The race for the North Pole

Bassman, Going Postal

My interest in polar exploration was first kindled in about 1958 when a member of the Sir Vivian Fuchs expedition which completed the first trans-Antarctica crossing came to my primary school and gave us a talk with slides. I recall that he was satisfactorily bearded as you would expect of an explorer. He asked for any questions, and I piped up with “Why is the sky blue?”, thinking that it was always blizzarding down there. He pretended to think it was a good question. A feature of that expedition was the use of the Tucker Sno-cat, about as cool as a tracked vehicle gets. I believe there is one in the Science Museum. It is interesting that Amundsen genuinely thought that the only way Scott would beat him to the South Pole was by using his tractors. Scott may have settled on the plodding British way of man-hauling, but the ex-torpedo officer was innovative enough to trial Wolseley tracked vehicles. Unfortunately one fell through the ice being unloaded, and the others couldn’t overcome technical problems and freezing fuel.

I sometimes regret that this initial enthusiasm for Polar matters didn’t lead to any active involvement. For better or worse, I showed more of the “determination to lounge safely through existence”, as Conrad puts it in Lord Jim. I could never have achieved the kind of fitness levels and hardness of those early travellers. At the age of fifty Amundsen was told by a doctor that his heart would not withstand any more strenuous exercise. He promptly went on and survived an 800-mile run through the snows of Alaska, covering the ground in sixteen days. And so it has been armchair exploring and mountaineering for me.

Most of us on this site will be familiar with the race to the South Pole: Scott’s rivalry with Shackelton, then fatally with Amundsen, leading to the bleakest photograph ever taken in my opinion – five unsmiling wind- and sun-blackened doomed faces staring forlornly at the remote camera. I don’t know how or even if the story is told to schoolchildren now, but it was once the staple example of grit, endurance and honour. Revisionism probably focuses on Scott’s blunders. Amundsen made his mistakes, like being spooked by Scott into making a start far too early in the season and having to beat a near-fatal retreat, but it is the comparative smoothness and uneventfulness of his winning journey that stays in the mind. By contrast, the race to the North Pole presents endless examples of failure, including the infamous Franklin expedition, and is probably less familiar to the general public. Moreover, the “discovery” of the Pole is still shrouded in bitter controversy.

Bassman, Going Postal

You can probably drag up the name “Peary” from your memories for the pub-quiz question of who was the discoverer of the North Pole. Let me introduce you to another contender: Frederick Cook. There is a raging and fascinating row over which of them, or indeed whether either of them, reached the Pole. Let’s look at Robert Peary. He was a naval engineer and surveyor who made a bit of a name for himself on a project in Nicaragua which was considered at one time to be a better prospect than the as-yet unbuilt Panama Canal.  A chance reading of a book on Greenland fired his imagination for travel in northern regions, and thereafter he thought of little else, and the fame discovery would bring him. He managed to obtain a year’s leave and set about a rather inglorious expedition to Greenland which took him a small way into the icy interior, which he magnified in a manner that would become typical of later expeditions. Peary became adept at playing the Washington game and placed himself at the front of every consideration for northern exploration. With his black valet Matt Henson he made several expeditions and developed what he called his “travelling machine” which he thought would finally sling-shot him through to the Pole. Peary was absolutely intolerant of rivalry and it was his haste to forestall the possibility of competitors stealing a march that led him into an unnecessary winter journey which cost him eight toes. He was not without opposition, particularly from the navy itself, furious at the way he was able to play the Presidential card to obtain ever longer periods of paid leave, and promotions. Many were also suspicious of his vague accounting of navigational calculations. Peary made great use of the Inuit people who participated fully in the heavy work of the push to the Pole. The natives themselves were indifferent to the location and were never keen on travelling out of sight of land. They grew to respect Peary though not to love him. In spite of racial attitudes the married Peary had a relationship with a suspiciously young Inuit who bore him two sons. Mrs Peary, who was no mean traveller herself, had to swallow hard to overcome that inconvenient truth. After his success Peary made no provision for his offspring. At last Peary had everything lined up, and his provisioning and trail-making parties gave him and Henson plus a couple of Inuit dog drivers an apparently clear run to the Pole. He claimed to have reached it on 6 April 1909. Modern analysis of his sketchy “proofs” suggest that he was as much as fifty miles west of the geographic Pole (there are others), having taken no account of drift or the impossibility of maintaining a straight line dead reckoning through the constant detours round open water leads and pressure ice ridges. He took no longitude observations and made no compass corrections. It is also the case that Peary hardly ever spoke again to his assistant Henson, who had become a capable dog sledger and a fluent speaker of Inuit – unlike Peary. If Peary’s calculations were to be relied upon it is even possible that Henson reached the Pole first. Peary returned to his ship a strangely morose figure. Imagine his shock on learning soon afterwards that another individual – Frederick Cook – had beaten him to the punch a few days earlier by telegraphing a report that he had reached the Pole almost a year before Peary.

Cook was an experienced and knowledgeable traveller in the north and south. He had even been on one of Peary’s expeditions as ship’s doctor and had impressed the Great Man. He also knew Amundsen from an earlier voyage where he had nursed the crew through scurvy and earned Amundsen, the ship’s mate’s, praise and respect – no small achievement. Having set his sights on the North Pole he went on an expedition to make the first ascent of Mount McKinley in order to raise his profile and obtain the necessary funding. Having claimed a successful ascent Cook was much-lauded, and moved on to his next project. He was very popular with the Inuit, and his reputation among them remains high to this day. There is no doubt that as an individual Cook had the qualities to reach the Pole, but did he? Initially the public had no doubt about who had won the polar race, and, with a very modern echo, newspaper polls gave him a huge lead over Peary. Nevertheless, the Peary machine hit back, and the first blow was the accusation that Cook had been nowhere near the top of Mount McKinley, and photographs said to show the summit were shown to be of a minor peak some miles from the mountain. Cook’s companion on the ascent was probably bribed to change his story: in any event, he was soon able to buy a large house and the first automobile in his town – not bad for a “horse packer.” Peary then went on to disclose the notes of interviews with Cook’s Inuit who laughed at the notion that they had reached the Pole. Photographs were rubbished as frauds. Cook’s reputation took a complete nosedive, and he left town in disguise and in a hurry. He could never produce diaries and contemporary calculations to back up his claim to priority at the Pole, but he never gave up his insistence. There is even a recording of him as an old man, shortly before his death, sticking to his guns. In spite of the fact that Peary survived some near-misses in his grillings by committees he was able to claim the prize. He received the laurels accordingly, but didn’t live to a ripe old age. He died in 1920 of pernicious anaemia, ironically diagnosed by Cook many years earlier. The ever-helpful Henson received very little by way of thanks from Peary, who even confiscated his roll of film taken at the top of the world. Peary completely disowned him after Henson had attempted a lecture tour: no one shared Peary’s glory. It surprises me that we are not seeing a full-scale revision of his undoubtedly vital presence on Peary’s expeditions – calling Idris Elba.

When I started to read about the race to the North Pole I was not prepared for the continuing and vitriolic controversy over the discovery. The battle still rages, and, if anything, Cook’s stock has risen. There are dozens of publications out there – take your pick. There remains the strong possibility that neither man reached the Pole, which after all, is never the same stretch of ice from one year to the next, but both were formidable individuals. It was once said that “Cook was a liar and a gentleman. Peary was neither.”

Bassman ©