I'd like the Straight Dope on one of the great controversies: Who was first to reach the north pole? I lean towards Robert Peary because of Frederick Cook's background, but is it that simple?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Not unless you’ll take “maybe neither of the above” as an answer — the claims of both men were bitterly disputed at the time and things haven’t cooled off much since. Cook’s story is easier to dismiss. He said he reached the pole in April 1908, a year before Peary supposedly made it. His Inuit companions reported otherwise. The party traveled across the ice a few days, always in sight of land, until Cook implausibly announced they’d arrived. Cook’s photographs, among them one of “Bradley Land,” a mythical landform allegedly encountered en route, were faked. “Proofs” Cook submitted to a Danish commission lacked the expected astronomical observations — at one point he maintained, incredibly, that he’d left them in Greenland. In his later book he included such observations, one of which shows signs of having been cribbed from Peary. Among Cook’s papers after his death were found several north pole diaries that read like evolving drafts of a novel — which probably isn’t far from what they were.
Other events confirm Cook’s character. Amidst the pole controversy, two expeditions, one sympathetic to Cook, concluded his claimed 1906 ascent of Mt. McKinley (Denali) was impossible. Sure, Peary’s people bribed Cook’s climbing partner to change his story; the fact remains that Cook’s photographs were bogus, taken from a relative molehill miles away. In 1923 Cook, then an oil company executive, was convicted of mail fraud. One count involved a faked photo of a gusher — some people never learn.
Robert E. Peary could learn. His early pole attempts were fiascos, but then he developed the “Peary system,” the use of several support teams employing Inuit methods. If anyone could’ve succeeded in 1909, Peary could. His story is undisputed until the point where he, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit left behind the last support party about 133 nautical miles from the pole. Expecting the rest of the trip would take six to nine days, they did it in just over four. This speed was long suspect, but in 2005 explorer Tom Avery, using methods similar to Peary’s, beat his overall time from Cape Columbia (the most northerly point of land in Canada) to the pole. Avery didn’t quite match Peary’s speed on the last four days, but came close enough to blunt criticism.
So Peary’s distance is reasonable. What about his direction? There the argument gets complicated. Arctic navigation was (and is) tricky, not least because the geographic north pole (Peary’s goal) and the magnetic north pole (where compasses point) were then more than 1,000 miles apart. Peary expected to head straight north, which he seems to have done using a rough-and-ready navigational method involving solar sightings and compass corrections. But the method only works reliably if you stay true to your original course — if you veer, errors accumulate.
Explorer Sir Wally Herbert estimates Peary never got closer to the pole than 30 to 60 miles. A 1990 National Geographic article, on the other hand, places him within five miles (his instruments’ margin of error) based on analysis of his photos and depth soundings. NatGeo‘s photo evidence is questionable, but the soundings show Peary headed roughly the right way. The celestial observations he made near his last camp are correct; for confirmation, he marched five to seven miles in all directions and made more sightings. Even if he was off initially, surely at some point during these peregrinations he got pretty close.
Still, Peary had misstated other discoveries. In 1892 he found a frozen channel he said separated Greenland from a northerly island; a 1906 expedition perished when the putative Peary Channel turned out to be just another fjord. Peary’s 1906 discovery of the mythical “Crocker Land” recalls Cook’s “Bradley Land,” although unlike Cook’s sham photograph, Peary’s sighting could’ve been an honest mistake. More suspicious is his supposed sighting of Axel Heiberg Island in 1899 — he never mentioned it until Otto Sverdrup reported discovering it in 1903.
Some argue that Roald Amundsen used navigation techniques like Peary’s in reaching the south pole. Maybe, but Amundsen’s group included several navigators who kept each other honest. Peary, in contrast, excluded all other navigators during the home stretch. In light of his history, it’s reasonable to want more than just his word that he got to the pole, but his word is mainly what we have.
If neither Cook nor Peary was first to reach the north pole, who was? Richard Byrd’s assertion that he and his pilot flew over the pole in an airplane in 1926 has as many holes as Peary’s story. The first undisputed north pole expedition was the flight of the dirigible Norge later that year. Among those aboard? That arctic tern of explorers, Roald Amundsen.
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