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November 26, 1998

Author Says Picture Confirms Mt. McKinley Hoax

  • Original Photo and Map

    NEW YORK -- In 1906 Dr. Frederick A. Cook took a photograph that made him famous and ultimately became perhaps the most controversial picture in the history of exploration. Now a historian has found the original, uncropped version of the picture, and it does not look good for Cook.

    A cropped version, captioned "The Top of Our Continent," was published in 1908 with Cook's account of how he had braved avalanches and ice cliffs to make the first ascent of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Cook described himself and his companion, Edward Barrill, as "near the limit of human endurance" -- exhausted, freezing, gasping for oxygen -- when they reached the Alaskan summit at 20,320 feet above sea level.

    "At last!" Cook wrote. "The soul-stirring task was crowned with victory. The top of the continent was under our feet." After describing the vista of clouds and peaks spread out below, he exulted in the "most impressive" memory taken from the peak: "the final picture which I took of Barrille" -- as Cook misspelled the name -- "with the flag lashed to his ax, as the Arctic air froze the impression into a relief which no words can tell."

    Robert M. Bryce has two words for that image, and they are Fake Peak. Bryce, the author of the most exhaustive study of Cook's career, has analyzed a newly discovered print made from Cook's negative showing geographical features in the background that were cropped when Cook published the photograph. Bryce concludes that the photograph was taken on a small promontory 15,000 feet below the McKinley summit, at barely 5,000 feet above sea level, about the altitude of Denver.

    This finding confirms the suspicions of Cook's critics, who long ago accused him of faking the McKinley summit picture and identified the site known as Fake Peak. But there were so few details visible in the picture published by Cook that it was difficult to determine exactly where it was taken until Bryce found the full print.

    "I don't think Cook ever had any intention of going to the summit," Bryce said. "From all the evidence, it looks as if Cook didn't go any higher than 5,000 feet on this McKinley trip. He apparently spotted this feature that he thought he could pass off as the summit, and it was easy to stage the photograph because Barrill had to climb only a few hundred feet above the glacier floor."

    Bryce found the photograph in papers of Cook that were donated recently to the polar archives at Ohio State University. Bryce, the author of a 1997 book, "Cook and Peary," a 1,100-page account of Cook's rivalry with Robert E. Peary, published his analysis of the photograph in the current issue of DIO, a journal devoted to the history of science and exploration.

    "People have been arguing about Cook on McKinley for 90 years," said Dennis Rawlins, the journal's publisher and a historian of the Arctic. "This is the single biggest find, because it proves positively from Cook's own camera that he was lying."

    The controversy has endured because it was the McKinley claim that made Cook's reputation and eventually ruined his name during his fight with Robert Peary. Cook's apparent success on McKinley promptly won him support for an expedition to the North Pole, from which he returned triumphantly in 1909.

    More than 100,000 people turned out in Brooklyn for a parade welcoming him home. Icicles dripped from a huge triumphal arch above Bushwick Avenue adorned with a sign, "We believe in you." Cook had been accused of faking his North Pole trip by Robert Peary, who had also just returned with his own claim on the Pole, but the public was on Cook's side.

    He was seen as the romantic underdog, a charming Brooklynite who had climbed McKinley and reached the pole largely on his own. Peary was the establishment figure, a dour man backed by Manhattan millionaires and the National Geographic Society, who had relied on an army of Inuits for his Arctic exploration.

    But the Peary forces won the public-relations war by tracking down rumors about the McKinley climb. The New York Globe & Commercial Advertiser, whose publisher was the president of the club of Peary patrons, published an affidavit from Barrill explaining the photo hoax and declaring that he and Cook had never climbed McKinley.

    "Smashed is Dr. Cook," declared The Globe. "The similarities between the Mount McKinley hoax and the North Pole hoax are readily discernible." The New York Times, which had sponsored Peary's expedition, joined in the attack on Cook. The news caused The New York Herald, which had sponsored Cook's expedition, to mute its support for the doctor, and Peary was generally acknowledged as the only one to reach the North Pole.

    Today most historians believe that both explorers were lying. Peary is thought to have gotten closer to the pole, but not all the way. Cook is generally thought to have reached neither the pole nor the McKinley summit.

    Explorers have known about Fake Peak since 1910, when an expedition found it by following Barrill's directions. But because it has been impossible to duplicate Cook's photograph precisely, due to changed snow conditions and an earthquake that dislodged some rocks from the promontory, Cook's defenders continued to maintain that it was not the same place photographed by the doctor.

    The Cook photograph uncovered by Bryce reveals new background details that precisely match those at the site of Fake Peak, such as a nearby cliff and a distant peak, Mount Grosvenor. Now even Cook's supporters acknowledge that the doctor might not have been telling the truth, although they are still not ready to abandon him.

    "There's fairly strong evidence that the photograph wasn't taken at the summit," said Ted Heckathorn, a member of the Cook Society, a group with headquarters in Sullivan County, N.Y., that is dedicated to defending the explorer's reputation. "But even if it wasn't, that doesn't prove he couldn't have climbed to the summit anyway."

    Few historians or explorers share that view. "Cook's account of his climb is utterly ridiculous," said Bradford Washburn, the retired director of the Boston Science Museum, who has mapped Mount McKinley and climbed it three times, and has published an analysis of Cook's diary and photographs. "The tragedy is that he would have been remembered as a good explorer if he'd just truthfully reported what he accomplished near McKinley. But the Devil took him up on to a mount, and the doctor listened."

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