The first conqueror of the North Pole :
Cook, Peary, or neither ?

By Jacques L. Theodor







































































































































































































































Preamble The question About Cook Cook's Return :
comment and impressions
About Peary Elements of
logistics and organisation
Important reflections about observed or
estimated positions
Conclusion Some bibliographical landmarks
About the author of the article



This is a controversy provoked by the claim made on 1 September 1909 by a doctor, Frederick Cook, , that he had reached the North Pole on 21 April 1908; a claim followed, a few days later (on 6 September), by one from an engineer, Robert Edwin Peary, who asserted that he had been the first to reach the Pole - on 05/06 April 1909.

On 08 April, Peary, without having spoken to Cook, and without having been able to familiarise himself with the latter's story, sent a first telegram to United Press, saying: Cook's story shouldn't be taken too seriously", and a second message to the New York Times: "He was not at the Pole on 21 April 1908, nor at any other time. He has simply misled the public."

Frederick A. Cook

En In a somewhat different style, Cook declared, on the subject of Peary's feat: "That's good news. I hope that Peary arrived at the Pole. His observations and reports about the region will confirm my own". And to the New York Herald : "Please be kind enough to convey my cordial congratulations to Mr. Peary on his success".
Peary's two messages to the press had a domino effect that he undoubtedly did not realise would provoke, at the end of the day, something of a media feeding frenzy, both concerning Cook, and, as a knock-on effect, concerning himself.
Relations between these two "claimants" were quickly poisoned, particularly between their respective supporters who, some 93 years later, are still acting as unconditional defenders of their idol.

Robert Edwin Peary

The background documents enabling objective assessment of the arguments of the two camps are essentially the stories recounted by each of these two American explorers: in 1910, Peary's book "The North Pole" and in 1911 that of Cook "I Reached The Pole" were both reprinted in 2001. These and other books (see end of article) enable us to get an idea of the state of mind of the two adversaries, to know certain facts that they concealed and declarations that were not included in the two "original" stories, and finally to glimpse the atmosphere surrounding the polemic.

The recent book (RB, 1997, see below the Bibliography) by Robert Bryce is a mine of information dealing with the original documents relating to this controversy. With its 1,133 pages and its 2,040 references to essential published works, articles sometimes important but unearthed in obscure, "provincial" newspapers or magazines, hand-written but never published documents belonging to the two principal protagonists of the controversy, and those belonging to secondary players, he has accomplished a tremendous piece of work. Consequently, his book cannot be overlooked by anybody wanting to take a closer interest in this clash of the Titans. But as the Tripod website described it so well, "it's a researcher's dream... and a reader's nightmare" because of the extent and density of its information. Luckily, a very complete index can help a reader/documentalist to avoid drowning.
The Internet has proved to be an active forum for this debate, and not less than 3,120 documents were listed recently (March 2002), as indicated by a search (via the Google server) based on the names of Peary and Cook.
I confess that it is not simple to come to an objective opinion. Indeed, certain books allow an impression of sympathy to be detected for the one and an aversion for the other, and camouflage or select the facts. As a result, I restricted myself to books that appeared to be reasonably objective. But even in 1909-10, the field of the controversy had already been considerably widened, even before either of the complete stories had been published. .


The question

The problem arising from this controversy is easy to define. Either Cook and Peary both reached the Pole, or Cook did but Peary didn't, or Peary did but Cook didn't, or neither of them did. This with an important detail. If Cook had reached the Pole in 1908 and Peary had made his attempt in 1909, Cook would have automatically been the first. Which would have had disastrous financial and moral repercussions for Peary, and would have been a setback for the establishment and for some newspapers and magazines which had wagered heavily on Peary (the National Geographic Society in particular, a publishing house whose role was to be more than ambiguous in this saga, and the New York Times newspaper).
Without wanting to go into the detail of the two explorations, it is not without interest, for an understanding of how the polemic mushroomed, to paint a broad outline of the course of events..


Concerning Cook

In 1905, Cook had formed a friendship with John R. Bradley, a wealthy man and a hunter with an adventurous spirit who was planning a hunting expedition in the Great North. Cook managed to persuade Bradley to help with the funding of his expedition to the North Pole. Cook had had experience of polar wintering in the Antarctic. Of German extraction and born in 1865, he studied medicine and it was as a doctor that he had brilliantly taken part in the rescue of the Belgica mission led by Adrien de Gerlache at the time of the first and extremely severe Antarctic wintering (1898-99). Roald Amundsen, the future discoverer of the South Pole, and a great admirer of Cook, was also part of the mission. Dr Cook had also accompanied Peary during his 1901 expedition.
On 3 July 1907, the ship "Bradley" sailed north. During one of the stopovers, Cook met Knud Rasmussen, an Eskimo half-breed, and a future explorer of the Polar Regions. After several mishaps on the way, the Bradley reached Annoatok, where Cook unloaded his equipment. He then proposed to Franke, his fellow crew member, to accompany him to the Pole, which the latter accepted. Annoatok (= Anoritooq 78°33' N and 72°30' W) became Cook's base for his explorations and for his final assault on the Pole. The preparation of the equipment was sophisticated. Cook had designed a special sledge on which a tent could be easily mounted. Despite its ease of assembly, because it was cold, Cook preferred an igloo made of snow which ensured perfect protection.
The arguments about Cook's lack of preparation and the numerical inadequacy of his high-tech team would seem to be unfounded when it is known how intelligently and efficiently he dealt with the technical and logistical problems relating to his ski-trek.
With the help of his brother, he had developed a light, resistant and efficient model sledge. But it was in Annoatok that he built his sledges, using wood selected by his brother. The spacing between the runners had been standardised so that the sledges could proceed along the same ruts.
The pemmican had also been prepared in Annoatok by Cook and Franke according to a technique that he had perfected. This enabled him to avoid the inconvenience suffered by the Peary team that made some of the participants ill, including Dr. Goodsell himself. The cause was too much formaldehyde used as a preservative, as well as the accidental presence of fragments of glass; also the excess water become ice which they had to nibble with their teeth because they did not have enough fuel to thaw it out (JG, see below the Bibliography).

Like Amundsen, Cook went ahead of his sledge on skis. This reduced the load to be pulled by the dogs, and allowed him to circumvent patches of open water on more recently re-frozen ice and thus to spend less time waiting. Indeed, the weight of a walker in boots or on his sledge is less distributed than on skis. The sledges could be converted into boats, thanks to a tarpaulin tailored for this purpose. Certain Eskimos of Peary's team walked on the recently formed ice on their hands, knees and toes; a method of distributing their weight over six points.

In the USA, opinions were divided as to Cook's prospects of success with his ski-trek to the Pole.
Two typical examples: on the one hand, Bridgemann, Secretary of the Peary Arctic Club and Managing Director of the Standard Union newspaper, said: "He can't". On the other hand, Bradley, who had seen Cook at work and who had provided him with all the necessary equipment, was confident in his success.
These two points of view were the reflection of entirely different strategic visions.
The Peary clan conceived the expedition with his own ship as a forward base, with many participants and large resources "in the American way", while Cook had based his project on what I would call the "necessary but sufficient" minimum, well studied, solid, efficient and consequently lighter in terms of equipment, but also lighter in the number of team members and therefore in terms of food and fuel. Nevertheless, at the end of February 1908, Cook set out with 11 sledges and a total of 103 dogs. The high number of dogs of any Arctic expedition of the time was determined by several factors:

  • 1) The loads included food and other things, to be left in stockpiles that would be used on the return journey.
  • 2) Many dogs became incurably lame or sick.
  • 3) On the return journey, as the weight of the loads (food) had decreased, the initial number of dogs was no longer necessary and they were put down to feed the remaining dogs and the participants in the ski-trek (JG, p 117-127, see below the Bibliography).

The idea was to hunt whatever they might encounter on Ellesmere Island (bear, seal, walrus, musk ox, hare, and so on) before reaching the Glacial Arctic Ocean.

It was at this time that Cook parted company from Franke, who returned to Annoatok. Later, by 05 May, all the Eskimos who had set out with Cook had returned to the base; all except two of them, Etukishuk and Ahwelah, whom Cook intended to take with him to the Pole. Meanwhile, Peary had arrived in the region and, without being unduly concerned with scruples, he "confiscated" the provisions of food that Cook had constituted in Annoatok for his return and for possible wintering, as well as his marketable stocks of fox fur.

One year later, Harry Whitney, whom Peary had installed in Cook's hut, saw the latter arriving with his two companions, famished, emaciated and extremely dirty. Cook had shoulder-length hair, like an Eskimo. A technical detail: in the extreme cold, Eskimos used to pull their hair down across the opening of their hoods, which reduced the impact of the wind a little.
Cook had undertaken his ski-trek on the Arctic Ocean from Cape Svartevoeg on the northern coast of Axel Heiberg Island, and, according to him, had reached the Pole. While returning, he found pack ice that was far too fragmented. Left with no choice, he altered his route and had had to winter on the northern coast of Devon Island, at Cape Sparbo, under extremely harsh conditions: "One of the most extraordinary exploits of polar history", according to Jean Malaurie (JM, see below the Bibliography).


Cook's Return: comment and impressions

Money did not appear to have been among Cook's primary concerns. On his return, he asked James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, for only $3,000 for his article, instead of the tens of thousands of dollars that he would have been able to demand. There were numerous "character references". Among these, a Dr. Dedrick, Peary's doctor, the explorer Scott, also a certain Dillon Wallace, who described Cook as a man of extreme reliability. And John Bradley: "There is no man on Earth who surpasses Cook in courage, in quality of judgement or in perseverance". Roald Amundsen, indefeasible in his friendship for Cook, was no less admiring. And finally Franke, who had been rubbing shoulders with him for months, thought that Cook was a man of his word, who proved what he said.
However, Professor McMillan summarised the situation by saying: "The credibility of Cook's report is built on his personality as a human being, together with the internal and external coherence of the report itself". (RB, see below the Bibliography)

Fourteen years earlier, after having left the ship "Fram", drifting as a prisoner of the pack ice, Nansen and Johansen had arrived on 8 April 1895 at 86° 13' 6 (that is to say 419 km from the Pole); nobody had got so close before (FN, p 226, see below the Bibliography). A position at which Nansen said: "I'm convinced that we will not be able to reach the Pole or its immediate vicinity: the pack ice is too broken (my stress) and our dogs too weak!" However Cook always read the accounts of the other explorers most attentively, and none of them consequently suggested that Cook could have taken Nansen's story as a starting point and then extrapolated from it. However this sentence is precisely the opposite of the description made by Cook on his return. Which could encourage the idea that Cook might have got even closer to the Pole than Nansen. It should be said in passing, that Admiral Byrd had, on the contrary, found the pack ice close to the Pole to be extremely hummocky. The same applies to Amundsen.

Malaurie emphasised that Cook described the Pole "exactly as it was", i.e. increasingly unified pack ice beyond 88°. Which was not always the case: from one year to the next, the "orography" of the pack ice varied considerably.
One thing is for sure; Cook could not have known in advance whether the Pole was a mountain, a volcano, a mere island, a group of hummocks, a sea... An argument against Cook is the "testimony" of his two Inuits, Etukishuk and Ahwelah who, according to Peary's report as presented to the press by the Peary Arctic Club (sic!!), had declared that Cook had never been to the Pole and that furthermore he had never been out of sight of land.
Dr Goodsell, Peary's expedition doctor, attests that Peary had denied him permission to question Cook's two companions and that Peary had himself set up a "committee" to question them (JG, see below our Bibliography). The "Tripod" Website adds that George Borup, delegated to question them, did not have command of the Inuit language, and that Henson, the only person apart from Goodsell who spoke that language, was not present even though he signed the report; and that, finally, Peary was not present even though he also signed it.
Knud Rasmussen (an Eskimo half-breed) did not meet Cook's two companions, but questioned (1909) many Eskimos (parents and friends) who had discussed matters with them and they had confirmed every detail of Cook's story. Conversely, Sir Wally Herbert (WH, p 332-8, see below our Bibliography) mentioned the fact that he was well acquainted with a certain Inuutersuaq, who had been in direct contact with Etukishuk and Ahwelah. Inuutersuaq's testimony was published by a somewhat tortuous route. The account, made in the Inuit language, was translated into Danish, then adapted and translated into English, and published in 1984.
Critics commented that Sir Wally had an interest in the matter and was therefore not an impartial judge (RB, p 760, see below our Bibliography). Perhaps, but he could at least provide valid evidence due to the fact that he was the first man, on 5 April 1969, to reach the North Pole by dog-sled.


Concerning Peary

Conversely, what Peary had to gain and especially not to lose, if he had arrived at the Pole first, was quite clearly glory, for which he had a constant need - like bread; then the fact of not having to repay, among other things, the $ 4,000 (2002 value = $ 80,000) that he would owe to the New York Times newspaper if he were not the first to arrive at the Pole, in addition to an enormous loss of earnings, and finally the successful outcome of more than ten years of polar exploration and vain attempts conducted with the courage, perseverance and willpower of somebody who had made this his reason for living.
Peary considered that the 1909 expedition would be his now or never. He had previously conducted several expeditions, with the initial objective of reconnoitring the extreme north of Greenland, and then reaching the North Pole.

Initially, he made a ski-trek within Greenland (West coast) in 1886.
In 1891-1892, he wintered in the Gulf of Inglefield (close to the current Siorapaluk 77°48' N-70°41' W) with, among others, Peary, Matt Henson (Peary's devoted black servant), Eivind Astrup, John Verhoeff, and Cook as doctor. The objective was to penetrate the continental glacier as far as possible towards the Northeast. After a 2,000-km journey by dog-sledge, he reached Independence Bay. He claimed that Greenland was an island. He was right, but for the wrong reason. He discovered what he took to be a channel, which in fact does not exist; and Greenland continued for a further 150km towards the East.
There then followed several expeditions essentially focusing on the North Pole objective.
Successively, he explored the ice cap of Ellesmere Island and prepared a series of stockpiles along his probable route to the Pole.
On 6 March 1806, he ventured on to the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean and after wintering on Roosevelt trapped in the ice at Cape Sheridan, he left land at Moss Point for a ski-trek towards the Pole accompanied inter alia by Bartlett, Henson, Marvin and Clark. Twenty days later, he was stopped short by an enormous channel of open water (84°38' N). He progressed 10 km per leg. April 2, the five white men of the ski-trek had returned to land and he kept with him only Henson and the Eskimos.
He said that he then managed to cross the channel and headed north, where he might have reached the latitude of 87°06' N on April 21. Peary then turned around and reached land at Cape Newmeyer, after what Hall calculated to be a 907-km journey (taking into account the drift of the pack ice in particular) and carried out in 26 days, whereas Clark had also taken 26 days to reach the same Cape Newmeyer after a journey of only 181km (TH, p 289, see below our Bibliography). Which, in the Peary's case, would make 35km per day. That seems unlikely. The calculations and arguments about Peary's speed in all account for 75 pages of Hall's book.
By way of comparison: Peary had achieved 10km per day before the episode of the wide channel. Average distances covered per day by the various great Arctic travellers for whom we have the quantified data are, for Parry 9.2km, Nansen 9.6km, and Cagni 15km; and for McClintock, the great particularly fast specialist of the period: 21km (TH, see below our Bibliography).
In 1908-1909, the weak point in Peary's story was his "logbook" and what stems from it, i.e. once more, the impossibility of having covered such daily distances. The nub of the controversy revolves around the observed position, 87°47' N. What was it ?
Peary (see RP chapters XXIII to XXXIV, see below our Biliography) left Cape Columbia on 1 March 1909 with a train of sleds and participants, including Henson, Bartlett, Dr. Goodsell, McMillan and several Eskimos. Soon, he was stopped for 6 days, until the 11th, by a very wide channel at latitude 83°53' N. He waited for Marvin and Borup and their men who were to bring the fuel that they needed. They finally arrived. Goodsell returned to land, and then Borup. Twelve men, ten sledges and twenty-four dogs remained. Marvin, in turn, returned to land with a sledge and 17 dogs, but not before taking an observed position: 86°38' N. Peary did not take the position himself so as not to tire his eyes and in order to have measurements that were independent of him. Marvin was thought to have disappeared in a channel, but according to another version, his two Eskimos might have murdered him.
A few days later, Bartlett, a ship's captain and thus thoroughly experienced, took that observed position of 87°47' N where the camp was located that was to bear his name.
Bartlett returned with some regret. Peary was once again with Henson, four Eskimos, five sledges, and forty dogs.

So let's now see what happened between latitude 87°47' N (Camp Bartlett) and the extreme latitude they "reached", namely 89°57' N, Camp Jessup at the Pole itself.

The outward journey represented 130 nautical miles; Peary circulated around the Pole for 41 terrestrial miles according to some and for 36 (or 31' = minutes of degree of latitude = nautical = marine miles) according to others. Return journey: 130 nautical miles. Total: 130' + 130' + 31' = 291' ; 291' x 1,852 m. = 539km in 8 days. Let's not add to that the usual 30% for the detours, but only 20%: an assumption favourable to Peary, namely 647km or an average of 81km per day for eight days; with in particular 130' or 145km of distance per day for two days. Let's not forget that Peary had no toes left but his two little ones, that he was wearing heavy furs and finally, that he was 53 years old, which at the time was relatively old for a polar explorer.

It is true that during the Finmark Race (a Norwegian kind of 1,000-km Itidarod that I followed for 600km) the speed was 200km per day. But, firstly, it was a question of a 6-day race with one day of rest in the middle; secondly, it was a question of a course where speeds of 12.5kph could be constant for 16 hours (4 hours of race + 1 hour of rest times 4 equals 20 hours; plus four more hours of rest), for it was a question of specially selected dogs that had been extensively trained for months on end.
Sir Wally Herbert wrote to me (09/12/2001) on this subject: "Sure, there are always going to be a few travellers who will claim to have covered a comparable distance in one day; but it is pointless to compare one's best day's travel against Peary's average".

Another explorer, Shackleton, covered 25,2' or 46,7km (measured by a wheel-counter) in a single day; with a dog-sledge carrying only a 32-kg load, with the wind in his back, with a sail, on the terra firma of the Antarctic continent and in addition while descending from altitude. Therefore without a heavy load, without hummocks, and without channels. That was his record!

The remainder of the return journey, from Camp Bartlett to Cape Columbia, was 413', from which one subtracts the 130' of the last stages to give us 283'. Let's add 30% for detours; namely 368' converted into kilometres makes 682; that is to say 57km per day for 12 days as compared to 81km per day for 8 days. Peary's critics, and they are numerous, did not fail to emphasise that the speed records were shattered from the moment when Bartlett left the team, leaving Peary only the Eskimos, who were incapable of assessing positions and distances, and Henson, his faithful black servant. Those same critics also underlined the fact that, after the return journey, he practically never spoke to Henson again.

H. Lewin, in his book quoted by Hall (TH, p 77, see below our Bibliography) as being "a very intelligently written book" (?), came up with the following figures: the distance as the crow flies from the Pole to Cape Columbia was 475 terrestrial miles, plus 100 from Cape Columbia to Cape Sheridan (Roosevelt), plus 10% for detours and 30% for the drift, in 18 legs comes to 37,5 miles per leg. I admit that I have looked at these calculations every which way and have arrived at no conclusive result. The trouble is that certain authors successively use terrestrial miles (1609m) or nautical miles (1852m) or "route miles" (the distance actually covered) without clearly specifying when.

Hayes (GH, p 148, see below our Bibliography) emphasised the fact that Peary, in his public statement, had left out the 30% that are the minutes of latitude that he should have added to his theoretical route. This omission could have made his story a little less incredible by decreasing the distance allegedly covered. Curiously, Peary admitted before 1906 to having added 25% to his theoretical route.
Peary, according to his own declarations before the USA Congressional Commission, had not taken any observed positions, except for the famous 87° 47', but only several estimated positions, and had managed to get back to his starting base, whereas he had had only a compass, the variation of which could obviously not have been known to him. In this connection, Dr. John Goodsell confirmed to have noted several times that the positions mentioned with precision by Peary were in fact only estimated positions, and not observed positions. Goodsell, who made scrupulously detailed notes, did not mention any "scientific" observation (meaning "with a sextant") to determine the position (JG, see below our Bibliography).
The defined course of Peary's ski-trek is most disquieting. That on such a long route, with the drift of the pack ice and the obligation at times to make major detours (because of hummocks and leads), the outward and the return journey should be completely rectilinear appears surprising yet again.


Elements of logistics and organisation

The organisation of a day involved unloading the sledges, preparing food, if only to heat it (although…!) since on arrival at the end of a leg, the ambient temperature was found to be -30 or -40° C. The dogs also had to be fed. An igloo had to be built (taking about one hour), sleeping bags had to be unpacked, and clothes had to be brushed to remove the white frost from them (one hour). Also the position, observed or estimated, had to be taken. Undoubtedly some item of clothing, a boot, a sledge, or a dog harness would have to be repaired; and, of course, one had to sleep. As an example, on 4 March 2002 (see this page in our website) it took three hours for Alain Hubert and Dixie Dansercoer to strike camp (without any dogs!).

To cover a distance over the pack ice involved steering the dogs in a particular direction, and therefore often reorienting them, which took time. The hummocks (pressure ridges) had to be got over, the "leads" circumvented (the special term for the channels of open water) or one had to wait until they froze again, and the drift and errors of navigation had to be compensated for. With the dogs harnessed according to the Inuit method, i.e. in a fan (as opposed to with the Norwegian or Continental Canadian method of dogs in pairs and in line), every two hours the braid of the ten to fifteen line-leashes that attached the dogs to the sledge had to be disentangled, which wasted a quarter of an hour. The explanation from an Inuit of the fan method, which at first seemed to me to be absurd, is the following. On the continental glacier there is a real danger of deep crevasses and on the pack ice, there is the danger of leads. Dogs attached in Indian file can be dragged one after the other into these two pitfalls. With the fan method, each dog is independent of the other. If one dog falls, it does not involve the others.
In short, one does not find conditions for travelling on the pack ice, unless exceptionally, for more than 20 to 25km per day.


Important reflections about observed or estimated positions

It is not unreasonable to wonder about the way in which Cook and Peary could go out and back using only a compass, without knowing its variation.
It is true that the wind, and consequently the orientation of the sastrugis, make it possible to keep to an approximate course (WH, p 271, see below our Bibliography). This is one of the first remarks that are made about the pack ice; whereas vast surfaces of it can rotate and the orientation of the sastrugis can be somewhat disturbed as a result. Herbert also emphasised the fact that the wind does not always blow in the same direction.

With a visible sun and a watch, and provided one keeps to the same meridian, it is possible to aim for the true north. One learns that in the boy-scouts at 9-12 years, without even having an ordinary watch. It is obvious that, at our latitudes, the danger of inadvertently changing the meridian is small, while at very high latitudes, the danger is indeed great. For various degrees of latitude, the number of minutes corresponding to the lateral displacement of a nautical mile would, at 82°N, be 7 minutes; at 85°N, 11'; at 88°N, 28' and at 89°N, 57' of longitude is practically a degree (TH, p 36, see below our Bibliography). The uninformed reader should realise that at the Pole (at 90°N) one can go around the world (twice 180°) in a few seconds!

One can only be astonished (an understatement) by the fact that Peary declared during his hearing before this same Congressional Commission "that he considered that taking observations of longitude was a waste of time " (TH-HN, p 260, see below our Bibliography).
Fortunately for him, the National Geographic Society, after a superficial examination and biased in favour of the "evidence" provided by its protégé Peary, sanctioned him as conqueror of the Pole. The same thing occurred with the same result with another of the Society's protégés, Admiral Byrd, the "first", in 1926, to have flown over the North Pole. (DR, p 257 to 272 in a chapter entitled "Götterdämmerung", Twilight of the Gods, see below our Bibliography).

A possible scenario, but one which would have required iron discipline, as well as favourable conditions of sunlight, would have to have been the following. Leaving on a known meridian, it would have to have been possible to aim North by using a simple watch. The foregoing would have been more or less valid if there had not been the drift of the pack ice (at that time) several miles to the East, and, near the coast, to the West. The daily observed position (sun permitting), even by the meridian alone, could have specified and confirmed the estimated positions.

It should be said in passing, that the website indicates "Compass Unusable" for the zone in which Cook and Peary found themselves for their ski-treks towards the Pole, and even more so as the Magnetic Pole at that time was 10° further to the East. In a more extended zone, including the regions as far as Hudson Bay and the entire North of Greenland, the website stipulates: "Compass Erratic"; data of which Cook and Peary were apparently unaware. Cook based his position on the fact that, setting out from the meridian of the Magnetic Pole, it was normal for his compass to point to the South all the time. Finally, nocturnal observation of the Pole Star was of course impossible during the permanent daylight period.
The defined course of Peary's ski-trek is most disquieting from this point of view. That on such a long route, with the drift of the pack ice and the obligation at times to make major detours (because of hummocks and leads), the outward and the return journey should be completely "rectilinear" appears more than surprising.


Peary regarded the North Pole as his personal mission, and to think that somebody, who furthermore had been under his orders, could undertake and succeed in an expedition on what, for him, was his prerogative or even his private property, was more than he could bear.

From the books quoted further on, one can deduce from the facts and from his statements, or in any case one forms the impression, that Peary was an arrogant, cynical human being, full of self-importance, and fundamentally without scruples. Whereas Cook appeared very simple, not concerned with money, but propelled by his passion for his subject : the Polar Regions and their inhabitants.

Both presented photographs taken in studios or faked (Cook: the Peak of Mount McKinley). Both discovered a non-existent land in the middle of the Arctic Ocean (Crocker for Peary; Bradley for Cook). Peary described a non-existent strait. Peary had confiscated the Inuit meteorites that he brought back from Cape York, and then sold them for $40,000 (now approximately $800,000). Cook apparently tried to publish a dictionary of a South American dialect in his own name whereas it had been compiled and written by Tierra del Fuego missionaries.
Of course, none of this constitutes good character references. But what concerns us is the initial question: which of them, if either, got to the Pole ?

Peary's fatal mistake was to have attacked Cook, without beating about the bush, from the very first news of his success. The friends and supporters of the one or the other have, from that moment and in the manner of detectives, scrutinised the details of the explorer's life and the private lives of Cook and Peary. The steps taken to tarnish Cook's reputation took twists and turns worthy of a whodunit. Witnesses (false) were bought, etc.
In spite of the sympathy which one might have for Cook as a human being, one can only deplore the internal inconsistencies of his notes and the poverty of the data relating to the manner that he had to taken his position. Which does not, reasonably, enable us to believe that he could have reached the Pole, unless by chance, which would be illusory. The aberrant speeds allegedly achieved by Peary both in 1909 as well as in 1906 make his stories unbelievable. Especially as each time he had only the Eskimos and Henson with him. Peary could not have reached the Pole.
Sir Wally Herbert wrote in the same letter: "I could of course go on and on. But what's the point. No one will listen if they don't want to hear, and for every single polar traveller who really knows what he is talking about there are always a hundred more armchair-explorers who are prepared to write what the public wants to hear and to perpetuate the myths".

The material is so abundant and the information so often contradictory that the temptation that has to be resisted is to make a synopsis of the opinions, rather than to try to form one of ones own.
To conclude, the 10,000 or 20,000 items of information found only in the works of the short bibliography below, which are impossible to summarise, do not offer the certainty that the one - Cook- or the other - Peary- (or both) reached the North Pole. This certainty indeed appears to be a matter of faith. The only winners of this controversy were the organs of the press, which, by reporting its interminable episodes, often threw oil on the fire for the sole purpose of providing copy.
Without being biased, if it is easy to prove that Peary did not reach the North Pole, on the other hand, nobody can prove that Cook, for his part, did.


(Preceded by the shortened reference)

(RB) : Bryce, Robert M., Cook & Peary, The Polar Controversy, Resolved. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.
(FC) : Cook, Frederick A., My Attainment of the Pole. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001
(JG) : Goodsell, J. W., On Polar Trails. Austin, Texas: Eakin Publishers, 1983.
(TH) : Hall, Thomas F., Has the North Pole Been Discovered ?. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1917.
(GH) : Hayes, Gordon J., Robert Edwin Peary. London: Grant Richards & Humphrey Toulmin, 1929.
(WH) : Herbert, Wally, The Noose of Laurels. London: Hodder& Stoughton, 1989.
(JM) : Malaurie, Jean, Ultima Thulé. Paris: Editions du Chêne, 2000
(FN) : Nansen, Fridtjof, Vers le pôle. Paris: Flammarion,
(RP) : Peary, Robert E., The North Pole. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.
(DR) : Rawlins, Dennis, Peary at the North Pole: Fact or Fiction ? Washington-New York: Robert B. Luce,1973.


About the author of this story

Jacques TJacques Theodor, who was born in 1926, initially pursued a career in the textile industry, then in electronics; then in public works, then deep-sea filming (cameraman; director) before belatedly (when 37 years old) deciding on a career in biological research.

A researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre in comparative immunology and later in pharmacology, he then concentrated on scientific methodology.

In parallel he was always, if not a sportsman within the usual meaning of the word, nevertheless a great adventure enthusiast. A speleologist when 11 years old, he made this his favourite pastime. Meanwhile, he moved to underground diving (1948) then to deep-sea diving.

In 1950, he won the bronze medal in the national (B) pentathlon championships. In 1953, he broke the world record for underground depth (Pierre Saint Martin abyss).

His competence in polar matters is modest. Nevertheless, he made a 2,300-km journey by sledge, including 600km with an Inuit group on the Baffin Island pack ice, also 5,000 to 6,000km of Nordic skiing, including the last degree towards the North Pole (1997). Which has enabled him to separate the wheat from the chaff in the accounts of the two rivals and their historians.