Staking a Claim
Who was first to the top of the world? And why it may not matter
The first explorer to reach the North Pole was: A. Robert Peary B. Frederick Cook C. Probably neither D. Definitely neither.
Ever since 1909--when first Cook, and then Peary returned from their northernmost journeys to banner headlines and international controversy--the answer has depended on whom you asked.
At its simplest, the debate over who got where when is the story of onetime gentleman colleagues turned rivals in their quest for North Pole bragging rights. Peary claimed that he reached the pole on April 6, 1909, after a 37-day dash across the ice pack from his base 413 miles away. But just five days before Peary could cable his news home, Cook scooped him with his claim to have arrived at the top of the world in April 1908.
The vituperative volleys of one side against the other haven't let up since.
Questions about Cook's assertion arose almost immediately. For one thing, his supposed ascent to the top of Mount McKinley in 1906 had already been branded suspect; subsequent investigation has shown Cook faked the climb by cropping a photograph taken from a much lower hilltop, says Robert Bryce, author of Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved. For another, Cook possessed no validating documents or navigational readings to confirm his claim, and a route traced by the Inuit guides put him nowhere near the pole. The final blow to Cook's credibility came in 1923, when he was sentenced to 14 years in jail for an oil stock scheme.
Yet Cook still retains staunch defenders today in the form of the Frederick A. Cook Society. In True North, his 2005 examination of the case, journalist Bruce Henderson paints a sympathetic portrait of Cook as a brave explorer quite possibly denied his due. "I think that Cook's claim to have reached the pole is every bit as strong as Peary's," he says.
But even if Cook failed, does that mean Peary succeeded? According to a 1911 vote by Congress, the answer was yes, and that is how the official record stood for decades, despite persistent doubts about the astonishingly long distances Peary recorded, as well as navigational observations that didn't seem to add up.
Then, in 1988, Peary's polar sun seemed to set forever. Veteran British explorer Wally Herbert examined Peary's North Pole diary and other newly released documents. His verdict: Peary had missed the pole by 30 miles or more, at least in part because of wind-driven ice that led him west rather than north.
Respect. Although Peary also has steadfast defenders, according to Bryce, "no one still alive actually knows where Peary was on April 6, 1909," though "it is very safe to say that he was not at the North Pole." Bryce's own assessment puts Peary at least 100 miles away. In his view, neither explorer achieved his goal.
Does it matter? Both deserve respect as explorers, says Arctic scientist Andrey Proshutinsky, senior scientist and Arctic research coordinator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "It was an era of geographic discoveries, and the North Pole contest was extremely important both politically and geographically, at least to report what have we here, land or ocean." Then, as now, countries sought rights to potentially valuable resources.
Moreover, says Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, the continued emphasis on the competition "warps" our understanding of Peary's innovations, designing equipment and travel strategies and forging ahead with the limited navigational instruments available at the time. Much the same could be said for Cook, whom many brand as a charlatan without examining, for instance, his humane treatment of the Inuit when others regarded them as savages.
Will the issue ever be completely resolved? "I don't think the question can ever be answered, which is why it is still in the news 100 years later," says Laura Kissel, polar curator of the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program at Ohio State University.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.