November 26, 1998
Author Says Picture Confirms Mt. McKinley Hoax
Original Photo and Map
By JOHN TIERNEY
YORK -- In 1906 Dr. Frederick
A. Cook took a photograph that made him famous and ultimately became
the most controversial picture in the history of exploration. Now a
has found the original, uncropped version of the picture, and it does
look good for Cook.
A cropped version, captioned "The Top of Our Continent,"
in 1908 with Cook's account of how he had braved avalanches and ice
to make the first ascent of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North
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
The top of the continent was under our feet." After describing the
of clouds and peaks spread out below, he exulted in the "most
memory taken from the peak: "the final picture which I took of
-- as Cook misspelled the name -- "with the flag lashed to his ax, as
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
Bryce, the author of the most exhaustive study of Cook's career, has
a newly discovered print made from Cook's negative showing geographical
features in the background that were cropped when Cook published the
Bryce concludes that the photograph was taken on a small promontory
feet below the McKinley summit, at barely 5,000 feet above sea level,
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
known as Fake Peak. But there were so few details visible in the
published by Cook that it was difficult to determine exactly where it
taken until Bryce found the full print.
"I don't think Cook ever had any intention of going to the
Bryce said. "From all the evidence, it looks as if Cook didn't go any
than 5,000 feet on this McKinley trip. He apparently spotted this
that he thought he could pass off as the summit, and it was easy to
the photograph because Barrill had to climb only a few hundred feet
the glacier floor."
Bryce found the photograph in papers of Cook that were
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
Robert E. Peary, published his analysis of the photograph in the
issue of DIO, a journal devoted to the history of science and
"People have been arguing about Cook on McKinley for 90
Dennis Rawlins, the journal's publisher and a historian of the Arctic.
"This is the single biggest find, because it proves positively from
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
for an expedition to the North Pole, from which he returned
More than 100,000 people turned out in Brooklyn for a
him home. Icicles dripped from a huge triumphal arch above Bushwick
adorned with a sign, "We believe in you." Cook had been accused of
his North Pole trip by Robert Peary, who had also just returned with
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
National Geographic Society, who had relied on an army of Inuits for
But the Peary forces won the public-relations war by
tracking down rumors
about the McKinley climb. The New York Globe & Commercial
whose publisher was the president of the club of Peary patrons,
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
the Mount McKinley hoax and the North Pole hoax are readily
The New York Times, which had sponsored Peary's expedition, joined in
attack on Cook. The news caused The New York Herald, which had
Cook's expedition, to mute its support for the doctor, and Peary was
acknowledged as the only one to reach the North Pole.
Today most historians believe that both explorers were
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
Explorers have known about Fake Peak since 1910, when an
found it by following Barrill's directions. But because it has been
to duplicate Cook's photograph precisely, due to changed snow
and an earthquake that dislodged some rocks from the promontory, Cook's
defenders continued to maintain that it was not the same place
by the doctor.
The Cook photograph uncovered by Bryce reveals new
that precisely match those at the site of Fake Peak, such as a nearby
and a distant peak, Mount Grosvenor. Now even Cook's supporters
that the doctor might not have been telling the truth, although they
still not ready to abandon him.
"There's fairly strong evidence that the photograph wasn't
the summit," said Ted Heckathorn, a member of the Cook Society, a group
with headquarters in Sullivan County, N.Y., that is dedicated to
the explorer's reputation. "But even if it wasn't, that doesn't prove
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
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
"The tragedy is that he would have been remembered as a good explorer
he'd just truthfully reported what he accomplished near McKinley. But
Devil took him up on to a mount, and the doctor listened."