- Historic Sites
Peary Or Cook: Who Discovered The North Pole?
Almost simultaneously two men claimed to have attained a goal that explorers had striven toward for centuries. There were strong hints that one of them was an impostor
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Peary was fully aware of the dangers: wind would not only open “leads” of water in the fro/en sea; it usually meant bad weather. It also could indict acute distress on a traveler, hurling ice particles and snow against his flesh; under those conditions a man would often put his hand to his face and find blood.
Nevertheless, Peary ordered his men to dress—in the new furs especially prepared for the trip—and shortly after 6 A.M. the main party began the northward journey. Peary and his Eskimos were the last to leave.
Talking was futile: voices could not be heard over the roaring arctic wind. Still, traveling was fairly easy for the first quarter of a mile, until men and dogs plunged into ice so rough that Peary’s Eskimos were forced to chop a path with pickaxes, even though all other divisions of the main party had just preceded them through the same area.
One hour after Peary’s division had left camp the entire expedition was on the Arctic Ocean ice—24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs. When they left the shelter of land they felt the wind at its fullest intensity—and a temperature of fifty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Brandy in a bottle under Peary’s deerskin coal froze solid. The trail was visible, however, and with heads bowed and eyes half-closed the men followed it. Frequently they were forced to push the sledges over huge pressure ridges until their muscles ached and exhaustion seemed imminent. As Peary pushed forward, he met one Eskimo, then another, hurrying back to his base camp with empty sledges smashed so badly on the rough ice that it was considered easier to send back for replacements than to repair them. Peary admonished both Eskimos not to waste a moment.
Soon Peary came upon men who had been forced to halt to repair other sledges. Matthew Henson, his Negro assistant, had been especially plagued by this difficulty. Henson discovered that working on his sledge in the arctic weather was a dreadful experience, for part of the job required bare hands. When Henson felt his fingers beginning to freeze he pulled his hand up through the sleeve and held it in his armpit until a burning sensation told him his fingers were thawing. Then he resumed his work until he had to repeat the process a ICMV minutes later.
After a full day of such interruptions the main parly readied Bart let l’s first (amp. The men fed the dogs and retired Io their igloos for a supper of frozen pemmican and hot tea. Once inside, they discovered that their breath had condensed and frozen Io their fur hoods. Cheeks and noses had to be carefully thawed. The igloos were comparatively snug, but outside the wind continued to shriek over the dark, rugged ice.
The second day began cold and cloudy. The wind continued to blow furiously from the east. Hot tea lotbreakfast provided some cheer for the men, but the frozen pcmmican cut their mouths. At (6:30 A.M. Henson’s division departed, Peary’s group again leaving last. This was according to plan: from the rear he could determine whether the expedition was making normal progress, and he could watch for stragglers. Moreover, in this way he could also save himself for the final dash.
Three quarters of the second day’s march had been completed when Peary observed on the northern horizon a dark cloud—the kind which in that far northern latitude always means open water, for it is created by vapor rising from the warmer water into a frigid atmosphere. As Peary approached, he could make out black s])ots on the ice: they were the men. dogs, and sledges of his various divisions. When he joined (hem he found a lane of open water about a quarter of a mile wide. The wind had been doing its mischief. Bart lett and Borup were not there. They had been able Io traverse the area before the lead appeared.
The Eskimos built four igloos, one for each division, and Peary settled down to a restless sleep. When, he asked himself, would the lead close? Before daylight the next morning he had his answer. A frightful grinding noise told him that the lead was crushing together. He grabbed a hatchet and pounded the ice floor of his igloo, signaling division leaders in the other three snowhouses to get their men up at once. After bolting a meager breakfast they were out, at first daylight, hurrying sledges across the narrowing lead on young ice that was moving, crushing, and piling up. It was like crossing a river on a succession of giant shingles, all alloat and moving.
On the following day Peary observed, ten or filteen miles ahead, another ominous black band of vapor extending across his course. But the trail was easy to follow, and the main party made good progress.
Peary’s concern increased with each mile covered. The cloud on the northern horizon grew larger until it seemed almost overhead. At that point the main party came upon Barlett’s camp, near the edge of a wide lead. Borup, after dumping his supplies, had returned to the base camp but had lost the trail temporarily and thus had missed meeting Peary.
From an ice pinnacle Peary studied the lead. At least a quarter of a mile wide, it extended east and west as far as he could see. The next morning, March 5, Peary observed the lead narrowing somewhat. Then it opened wider than ever, leaving a ribbon of water in the center of the young ice that had begun forming. Two days passed. Three. Four. Five. Still the lead blocked advance. But finally, on March 11, the lead froze sufficiently to afford a crossing, and Peary rushed his men across.