greenland he brought back as a gift to the museum's curator, five of them succumbed to pneumonia within twelve months of being put on display, and died. The only survivor, ayoung boy called Minik, not only had to watch all his relatives die, but was then made to attend a fake funeral in which his father's body was removed from its coffin and replaced with a log.
As Minik later discovered, the corpse had been stripped to the bone and the skeleton exhibited in a glass cabinet at the museum. GIVE ME MY FATHER'S BODY screamed the newspaper headlines. Although much of the Inuit scandal could not be directly attributed to Peary, it wasn't his finest hour, and the huge media interest in the story threatened to tarnish his reputation.
Nevertheless, Peary's achievements were now receiving worldwide recognition. The American Geographic Society awarded him a gold medal for establishing the insularity of Greenland, as did the Royal Geographical Society in London, which described him as "without exception, the greatest glacial traveller in the world." Still, Peary, now aged forty-two, was no nearer his goal of discovering the North Pole, and he wasn't getting any younger.
Abandoning Greenland's inland route, Peary decided to take a different approach, sailing all the way up Smith Sound toward the Arctic Ocean. He planned to establish a base as close to the northern coasts of Ellesmere Island or Greenland as his ship could sail, where he would lie in wait until the ice and weather conditions allowed him to "shoot forward to the Pole like a ball from a cannon."
After securing a bumper five-year leave of absence from the Navy, he then approached the railway tycoon Morris Jesup for financial help. Jesup would become one of Peary's most ardent supporters, establishing the Peary Arctic Club with a group of prominent businessmen whose chief role was to bankroll and support Peary's future ventures. Peary set sail on July 4, 1898, with the brilliant Newfoundland sea captain Bob Bartlett at the helm, another person whose life would become inexorably linked with Peary's over the next decade.
The only other expedition in the Arctic that year was Otto Sverdrup's, whose ship was anchored just twenty miles away near Cape Sabine. Although Sverdrup had consistently repeated that his expedition was limited to scientific research, Peary didn't trust him an inch and thought he had secret designs on the North Pole--particularly as his fellow countrymanNansen had, in his view, poached his Greenland traverse plans ten years earlier. Consequently, on that chilly October evening in 1898, Peary felt it necessary to jump on his sled and pay Sverdrup a brief visit to dissuade him from heading north.
So convinced was Peary that Sverdrup would "forestall" him and steal his idea of using Greely's former headquarters at Fort Conger as his base, that he set off in the dead of winter to beat him to it. Traveling in almost total darkness, the 250-mile journey was unimaginably horrific. The temperature hovered around -50°C, the team was ravaged by blizzards, and they nearly ran out of food. It was a miracle they all survived. The huts were found just as Greely had left them in 1883, with equipment and provisions strewn everywhere. Incredibly, much of the food was still edible.
As Peary sat down to remove his boots, three toes from each foot snapped off at the joint. "My god, Lieutenant!" cried Henson, "Why didn't you tell me your feet were frozen?"
"There's no time to pamper sick men on the trail," Peary replied matter-of-factly, "Besides, a few toes aren't much to give to achieve the Pole."
The more I read about Peary, the more I realized just how unbelievably resilient this man was. When compared to us modern-day polar travelers with our synthetic fleeces, down sleeping bags, and boil-in-the-bag freeze-dried meals, I had always thought that those men from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration were tough as old boots. For all that, Peary struck me as being in a league of his own. Even though I've had my fair share of frostbite injuries over the years, there's no doubt that if I ever found so much as a single toe rattling around at the bottom of my boot, I would throw in the towel immediately. Peary merely saw it as a minor inconvenience.
Further amputations were carried out, leaving Peary with just the little toe of each foot, but aborting the expedition and heading home never crossed his mind. On the walls of the hut he inscribed, "Inveniam viam aut faciam," literally, "Find a way or make one." For the rest of his exploration life, he developed an effective shuffle, which was just as fast as a brisk walk.
Peary lay in his bunk for six weeks before being strapped to a sled and taken back to the ship. He must have been in excruciating pain during the eleven-day journey but never once complained. A few frostbitten toesweren't going to deter him, and he made plans to spend three more years in the Arctic. In a letter back home to Jo, Peary wrote, "Life is slipping away. That cannot come more forcibly to you than it has repeatedly to me in times of darkness and inaction the past year. More than once I have taken myself to task for my folly in leaving such a wife and baby (babies now) for this work. But there is something beyond me, something outside of me, that compels me to the work."
More sledding forays followed during the summer of 1899. Although he still found it painful to walk on his mangled feet, in 1900 Peary reached Greenland's most northerly point at 83°39'N, which he named Cape Morris Jesup after his chief benefactor. As he and Matt Henson gazed out over the rough ice and open water of the Arctic Ocean for the first time, it must have dawned on them just how challenging those final 381 miles to the Pole were going to be.6
A couple of tentative outings onto the polar sea confirmed this, and they returned to Fort Conger, a journey of some 350 miles, in a rapid nineteen days. Something else that I was becoming increasingly aware of as I made my way through the history books wasn't just Peary's indestructibility, but also his ability to cover vast distances in double-quick time.
In the summer of 1901 Peary was visited by Frederick Cook, the doctor from his first successful Greenland expedition in 1892, who had been dispatched by the Peary Arctic Club to check up on their man who was still holed up in the Arctic after three years. After examining Peary, Cook told him that he was suffering from anemia and should eat raw liver to help his condition. When he saw the condition of his feet, Cook urged him toreturn home, saying, "You are through as a traveler on snow on foot. For without toes and a painful stub you can never wear snowshoes or ski." Peary ignored him. A relationship that had begun with much mutual admiration had now turned sour.
This little spat with Cook only motivated Peary to stay on for one more year and launch another bid for the Pole. By now he realized that the only way he was going to achieve his goal was to confront the Arctic Ocean head-on. In early March 1902, along with Henson and four Inuit, he stepped out onto the sea ice and headed north.
For sixteen days the exhausted party battled to lift their sleds over forty-foot pressure ridges and around fissures of open water. They used pickaxes to chop a route through the jumbled mass of ice blocks on a surface that drifted erratically with the currents. Then at 84°17'N, barely eighty miles out to sea, they came to an impassable lead. Peary called it the Big Lead and compared its appearance to the Hudson River. Despite the fierce cold, it showed no signs of freezing over, and they had little choice but to turn back and begin the long journey home. It wouldn't be the last time that the Big Lead put an end to his plans.
A dejected Peary wrote in his diary, "The game is off. My dream of sixteen years is over. I have made a good fight but I cannot accomplish the impossible ... I close the book and ... accept the result calmly ... . The goal still remains for a better man than I." He was a beaten man.
A few months later came the news that the Italian, Umberto Cagni, had set a new farthest north record, just 206 miles shy of the Pole and a massive 137 miles beyond Peary's best effort in all these years of trying. But when Peary learned that Cagni had announced to the Italian press, "We have conquered! We have surpassed the greatest explorer of the century" (clearly not referring to Peary but the previous record holder, Fridjtof Nansen, who had reached 86°13'N in 1895), he hit the roof.
To Peary it was a harsh blow to his ego that the polar community should acknowledge someone else as the greatest. Any plans to retire from polar life were quickly abandoned. According to Henson, his jaw tightened as he snarled, "Next time I'll smash that all to bits. Next time!"
It took Peary three years to find a new team, raise the funds, recharge his batteries, and prepare for what he hoped would be his final Arctic mission. Peary had then accomplished more than any explorer in Arctic history. He had been promoted from lieutenant to commander, elected president of the American Geographical Society, and picked up three more gold medals. Yet still he wasn't satisfied. He wanted the Pole more than anything else, in spite of the desperate appeals from his family not to go north again.
Peary's long-suffering wife, Jo, begged members of the Peary Arctic Club to "let me keep my old man at home." In a letter to her father, eleven-year-old Marie pleaded, "I know that you will do what pleases Mother and me and that is to stay with us at home. I have been looking at your pictures, it seems ten years and I am sick of looking at them. I want to see my father. I don't want people to think me an orphan."
Peary was the most meticulous of expedition planners. Learning from past mistakes, he realized that a radical new approach was needed. He ordered a powerful new ship to be built, which could smash its way through the ice-choked Smith Sound like an icebreaker. All those long, tiring sled journeys along the jagged coasts of Ellesmere Island and Greenland had exhausted so many of his parties before they had even reached the Arctic Ocean. If he was going to achieve his dream, Peary was convinced that he and his companions needed to be dropped off as close to the frozen polar sea as possible, fresh and ready for battle. The ship was named the Roosevelt after the U.S. president, one of Peary's most ardent supporters.
He also figured he would need much more manpower this time and so devised a completely new travel strategy. He called it the "Peary System." The party would be split into three--a pioneer division to break the trail and build igloos; support divisions following on twenty-four hours behind, ferrying supplies to those in front, and a small, lightweight polar division (where Peary would be), conserving its energy at the rear. As the whole caravan moved northward and the mass of food and fuel supplies gradually diminished, the various divisions would be sent back tothe ship one by one, until just the polar division was left for the final dash to the Pole.
It was a huge logistical undertaking. In addition to making the whole operation much more efficient and opening up lines of communication between the various divisions, the real benefit of the Peary System was that the loads were always relatively light, and therefore the dog teams could travel much faster than they had on Peary's previous attempts. The maximum weight of a fully laden sled was six hundred pounds--a much lighter load than they had carried in the past.
On the journey north, the Roosevelt stopped off at the Inuit community of Etah to pick up hundreds of dogs and twenty local families. During the winter, the men's role would be to build sleds, care for the dogs, and supply fresh meat from the large herds of musk ox and caribou that inhabit northern Ellesmere Island. The women, meanwhile, would be employed as seamstresses, making polar clothing for the sledding parties.
The Roosevelt arrived at her winter quarters in September 1905 near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island. They were just 450 miles from the Pole, and Peary was ecstatic, declaring, "I do not believe there is another ship afloat that would have survived the ordeal."
The following spring, a huge train of twenty-eight men (twenty-one of whom were Inuit) and 120 dogs set off across the frozen ocean for the Pole. Henson was out in front with the pioneer division, Peary at the rear, with the various support divisions in between shuttling loads back and forth along the trail.
After a grueling three weeks of pressure ridges, fields of ice boulders, fissures, and broken floes, they met the Big Lead, which had stopped them in their tracks in 1902. It was over two miles across in places and stretched from east to west as far as they could see. An impatient Peary paced back and forth along the water's edge, coaxing the waters to refreeze. Eventually they did, but the frustrating week-long delay must have felt like an eternity.
Peary cursed his luck again when three days after crossing the newly frozen Big Lead, they were ravaged by a series of blizzards that delayed them for a further week. To make the situation worse, when he got out his instruments to measure his longitude, he found that he had drifted offcourse a staggering seventy miles to the east. The forces of wind and ocean current on the ice pack had been far more powerful than he had ever anticipated.
Pinned down in his igloo, Peary realized that all hope of reaching the Pole was gone. Still, the humiliation of returning to America empty-handed was too much to bear, so with the consolation prize of beating Umberto Cagni's farthest north record of 86°34'N still there for the taking, he discarded all unnecessary baggage and made a sprint for it. Conditions improved the farther north they went, and on some days they were able to travel nearly thirty miles.
By April 21 they had reached 87°06'N, just thirty-two miles north of Cagni's position, but enough to claim the record. He wrote, "When I looked at the drawn faces of my comrades, at the skeleton figures of my few remaining dogs, at my nearly empty sleds ... I felt I had cut the margin as narrow as could reasonably be expected."
It was time to head home. Because the drifting ice pack had carried them so far east, Peary decided that the quickest and safest way back was to head southeastward and make for the nearest land, the north coast of Greenland, where the abundant game would be able to feed them for the final march to Cape Sheridan.
The return journey was all going according to plan until they arrived at the Big Lead, and to their horror found that it had opened up again. Once more they were forced to wait for it to refreeze, but they were now into May. Spring was gradually turning to summer, and the temperatures were becoming much milder. Provisions were running so low that they were forced to kill their dogs, cooking them over a fire made from their chopped-up sleds.
When one of the Inuit found an area of precarious newly formed ice, Peary knew that unless they tried to cross now, they would starve to death. His description of their half-mile crossing made terrifying reading. While proving to me once again how Peary just never gave up, it also gave a stark reminder of what the Arctic Ocean had in store for me. "Once started, we could not stop, we could not lift our snowshoes. It was a matter of constantly and smoothly gliding one past the other with utmost care andevenness of pressure, and from every man as he slid a snowshoe forward, undulations went out in every direction through the thin film incrusting the black water. The sled was preceded and followed by a broad swell. It was the first and only time in my Arctic work that I felt doubtful as to the outcome, but when near the middle of the lead the toe of my rear kamik [boot] ... broke through twice in succession I thought to myself, "this is the finish," and when a little while later there was a cry from someone in the line, the words sprang from me of themselves: "God help him, which one is it?" but I dared not take my eyes from the steady, even gliding of my snowshoes, and the fascination of the glossy swell."
The remaining one hundred miles to the Greenland coast were equally fraught, but incredibly, after sixty-four days on the Arctic Ocean, everyone made it back to the ship alive. By now the Roosevelt had been released from the ice at Cape Sheridan, but the long winter had left her badly damaged. When Peary saw his crippled ship, he pleaded to Bartlett, "We have got to get her back, Captain. We are going to come again next year."
The crew patched up the Roosevelt as best they could, but it would be another four months before she finally limped back into New York. Bartlett's remarkable seamanship in getting the stricken craft home, despite having no fuel or rudder and being pounded by almost constant gales as winter drew in, has been compared for its brilliance with Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley's escape from Antarctica in the James Caird in 1916.
The Pole at Last
I was now totally engrossed in Peary's incredible story. Shortly after his return from the Arctic, a lavish black-tie dinner was held at the National Geographic Society to commemorate Peary's new farthest north record. He was to be presented with yet another gold medal by Theodore Roosevelt. However, he wasn't the only special guest that night. Peary would be joined at the head table by the man he had fallen out with so acrimoniously, Dr. Frederick Cook.
Cook had just made the first successful ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska, North America's highest peak. His exploits in the North and arecent expedition to Antarctica with Roald Amundsen (the man who in 1911 would be the first to reach the South Pole) had led to Cook's election to president of the Explorers' Club in New York. His profile was rapidly catching up with Peary's.
Peary was forever paranoid that someone would "forestall" his polar dreams and that Cook, with his growing exploration credentials, was the man most likely to steal his glory. So in his impassioned acceptance speech, Peary made it very clear to Cook, the president, and the many millionaires and potential sponsors among the audience that the Pole was still very much his territory, and that despite his recent failure, he was going to have one final go.
Peary proclaimed, "To me the final and complete solution of the polar mystery ... is the thing which should be done for the honor and credit of this country, the thing which it is intended that I should do and the thing that I must do. As regards the belief expressed by some, that the attainment of the North Pole possesses no value or interest, let me say that should an American first of all men place the Stars and Stripes at that coveted spot, there is not an American citizen who would not feel a little better and a little prouder of being an American; and just that added increment of pride and patriotism to millions would of itself be ten times the value of all the cost of attaining the Pole."
It was a barn-storming performance that had the entire banquet hall, including President Roosevelt, on their feet roaring their approval. Seeing Peary receive a standing ovation, lauded a hero by the geographical establishment for something he hadn't yet achieved, would have a profound effect on the equally ambitious Cook. Unbeknown to Peary, before the chorus of bravos had even begun to die down, Cook was hatching a secret plot to steal a march on his rival and beat him to the Pole.
Peary's plans to head north again in the summer of 1907 were in disarray. Not only had the damage to the Roosevelt not been repaired but he was also on the verge of bankruptcy. He had always put his speaking and literary earnings into his expeditions, and he had mortgaged the family home on Eagle Island in Maine up to the hilt. He had no choice but to delay his plans for another year. Peary was now approaching fifty-two anddespite having phenomenal strength and fitness for a man of his age, he knew that time was fast catching up to him.
His fund-raising efforts were dealt a major blow with the death of his chief benefactor, Morris Jesup, but his whole world was torn apart in late 1907 when the news came that Cook had secretly sailed to the village of Etah and had, "hit upon a new route to the North Pole ... by way of Ellesmere and northward over the Polar Sea. There will be game to the 82d degree, and there are natives and dogs for the task. So here is for the pole." Peary must have been fuming. In his eyes, Cook was openly stealing his route to the North Pole, his game, his Inuit dog drivers and his dogs, and if Cook were to conquer the Pole, ultimately his glory.
It must have felt like daylight robbery, but with Cook having the luxury of a twelve-month head start on him, there was nothing Peary could do about it but continue with his own plans. He may have been outraged that Cook was blatantly poaching his idea, but Peary didn't appear to take the threat posed by Cook that seriously. He had always viewed him as a bit of a lightweight and, knowing how much effort was required for every mile of progress on the Arctic Ocean, he didn't give him much of a chance.
The one benefit of Cook's announcement was that he had rekindled public interest in the Pole, making it easier for Peary to raise the funds for a fresh bid. Nevertheless, it was still a frantic race to find the money in time. "But the money still came hard," wrote Peary. "It was the subject of my every working thought; and even in sleep it would not let me rest, but followed with mocking and elusive dreams. It was a dogged, dull, desperate time, with the hopes of my whole life rising and falling by the day."
The way Peary had to fire off thousands of letters, knock on the doors of potential backers, and do whatever he could to talk his way into corporate boardrooms, reminded me of my own desperate struggles for sponsorship. Like Peary over the years I have been turned away, laughed at, sworn at, sympathized with, and even offered jobs, but despite being continually knocked back I always believed that the money was out there somewhere and so I stuck with it. I just hoped that this time around, with Barclays Capital now showing such an interest in my North Pole plans, Iwouldn't have to go through the same soul-destroying hunt for financial support another time.
On July 6, 1908, the fully repaired and bankrolled Roosevelt cast off on a boiling hot afternoon from her berth at Recreation Pier in Manhattan, with thousands of well-wishers cheering her on. The crew was the most able that Peary had ever assembled: Professor Ross Marvin, the civil engineer who had been with him in 1906, George Borup, the enthusiastic young sports scholar from Yale, Donald MacMillan, a sports coach and like Peary a Bowdoin College graduate, Dr. John Goodsell, the expedition surgeon, and, of course, his two most trusted companions, Matt Henson and Captain Bob Bartlett.
The following morning the ship pulled into Oyster Bay on Long Island where President Roosevelt spent two hours inspecting every nook and cranny on the ship. "I believe in you, Peary," he boomed as he climbed back over the rail.
The main difference from his 1906 expedition was that this time he planned to make his first steps on the Arctic Ocean at Cape Columbia, some forty miles west of his previous jumping-off point. As before, he would save himself, his best dogs, best sleds, best supplies, best equipment, and best men for the final dash. This time, however, his polar dash would begin from a camp well north of the Big Lead, a mere 130 miles from the Pole.
On her way north the Roosevelt stopped off at Etah, where Peary learned that Cook had set off for the polar ice some six months earlier. Much to Peary's relief, Cook had apparently chosen a small Inuit team from a separate community up the coast, meaning all of Peary's men and women were still there. Inuit families and hundreds of dogs were crammed onboard, along with seventy tons of whale meat and the blubber of fifty walruses. Bartlett wrote, "To my dying day I shall never forget the frightful noise, the choking stench and the terrible confusion that reigned on board." Two weeks later they were at Cape Sheridan from where sledding parties immediately began transporting food and equipment the eighty miles to Cape Columbia.
On February 27, 1909, the entire expedition party of twenty-four men, nineteen sleds, and 133 dogs assembled in the freezing half-light atCape Columbia, 413 miles from the Pole. Peary must have known that it was now or never.
With Bartlett out in front blazing the trail, the polar caravan headed north. One by one, the support parties began making their way back to the Roosevelt, Goodsell and MacMillan the first to head back on March 14 at 84°29'N, Borup six days later at 85°23'N, and Marvin on March 26, having made it as far as 86°38'N.
The remaining men continued north at a steady pace of twelve to fifteen miles a day until they reached 87°47'N. All was going according to plan. They were just 133 miles from glory, and it was time for Bartlett and the final support division to return to the ship. The captain wrote in his journal, "I leave Commander Peary with five men, five sleds with full loads and forty picked dogs. At the same average as our last eight marches, [they] should reach the Pole in eight days."
In the early hours of April 2, Peary, along with Henson and his best Inuit dog drivers, Ootah, Ooqueah, Seegloo and Egingwah, set off under clear skies on the final leg of their journey. After five long marches in perfect travel conditions, a triumphant Peary was satisfied that they were at the North Pole. "The Pole at last!!!" he wrote, "The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last."
On the afternoon of April 7, the party scurried southward, deeply worried that the spring break-up of the Arctic ice could leave them stranded, as had nearly happened in 1906. The men covered the 133 miles back to the igloos from where Bartlett had been sent back in three huge marches. On April 10, a shattered Peary scribbled in his diary, "From here to the Pole and back has been a glorious sprint, with a savage finish. Its results are due to hard work, little sleep, much experience, first class equipment and good fortune as regards weather and open water."
Just two weeks later, they were back on solid land at Cape Columbia. The Inuit shrieked with joy, Ootah telling Henson, "The devil is asleep or having trouble with his wife, or we should never have come back so easily."
That night, Peary could relax for the first time in months and wrote, "My life's work is accomplished. The thing which it was intended from the beginning that I should do, the thing which I believed could be done,and that I could do, I have done. I have got the North Pole out of my system ... I have won the last geographical prize ... for the credit of the United States. This work is the finish, the cap and climax, of nearly four hundred years of effort, loss of life and expenditure of fortunes, by the civilized nations of the world, and it has been accomplished in a way that is thoroughly American. I am content."
The Gold Brick
During her voyage back to the United States, the Roosevelt dropped anchor in Etah to return the Inuit, their families, and the few surviving dogs home. There they learned that Frederick Cook had recently passed through with the alarming news that he had successfully reached the North Pole via Axel Heiberg Island on April 21, 1908. But they didn't seem overly concerned, Henson commenting, "To us up there at Etah, such a story was so ridiculous and absurd. We knew Dr. Cook and his abilities ... and aside from his medical ability, we had no faith in him whatsoever. He was not even good for a day's work, and the idea of his making such an astounding claim as having reached the Pole was so ludicrous that, after our laugh, we dropped the matter altogether."
Their suspicions were confirmed when Henson (who was fluent in the local dialect, Inuktitut) questioned the two Inuit who had been with Cook during the fourteen months that he had been away. They told him that while they had covered hundreds of miles and had survived an appalling winter with next to no food and shelter, they had never been out of sight of land and went no farther north than Axel Heiberg Island. Cook had seemingly fabricated the vast majority of his journey.
Peary cabled the news of his attainment of the Pole on September 6, 1909, at Indian Harbor, the first town they came to on the Labrador coast. The message read, "Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole. Peary." Unbeknown to Peary, just five days earlier, Cook had announced that he had reached the Pole a full year earlier. The bitter public relations battle had commenced.
Having caught a lift from Greenland on board a Danish cargo ship,Cook was mobbed by huge crowds on his arrival in Copenhagen on September 4. Most of Fleet Street had made the journey from London to interview him, and an opulent banquet was held in his honor at the Tivoli Palace.
It wasn't long, though, before doubts in the story began to surface. Philip Gibbs, a prominent journalist from London's Daily Chronicle, noted that "a strange defensive look" appeared on Cook's face when he asked if he could see his expedition diary. To Gibbs, Cook's mileages seemed far-fetched, his daily rations way too low, and the few observation measurements he provided suspiciously precise. "I left my notebooks behind in Etah," he replied. On further questioning, Cook snapped, "You believed Nansen and Amundsen and Sverdrup ... . Why don't you believe me?" The answer was simple--they had all been accompanied by reliable witnesses whereas Cook had not, and his story failed to stack up.
Gibbs didn't let the matter drop, and in a subsequent interview asked Cook again, "Surely you brought your journal with you? The essential papers?" Cook then asserted that he had given his diaries to the University of Copenhagen for authentication, a claim that was subsequently denied. Cook then changed his mind again, saying that the papers had in fact been sent to the United States, causing Gibbs to have some serious reservations about the authenticity of his claim.
Nevertheless, apart from his initial outburst, Cook remained courteous and unflappable whenever questioned, leading Gibbs to comment, "I must now say that this man Cook is the most remarkable, most amazing man I have ever met. I will say honestly that I am filled with a sense of profound admiration for him. If he is an impostor he is also a very brave man--a man with such iron nerve, such miraculous self-control, and such magnificent courage in playing his game, that he will count for ever among the great impostors of the world. That and not the discovery of the North Pole shall be his claim to immortality."
Gibbs was a lone voice among a chorus of adulation throughout the world, and by the time Cook returned to New York the crowds had reached fever pitch. When an enraged Peary learned of Cook's apparent hoax, he fired off a second telegram that read, "Do not trouble about Dr.Cook's story or attempt to explain any discrepancies in his statements. The affair will settle itself. He has not been to the Pole on April 21st 1908, or at any other time. He has simply handed the public a gold brick."
I found it hard not to sympathize with Peary. Whether he had made it to the Pole or not, he had sacrificed more than any other explorer in his quest for glory. In addition to the physical toll the Arctic had taken on him during all these years, he had been away from his wife for almost half of their marriage, he had missed most of his daughter's childhood, and he had never met his youngest daughter, who had died aged just seven months. Then, at his moment of triumph, to have his prize stolen from under his nose, whether by fair means or foul, must have felt like a dagger to the heart.
With the New York Times championing Peary and the New York Herald backing Cook, things soon escalated into an acrimonious circulation war. Cook was far more media-savvy than Peary. By choosing to congratulate his nemesis and declare, "I am proud that a fellow American has reached the Pole. There is glory enough for us all," and "Two records are better than one," he was seen as the nice guy in the mounting controversy. Meanwhile, Peary's hostile condemnation of Cook's claims was seen by many as a sign of petulance at having been beaten to the Pole. As one commentator put it, "Cook was a liar and a gentleman, Peary was neither."
Despite the best efforts of the Peary Arctic Club to discredit Cook, a series of newspaper surveys found that the weight of public opinion was with the doctor. A poll of seventy-six thousand people by the Pittsburgh Press showed that an astonishing 96 percent of its readers believed Cook had reached the Pole while only 24 percent thought Peary had got there.
Peary's ego must have taken a serious knock as the American public, who had lauded his past achievements, now turned on him and his team. As Bartlett later wrote, "I feel as if I'd been through the French Revolution, or something just as rough and noisy and horrible. It was all very confused; there was a lot of anger in it, as well as poisonous bitterness and recrimination. It seemed to me bad enough to have had a scientific debate; but to have almost a public riot over the question of who reached the Pole was pretty low. The papers kept the pot boiling furiously. I guess they didn't have any good murders just then."
In mid-October Cook's credibility was dealt a severe blow, however, when Ed Barrill, who had climbed Mount McKinley with him in 1906, confessed that their summit photograph had in fact been taken on a much lower peak twenty miles away and they had never even set foot on McKinley at all.7
Events quickly began stacking up against Cook. The Explorers' Club (where he had once been president) canceled his membership, the National Geographical Society denounced his polar claims, the New York Herald withdrew its support, and when an investigation by the Scandinavian polar establishment in December led the front page of the New York Times to declare, COOK'S CLAIM TO THE DISCOVERY OF THE NORTH POLE REJECTED; OUTRAGED DENMARK CALLS HIM A DELIBERATE SWINDLER, his reputation was in ruins.
With Cook now out of the picture, and America desperate for a hero, Peary was effectively crowned the winner by default. However, his misfortune was that the public had come to expect the very worst from polar explorers. The cynicism that had grown during the final months of 1909 never really died down, and many viewed Peary's claims with deep suspicion.
Initially, Peary had been reluctant to submit his journals and diaries for verification by the experts for fear that if they got into the wrong hands they could help Cook forge his own data. Realizing that remaining tight-lipped was doing nothing to help his cause, Peary decided to hand over his proofs to a committee at the National Geographic Society in New York. They didn't take long to validate their contents, prompting the society's vice president to remark, "Everybody who knows Peary's reputation knows he would not lie." The cynics refused to go away, however, arguing that because most members of the committee were longstanding friends and sponsors of Peary, they were simply looking after one of their own.
In early 1910 two independent experts from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey analyzed Peary's navigational data in painstaking detail,concluding that he "probably passed within one and six-tenths geographic miles of the North Pole." The Royal Geographical Society in London was much more cautious, its committee members only ratifying his claim by eight votes to seven. Nevertheless, its navigation expert, Edward Reeves, did say that Peary's equipment was up to the task of making the necessary observations required to pinpoint his position, and that Peary "either took them and got close to the Pole or 'faked' them to defraud the public and is an impostor of the very worst type."
With the Pole now back in his possession and the fierce row dying down, Peary at last had what he wanted. He lectured throughout America and Europe; congratulatory messages poured in from leading polar figures like Amundsen, Nansen, and Cagni; the Senate passed a bill recognizing his discovery of the North Pole; he was promoted to rear admiral; textbooks now listed him as the first man to reach the Pole; and he was showered with yet more gold medals from almost every geographical society in the world. Most importantly for Peary, he was able to spend time away from the media spotlight to begin reacquainting himself with his young family at his beloved Eagle Island home in Maine, the place he called his "Promised Land."
Still, a small but influential group remained determined to bring him down. When the House of Representatives tried to pass a bill similar to the one passed by the Senate, a committee of vociferous congressmen, many of them Cook supporters, subjected Peary to a rigorous three-day inquiry in January 1911. The tone of the questioning was so intense and at times completely off the subject that Peary became irritable and occasionally lost his cool.
The bill was eventually passed by a large majority, but the Congressional hearings left an indelible scar. Jo Peary later wrote, "The personal grilling which my husband was obliged to undergo at the hands of Congress, while his scientific observations were examined and worked out, although it resulted in his complete vindication, hurt him more than all the hardships he had endured during his 16 years in the Arctic regions and did more toward breaking down his iron constitution than anything experienced in his explorations."
But the battle was far from over, and Peary's hopes of a peaceful, dignified retirement failed to materialize. Cook resurfaced from time to time. His book, My Attainment of the Pole, irritated Peary but did nothing to restore his credibility. Cook also attempted to sue anyone (including Peary) who questioned his polar claims, but the courts ruled against him every time. Then, in 1916, one of Cook's supporters in Congress, Henry Helgesen, tried to strip Rear Admiral Peary of his rank because his "claims to the discoveries in the Arctic regions have been proven to rest on fiction and not on geographical facts." Much to Peary's relief, Helgesen died the following year and the bill was dropped.
Nevertheless, the strain of the last few years had taken its toll on Peary, and he died on February 20, 1920, after a long fight with pernicious anemia, ironically, the very condition which Cook had diagnosed him with in 1901. He was sixty-four. He had achieved the fame he had craved throughout his adult life, but had he discovered the North Pole? The answer would go with him to the grave.
Cook outlived his rival by twenty years, but his spectacular fall from grace continued. In 1923 he was fined fourteen thousand dollars and sentenced to fourteen years in jail for selling a plot of land in Texas that he had fraudulently claimed to be oil-bearing. Shortly before his death in 1940 he recorded a tape for posterity. His final words were, "I have been humiliated and seriously hurt. But that doesn't matter anymore. I'm getting old, and what does matter to me is that I want you to believe that I told the truth. I state emphatically that I, Frederick A. Cook, discovered the North Pole." In a cruel twist, shortly after his death the land that he sold in Texas went on to produce millions of barrels of oil.
A Mystery Unsolved
The controversy at the top of the world still rumbles on today. At the time of his death Peary was accepted by most as the discoverer of the Pole, but the waters are now far more muddied. A detailed investigation of Peary's navigation data and daily mileages by the American astronomer Denis Rawlins in 1973 accused him of cheating. His book, Peary at theNorth Pole: Fact or Fiction?, was the first in the long history of the North Pole debate to quash the claims of both Cook and Peary. Rawlins's findings caused a shift in public perception and led to the Encyclopedia Britannica changing its entry on Peary from the "discoverer of the North Pole" to the man "usually credited" with discovering the Pole.
The screening on American television of a documentary called The Race to the Pole in 1984, which suggested that Cook had been deprived of his rightful claim by a vindictive Peary, so infuriated the Peary family that they were persuaded by the National Geographic Society, the custodians of the Peary archives, to publish his personal journal from his final expedition. It was the first time that anyone outside his closest circle had seen this most private of documents. "I do not care to let it out of my possession," Peary had once remarked, "It never has been." The journal had remained locked away throughout the intense period of investigation, and it was hoped that detailed analysis of its contents would settle the matter once and for all.
The British explorer Sir Wally Herbert, who had made the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean in 1968-1969, was given the task of analyzing all the material. Herbert's was a name I was familiar with before I began my Arctic research. He had personally surveyed and mapped over forty-five thousand square miles of virgin Antarctic territory and spent two years living with the Inuit in northern Greenland.
Many regard Herbert as Britain's greatest modern-day explorer. During his epic 407-day journey with dog teams from Alaska to Spitsbergen, Herbert and his three companions passed through the North Pole on April 6, 1969, exactly sixty years to the day after Peary. Incredibly, nobody had been to the North Pole on foot throughout all those intervening years, which explains why Herbert is sometimes listed as the first man to the Pole.
Herbert spent three painstaking years collecting evidence that Peary's supporters hoped would prove that his 1909 expedition was successful. The outcome was not what they had expected. Herbert poured cold water on Peary's claims in his 1988 book, The Noose of Laurels, arguing that because of Peary's sensational travel speeds it would have beenimpossible for him to have reached the Pole in the time he claimed. He wrote that Peary's sprint-finish to the Pole, during which he supposedly covered twenty-six miles a day over the expedition's final five days, was unbelievably fast. To Herbert's astonishment, Peary's return speeds were even quicker. Herbert wrote, "No explorer, before or since, has claimed to have covered these sorts of distances across the polar pack ice over the same number of consecutive days."
Unlike Captain Scott's South Pole diary, which was clearly written for a public audience, Peary's was more a collection of private thoughts and observations. Some of his jottings revealed more about his inner world and craving for fame than anything since those early letters to his mother. "Faced with marble or granite," read one such memo about his plans for the mausoleum he hoped would be built on his death. "Statue with flag on top, lighted room at base for 2 sarcophagi? Bronze figures Eskimos, Dog, Bear, Walrus etc, etc or bronze tablets of flag on Pole & suitable inscription."
Herbert found no evidence that Peary took longitude readings during his journey to the Pole, making it more difficult for him to calculate how far east or west the unpredictable forces of wind and ocean current had carried him off course. Although he diplomatically skirted around the issue of whether he thought Peary was deliberately trying to deceive the world by faking his readings, or whether Peary genuinely believed that he had reached the Pole, Hebert estimated that Peary had missed his goal by sixty miles.
Inconsistencies in Peary's journal, a lack of credible witnesses in the polar party to verify his position, and Peary's strange behavior at the end of his journey only compounded Herbert's doubts. He also dismissed Cook's polar claims out of hand. Being the only Peary/Cook biographer to have traveled across the polar pack himself, Herbert's arguments carried much more clout than those of previous polar historians, and in most quarters The Noose of Laurels has now become accepted as the definitive analysis of Peary's final expedition. Given Herbert's phenomenal exploration credentials, it was hard to disagree with him.
In 1989 the National Geographic Society undertook a comprehensivestudy of all the data and rebuffed Herbert's claims, but its own verdict could not be said to have been totally impartial because of the organization's close relationship to the Peary family. A further study of all the material by the American historian Russell Bryce in 1997 also came to the same conclusion as Rawlins that Peary's claims were a total fabrication. I was finding these endless tit-for-tat exchanges by the pro- and anti-Peary camps more and more confusing. I was no closer to finding out the truth.
As my Arctic research drew to a close, I felt let down. The romance of the race to the South Pole was the thing that had first gripped me about Captain Scott's tale when I was a young boy. The history books show that he was narrowly beaten by Amundsen, but his tragic death, recorded so poetically in his diary, seemed to really capture the spirit of polar exploration. There have been other gallant tales throughout exploration history that have caught the public's imagination--Stanley's rescue of Livingstone in Central Africa in 1871, Mallory and Irvine's daring bid to climb Everest in 1924, and Armstrong's first steps on the moon in 1969.
In contrast to the way I felt after reading all these tales of extraordinary bravery, the centuries-old quest for the North Pole had such an unedifying, almost farcical ending. Part of my frustration lay with Cook, whose seemingly bogus claims sparked the whole debate in the first place, but I also felt let down by Peary for not taking the simple measures to prove to us whether or not he and his five companions had succeeded in reaching the Pole.
Nevertheless, there was no getting away from the fact that Peary and all those explorers before him had brought the Arctic Ocean to life for me. Their tales of the simple struggle of man against the elements had struck a chord with me, and I was now itching to see this awesome landscape of drama with my own eyes. A strange aspiration burned inside me to put myself through the same suffering they had endured. I wanted to find out if I had what it took to survive up there.
The unsolved mysteries of the North had also totally gripped me. Just who was the true conqueror of the North Pole? Part of me wanted to believe it was my fellow countryman, Wally Herbert. Throughout exploration history, Britain has repeatedly been beaten to the great geographicalprizes on the map like the South Pole, the Northwest Passage, and the summit of Everest, often after doing all the hard work, and it would give us something to cheer about if our man won this time. But having now learned about this larger-than-life character called Robert Peary and the superhuman efforts he had taken to conquer the Pole, I also felt that he, too, probably deserved the title. To be honest, I didn't really mind either way. I just wanted to know. However, no history book or Arctic biographer was going to give me the answer. The millions of words that had already been written on the subject had all proven inconclusive.
I figured that the question would continue to be asked until somebody tried to replicate Peary's final journey across the frozen pack, traveling from northern Ellesmere Island to the North Pole with dog teams and wooden sleds to try to find out if his extraordinary travel speeds and unorthodox navigation techniques were as far-fetched as his detractors had alleged. Slowly it was beginning to dawn on me that as I wasn't aware of anyone who was planning such an adventure, that somebody might as well be me.
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Avery.