Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bruce Henderson's "True North: Peary, Cook And The Race To The Pole" (Steak Knives)

More polar adventure; this time, to the north!  The dispute over both Cook and Peary's claims to have reached the pole within a year of each other made for one of the great exploration controversies in history back in the early 20th C., a time when there were still blank places on the map.

Henderson takes a 'Team Cook' position that's very apparent from his tonality and emphasis from early on.  In fact, he closes with a quote from each that seems to provide a thematic crystallization of his argument in favour of Cook's claim over Peary's:

"I shall not be satisfied until my name is known from one end of the world to the other... I must have fame."  Robert E. Peary

"I reached the pole.  I climbed Mount McKinley.  The controversy from my angle is at an end."  Frederick A. Cook

While this selective quotation suggests volumes about the personalities involved in the polar controversy, history seems to be a little more complex than this.  On top of this, it makes for great reading, IMHO.

Note: There are no penguins
at the north pole!
The pro-Peary case is a thin one, given the recent examination of his journals and pole-related documentation.  Essentially, any expert in the field must concede that he did not reach the pole.  It's an easy argument.

More problematic (perhaps) is Cook's claim.  Henderson makes a good case for how and why we should give Cook the benefit of the doubt (which is the best 100 year hindsight provides), and it's interesting to me that, at the close of his text, I was right on board with the author's point of view.

Cook was gone for a long, long time relative to Peary.  He returned in a state of near starvation with two indigenous aids who supported his account.  He seems to have adopted planning and approach that was more viable than Peary's 'big team' thrust over the pack ice, closer in 'spirit' to Amundsen's successful bid for the south pole a few years following - 'light and fast.'  (Note: Amundsen, who spent the first Antarctic winter with Cook on an earlier expedition seemed to have *some* confidence in his claim.)

Neither claimant 'bothered' to take a trained partner with them who could ultimately verify their equipment readings and establish the veracity of actually being within a mile or so of the pole itself (it's notoriously difficult to take such readings with compass, sextant or other complex devices when approaching the apex of latitudes/longitudes).  Adding to the uncertainty is that, unlike the south pole, the north pole is not a fixed geographical point - it's shifting pack ice.  Any marker can be expected to drift over time, leaving no proof of a visit.  In fact, there are arguments against both sides that this absence of another trained eye was contrived - to allow for them to take independent readings to make a claim regardless of hitting the pole itself.

The Cook controversy gets bigger.  I followed up on two chapters in Great Exploration Hoaxes (also in my stack) that address the Peary pole claim, and Cook's earlier claim to have reached the highest peak in the Americas (McKinley/Denali).  While I'll be attacking the whole text soon, it made sense to me to read these bits with True North still fresh in memory.  It seems Cook likely *did* bullshit his summit claim, casting doubt on his pole claim by extension, despite having the stronger case of the two.

There have been fanboys for both for over a century now.  So who reached the north pole first?  Dunno...  maybe Cook, but certainly not Peary.  A good read, this.  Highly recommended for exploration enthusiasts.

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