Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who reached the North Pole first?


Robert Peary's claim to be the first to reach the North Pole, 100 years ago today, has been hotly disputed ever since. We look at why the row continues, and a modern polar explorer recalls following in Peary's footsteps.

Antarctic history is peopled by true heroes: Amundsen, Shackleton and the tragic Robert Falcon Scott, who experienced one of the greatest disappointments in the annals of exploration when he reached the South Pole in 1912 to find the Norwegian flag flying there. The race to the High Arctic, by contrast, is tainted with friction, argument and accusations of barefaced lying. That many cannot name the explorer who first stood on the world's northern extremity is because the dispute over who it was has never been settled.

A century ago, on April 6, 1909, Commander Robert Edwin Peary, a civil engineer in the US Navy, claimed to have completed the journey in just 53 days - a speed that many believed to be impossible for any man, let alone one who had lost eight of his toes to frostbite on previous expeditions. For that reason, many polar historians believe that the first man to reach the pole on foot was a Yorkshireman: Sir Wally Herbert traversed the Arctic all the way from Alaska to Spitzbergen via the pole 60 years after Peary, in a trip that also proved controversial.

Neither man lacked determination. The polar historian Fergus Fleming describes Peary as “undoubtedly the most driven, possibly the most successful and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration”.
Robert Peary's Sledge Party Posing with Flags at the North Pole
Ooqueh, holding the Navy League flag; Ootah, holding the D.K.E. fraternity flag; Matthew Henson, holding the polar flag; Egingwah, holding the D.A.R. peace flag; and Seeglo, holding the Red Cross flag. (April 7, 1920).

But who really discovered the North Pole ?
On September 7, 1909, readers of the New York Times awakened to a stunning front-page headline: "Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years." The North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations had suffered and died for 300 years. And here was the American explorer Robert E. Peary sending word from Indian Harbour, Labrador, that he had reached the pole in April 1909, one hundred years ago this month. The Times story alone would have been astounding. But it wasn't alone.

A week earlier, the New York Herald had printed its own front-page headline: "The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook." Cook, an American explorer who had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.
Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both claimed they discovered the North Pole.
Anyone who read the two headlines would know that the North Pole could be "discovered" only once. The question then was: Who had done it?

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