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Arctic Snow Job
By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, March 2 1997; Page X09
The Washington Post


The Polar Controversy, Resolved

By Robert M. Bryce

Stackpole. 1133 pp. $50

HERE IS a prodigious attempt to settle one of the century's most intriguing squabbles: that between American explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook (and their respective supporters) over which, if either, of them first stood at the North Pole. The stakes included fame and fortune: In the 1910s, as now, participants in sensational events could rake in handsome sums for writing and lecturing on what they'd seen and done. The North Pole, though, is a queasy place. It doesn't exist in the same way as the South Pole, which is a fixed point on dry (if frozen) land. The North Pole is covered by shifting ice, so that a cairn or flag left there is bound to have migrated by the time someone else comes along to check an explorer's claim. More than perhaps any other place on earth, the North Pole depends on the probity of its visitors. Also at stake, then, was a nation's faith in the honor of courageous men. Robert Bryce leaves no doubt on that last score. Peary may have been a spoiled, insecure New England aristocrat who invariably slighted the help he got from Eskimos and his African-American aide, Matthew Henson, but he trekked onward despite being in the early stages of the pernicious anemia that eventually killed him. And the great irony about Cook, less polished than Peary but more of a mensch, is that his most fought-over journeys contain little-known, undisputed segments that would do any explorer proud. The two men first met as colleagues. Cook, a Brooklyn-born physician of German ancestry, signed on as surgeon for Peary's 1891-92 expedition to scout the north coast of Greenland. For Peary, this turned out to be a solid success: He seemed on his way to achieving the glory he sought with a red-hot passion. For Cook, it was a chance to soak up expeditionary know-how, to learn from the Eskimos, and to test himself. He proved to have two remarkable gifts: for ad-libbing solutions to the physical problems (e.g., equipment failures) that bedevil expeditions and for comfortably inhabiting his own mind during the oppressive months of Arctic darkness. That first expedition ended with Cook hooked on exploring. He mounted his own trip north in 1894, but it was an undercapitalized fiasco. His next foray took him south, as surgeon to the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99, where he made a lifelong friend of a promising colleague named Roald Amundsen. At century's end, Cook was famous: He had become, in Bryce's words, "the only man ever to winter within the polar circle of both hemispheres . . . " At the same time, Peary kept trying for, but making little headway toward, the Pole. Cook and Peary encountered each other again in 1901, when Cook joined a relief expedition for a Peary venture that had stalled in Greenland. At this point they were still on good terms, and for the next several years Cook stayed off the Arctic board, caught up in a campaign to be the first man atop Alaska's Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. After failing once, Cook made it in 1906 -- or so he said, and his climbing partner, Edward Barrill, backed him up. Although it took several years to ripen, the first controversy of Cook's career stemmed from this expedition. He was accused of passing off a photo of Barrill holding a flag on a lesser peak as a shot taken at the summit -- a fraud meant to conceal another failure. Soon afterwards, both Cook and Peary claimed to have reached the Pole (in 1908 and 1909, respectively), each at the head of his own expedition, conveniently accompanied only by underlings who, in the belief system of the time, could not testify credibly against their superior: Eskimos in Cook's case, Henson in Peary's. As a bemused Cook supporter observed on hearing the news about Peary, "That is truly extraordinary if it is really true. That the pole should be twice discovered in that short space after all these years of failure on failure is most remarkable." Then, putting the best face on it, he added, "It is what I had been hoping earnestly for . . . [Now] they [can] corroborate each other; Cook's story [can] be verified by Peary's . . . " No such thing. Instead of hammering out a joint vindication, the explorers turned on each other. Peary supporters persuaded Barrill to renege. He and Cook got nowhere near the top of McKinley, he now swore, and the entry to the contrary in Barrill's diary had been dictated by Cook. A man who would lie about climbing a mountain, it was said, could hardly be trusted when it came to a pole. But now the great irony of Peary's career kicked in. His onslaughts against Cook unwittingly called attention to the creaky joints of his own account -- especially the paltry navigational data in support of an almost supernaturally rapid dash to the Pole and back. The debate over who discovered the North Pole became a national fixation, further intensified by events down under: In 1912 Amundsen, a Norwegian, won the race to the South Pole, beating the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, who got there five weeks late and then perished in an Antarctic blizzard. BRYCE, who is a research librarian at Montgomery College, has mastered a staggering amount of material. Drawing on several recent books and articles about Peary, he dismisses that explorer's claim relatively quickly. In a rare sally, Bryce scoffs at the National Geographic Society's 1990 announcement that it had resolved the controversy once and for all in Peary's favor: "It was a decidedly unilateral declaration." Instead Bryce dwells on Cook, whose character clearly fascinates him. Late in his career, Cook was convicted of mail fraud in connection with a Texas oil well scheme, and served time in jail. But rather than lazily assume that one swindle proves two others, Bryce has pored over every page of the record, from the first Greenland trek to the last day in the Texas courtroom. In this he has been helped by the human propensity to play magpie. Cook's last lineal descendant died in 1989, leaving her forebear's papers to the Library of Congress. "They were to reveal," Bryce writes, "far more than anyone expected of them." What they showed, in essence, was that Cook had indeed faked his triumphs: cropping photographs, publishing accounts that varied markedly from his field notes, leaving telltale erasures and inconsistencies in the notebooks themselves. After all this time, Cook has been damned, in effect, out of his own mouth. What will always remain a mystery is how he -- and Peary, for that matter -- justified his lies to himself. (Perhaps such a deception builds upon the horrendous conditions in the far north, the explorers' heroic work, and fate's cruelty in keeping them from reaching their goal; given those conditions, the urge to claim as true what ought to have been true may be irresistible.) Since Richard Byrd's claim to have flown over the North Pole by plane has been largely discredited, all of this seems to leave Amundsen, who swung by in a dirigible in 1926, as a polar champion twice over. Its immense length aside, Cook & Peary is a demanding book. Bryce has made what seems to me a strategic mistake: laying out the facts with next to no comment in Part One and interpreting them in Part Two. This division burdens the reader with too many pedestrian pages to labor through before being rewarded with the author's densely reasoned conclusions. And even in Part Two Bryce's style fails to evoke the drama called for by the material. Still, exploration buffs and students of popular culture will find Cook & Peary riveting, and if the controversy has not come to an end it has at least been raised to a new level of formidable research and exactitude. Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor. He won the 1996 National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing.

@CAPTION: Map drawn by Cook (left) and map of Peary's route. Drawing of Cook (top) and a photograph of Peary (c) Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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