Monday, April 6, 2009

The Pole at last!!!

‘The Pole at last!!! The dream prize of 3 centuries, my dream & ambition for 23 yeas.’ So wrote Robert E Peary, an officer in the US Navy and one of the great arctic explorers, in his diary exactly 100 years ago today. His claim, though, of being the first to reach the North Pole has been the source of considerable controversy.

Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, in 1856 but lived in Maine following the death of his father. He studied engineering at Bowdoin College, and, after graduating in 1877, worked as a county surveyor for several years before being commissioned in the US Navy as a civil engineer. He was sent to Nicaragua to survey a ship canal, but his interests turned increasingly towards the Arctic.

In 1886, Peary, with his associate Matthew Henson, travelled inland from Disko Bay over the Greenland ice sheet for 100 miles; and in 1891 he returned with his wife (Jo) and several other companions, including Dr Frederick Cook. During this trip, he sledged over 1,000 miles to northeast Greenland, found evidence of Greenland’s island status, and studied the ways of an isolated Eskimo tribe, which helped him on subsequent expeditions. 

Three years later he made a first, but unsuccessful, attempt to reach the North Pole. Other trips to the Arctic followed, some to collect meteoric iron, some to reconnoitre a route to the Pole, and, in 1905, another unsuccessful attempt on the Pole itself (using, for the first time, the Roosevelt, a ship constructed to his specifications).

Then, in 1908, Peary launched a third attempt. He wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island. Early in March 1909, he set off from Cape Columbia with 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs northward. During the final stage of the trek, he was accompanied only by Henson and four Eskimo companions. On 6 April, exactly 100 years ago today, he claimed to have reached the Pole for the first time in man’s history.

Peary’s diary, which has been transcribed and made available online by Douglas R Davies, a navigation researcher, reads as follows: ‘The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream & ambition for 23 yeas. Mine at last. I cannot bring myself to realize it. It is all all seems so simple & common place, as Bartlett said ‘just like every day.’ I wish Jo could be here with me to share my feelings. I have drunk her health & that of the kids from the Benedictine flask she sent me.’

(In his book The North Pole, which has an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt and is freely available online at Internet Archive, Peary uses this same quote from his diary but without the exclamation marks or the spelling mistake!)

The New York Times put the story on its front page, and quoted a cable it had received from Peary: ‘I have the pole, April sixth. Expect arrive Chateau Bay, September seventh. Secure control wire for me there and arrange expedite transmission big story.’ But the newspaper also referred to a claim that had been made by Peary’s ex-companion Dr Frederick Cook that, in fact, he had reached ‘the top of the world’ earlier - a claim that undermined Peary’s achievement at the time, but which was later proved false.

Cook’s unfortunate deception apart, Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole has been subject to much critical analysis, and remains controversial to this day. One weakness of Peary’s assertion arises from the fact that the final party of six did not include anyone trained in navigation, and another stems from inconsistencies about the speeds Peary appeared to have achieved. Wikipedia gives a summary of the ongoing controversies, while Davies’ website, which is devoted to Peary, has a lengthy essay titled The Peary Controversy - Origins and Recent Developments.

Wikipedia also summarises an article by Larry Schweikart in The Historian which looks at the evidence provided by Peary’s diary (not opened to the public until 1986). Schweikart reported ‘that the writing was consistent throughout (giving no evidence of post-expedition alteration); that there were consistent pemican and other stains on all pages; and that all evidence pointed to the fact that Peary’s observations were made on the spot he claimed.’

Here is more from Peary’s diary (thanks to Davies’ website) from the day before he reached the Pole.

Monday 5 April
‘Over the 89th!! Started early last evening. The march a duplicate of previous one as to weather & going. temp at starting -35˚. Sledges appeared to haul a little easier, dog on trot much of the time. Last two hours on young ice of a north & south lead they were often galloping. 10 hours. 25 miles or more. Great.

A 50 yd lead open when I reached it moved enough by time sledges came up to let us cross. Still this biting cold, the face burning for hours. (like the Inland Ice),

The natives complain of it & at every camp are fixing fixing their clothes about the face, waist, knees & wrist. They complain of their noses, which I never knew them to do before. it is keen & bitter as frozen steel. Light air from S during first of march, veering to E & freshening as we camp. Another dog expended here. Tomorrow if ice & weather permit, I shall make a long march, ‘boil the kettle’ midway, & try to make up the 5 miles lost on the 3rd.

We have been very fortunate with the leads so far, but I am in constant & increasing dread of encountering an uncrossable one. Six weeks today since I left the Roosevelt.’

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