Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Two men claimed to be the first to the north pole. One man claimed to be the first to fly over. All three were lying. Hear the bizarre story of who truly reached the north pole first.
How to find north:
Nat Geo on Peary:
Biography on Byrd
Most world firsts only happen once. It’s right there in the word—First. But not the attainment of the north pole. The north pole has been reached for the “first time” at least four times. My name is Peter McGuire and this is my unlikely explanation.
It’s worth pointing out upfront that what I’m going to talk about isn’t universally agreed upon, especially in general reference material. I think there’s enough evidence to say that Cook, Peary and Byrd all lied about reaching the north pole, but all of them still have supporters today. When I google “who was the first to the north pole,” in bit letters at the top it says the answer is Robert Peary and most of the first ten articles that come up support either Cook or Peary’s claim, usually with the caveat that both were called into question.
For my answer, my main source is David Roberts and his excellent book “Great Exploration Hoaxes”. It’s a fascinating history about a subject I never thought I would be this passionate about. He is a climber and mountaineer as well as a former professor of literature and a well-published author. If you want to know more about the research he did, he goes into great detail about the original sources he’s working from and his firsthand knowledge of the navigating. My intention with this podcast is to tell this story in a way that is more accessible to the layman, and lay out the evidence as clearly and as entertainingly as I can.
At the heart of the north pole controversy lies a logical fallacy that we are all prone to, which is the either-or fallacy. When we are presented with two options we usually assume that one is superior to the other and don’t consider that there could be other possibilities. In this case we’re presented with two renowned explorers: Cook and Peary. They announced their claims around the same time and both were squirrelly about providing proof. They were rivals and they worked to discredit each other in newspapers, magazines, geographic society meetings and even congressional bills. Camps formed around each of them more based on their personal charisma and PR effectiveness than any meaningful proof. When we investigate the question, it’s virtually impossible to separate their stories.
And yet, there is another possibility. They both could be lying. Consider, there was a lot of prestige tied up in this and the clock was ticking. They both knew that someone would claim the north pole as their conquest, and it would happen soon. In the 20th century there were very few blanks left on the map. Their name would be attached to one of the last exploration firsts left. And doesn’t that make it all the more terrifying to lie about? These men didn’t just feel the weight of history, they were making their journeys specifically to make history. If they got away with it, they’d a hero to their nation. If they were found out they’d be remembered as a fraud. And they both wanted desperately to be remembered.
So let’s meet the contenders. First we have Dr. Frederick Cook. [audio clip]
Cook grew up in poverty. He lost his father at a young age. You get the sense that he was a loner. He had a lisp that’s often remarked on when people from the time write about him. He put himself through medical school and opened a private practice in Manhattan. It seems like he would have been happy living that life, but soon after establishing himself, he lost his wife and child in childbirth. Cook needed new meaning in his life, and he joined Robert Peary’s arctic expedition of 1891-92 as the surgeon. This means that Cook and Peary actually worked together before their feud. That’s part of what makes this story so great, how all the pieces connect. They investigated the northern reaches of Greenland together, both gaining experience with mountaineering and snow trekking and developing close contacts with the native greenlanders.
But to understand what happened with Cook at the north pole, we have to look at an earlier world’s first first. Cook would never have been believed if he hadn’t already established himself as an explorer. In 1906, two years before his north pole claim, Dr. Frederick Cook claimed to have climbed Mt. McKinley.
Mt. McKinley, is today called by its original name, Denali. It is the tallest mountain in North America and the third most isolated peak. It’s very remote, then as now. A major difficulty in climbing the mountain is simply getting to it. Cook led an expedition in 1903 where he circumnavigated it, noting which routes might bring him to the top, which is no mean feat in itself. A journalist on this expedition, Robert Dunn, published an account of the trip (with names changed for decency’s sake). In it, he describes his Cook stand-in, The Professor, as quote “dumb, with a bovine face…. He made desultory decisions, seemed indifferent, yet his confident, pompous solemnity killed criticism.” He notes that Cook had a very inexact way of determining his location, not a great characteristic in an explorer, and would often refuse to use his navigational instruments at all. This is a major blow to his north pole claim for reasons we’ll get into later. He returned to McKinley in 1906 with artist and adventurer Belmore Brown and Professor Herschel Parker. All three wanted badly to claim the mountain as their conquest. They made observations of the mountain and returned to the pacific coast late in the year. Against common sense, with winter looming, Cook announced that he would make one last scouting expedition that year and took with him only Montana blacksmith and horse-packer Edward Barrill. A month later they returned, claiming to have summited. Browne and Parker were immediately suspicious. They asked Barrill about it, who told them quote “I can tell you all about the big peaks south of the mountain, but if you want to know about Mount McKinley, go and ask Cook”
David Roberts writes that you can pinpoint the exact moment in his log when Cook starts to lie. The two men made it to a height of five thousand feet on Ruth glacier, a demanding climb which leads to a glacial corridor with unforgiving granite cliffs. Suddenly the narrative shifts from clarity to what Roberts calls “melodramatic and vague” writing. Facing a difficult route that still to this day has not been climbed, Cook writes that quote “rising from ridge to ridge and from cornice to cornice we finally burst through the gloomy mist on to a bright snowfield.” For the next four days they battled the weather and altitude until they reached the summit, where they left a flag in a metal tube to mark their arrival. The return is covered in one sentence, quote “The descent was less difficult, but it took us four days to tumble down to our base camp.”
This leads us to the question: how do we prove or disprove an explorer’s word. These sorts of expeditions don’t lend themselves to conclusive physical evidence. There’s nothing identifying that you can take from a location and even if you leave something behind it can blow away or be hidden by snow long before another explorer can confirm its existence. Lack of evidence doesn’t prove or disprove anything. There are many in the mountaineering community who fully believe in the honor system, that a climber must be taken at his word. But if we do have grave suspicions, what evidence can we work off of? Basically, we have the documents from the journey: the map, descriptions, and celestial and solar observations that are taken along the trek. Ideally these will take the form of the original notebook that went on the journey and not a second log which can be calculated out after the fact. But Cook gave us one better: he took several photographs along the way, and one of the summit. Photography was still a new technology and many were happy to see the exploration community taking to it.
Taking these photographs, it turned out, was one of the biggest mistakes of Cook’s life.
Reaching the north pole is very different from climbing a mountain or even getting to the south pole. When you climb a mountain, you pretty much find the highest possible point around and stand on it. It’s generally easy for mountaineers to agree where the summit of a mountain is. The south pole is in the middle of Antarctica, which while being very cold and remote has certain advantages in that it’s land. The north pole, on the other hand, is in the middle of a sea, albeit a sea that you can walk on for the most part. But being unmoored from land means that the ice is always moving which causes several problems. When Peary’s trek was recreated in 2005 they found they were losing 7 miles a day to southerly drift. So they were on a treadmill that was constantly pushing against them. The ice also drifts in a circular motion which makes it all but impossible to approach the pole in a straight line. The features of this landscape are constantly shifting, making it completely impossible to create useful maps. Frequently cracks open up between sheets of sea ice which creates expanses of open water that force explorers to either retrace their steps or wait for their sheet to crash back into another. When ice sheets do collide, they crumple up and create tall walls of ice to block the way. Cook described it this way:
Worse still, you can’t use a compass to find the poles. In 1903, Roald Amundsen discovered that the magnetic north pole was way down around 70 degrees north on Somerset island, in Canada, nowhere near the 90 degrees of the geographic pole. To find geographic north, you have to take solar and/or celestial readings to determine your latitude. When you reach 90 degrees, you’re there. In 1908 this required specialized tools and knowledge, and meticulous notes.
How do you get to the north pole, then? The first and most obvious approach would be to sail there. In 1879 the Jeannette ran into the solid ice traveling north from the Barents Sea north of Finland. The ship was abandoned after being caught in the ice, but three years later, parts of it showed up on the southwest side of Greenland, which would be the far side from where it was stuck. So, knowing that the ice had this incredible drift, the crew of The Fram intentionally stuck their ship in ice and waited. Eventually it stopped moving north and started moving south, so they abandoned it and set out on skis. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to reach the pole by about 4 degrees.
The next method would be to fly there. But in the first decade of the 1900’s planes weren’t up to the task yet. You could take a balloon, but unfortunately ice accumulation would quickly take it down.
So, explorers realized that they would need to use the methods that had been developed over millennia by the people who lived in these extreme arctic conditions. These white explorers learned the necessary skills from people they would never credit or acknowledge because they considered them their inferiors.
Now let’s meet our other contender. Robert Peary. [clip] Like Cook, Peary lost his father at a young age. He studied civil engineering in Maine and soon found work in the US Navy. After participating in a survey for the proposed Nicaragua Canal (which was later abandoned for one in Panama), and he wrote an important paper on methods for crossing Greenland’s ice cap. That same year, eighteen eighty six, he took a leave of absence from the Navy and mounted his first arctic expedition. Five years later he mounted a larger expedition to determine if Greenland’s landmass continued up to the north pole. This was the expedition where he hired Cook as surgeon. On this trip he honed his methods for leaving caches, building igloos and wearing furs. He discovered that Greenland was in fact an island. There would be no land route to the pole. He launched two more expeditions in the following years and each one set new records for the furthest north man had traveled and set the world record for speed over ice. At this point he had the techniques, the knowledge and the experience to make his great assault on the north pole. But he had problems too: he was 52 and had lost all but two toes to frostbite. He couldn’t keep going much longer. The nineteen oh eight expedition was to be his last.
This expedition wintered on Ellesmere island and he set out for the pole on February 28th of nineteen oh nine. Along on the journey were Robert Bartlet, a Newfoundlander and expert sledger, and Matthew Henson, a son of sharecroppers from Maryland, a rare African-American explorer. Here’s how Peary describes his expedition:
The group sledged an average of nine and a half miles a day but faced many delays including a five day wait at an open lead, a span of open water separating ice sheets. On April 1st they reached eighty seven degrees, forty six minutes north. At this point, Peary decided to reduce the size of the party by sending Bartlett south. It is unclear why he chose Henson over Bartlett for the final push, but it may have been precisely the same reason why most people would choose Bartlett. Bartlett could navigate while Henson could not.
According to Peary, it took five more days to reach eighty nine degrees, fifty seven minutes north. Their speed miraculously improved after parting ways with Bartlett and their daily distance traveled leapt from 9 ½ to 26 miles a day. Peary explains this as the natural consequence of fewer men tagging along. But even so, it’s a huge jump. And if you think that’s a big jump, just wait for the return trip. Even more incredibly, he’d found nearly a straight line to the pole. An analysis from nineteen seventy three found that, according to his notes, Peary somehow made a direct beeline to the pole with less than .6 degrees of variation. Even ships guided by GPS can’t do that today due to the drift of the current and ice. Somehow he achieved this incredible feat without keeping a record of the observations he would have needed to determine his longitude. On top of that, the entries for April 6 and 7 in his logs were inserted from a different source of paper. They are not stained with food and frost like the rest of the log is.
When asked by Henson if they were at the pole, Peary seemed surprised to find that they were in fact there. The two shook hands, planted 5 flags, lead cheers and deposited a glass bottle with their records. And then made their prodigious trip back south. He claimed that he returned an astounding 133 miles in just 2 days. This from Peary, who had set the world record for speed over an ice pack at 30 miles per day. Along the way, Henson notes that Peary seemed sullen and withdrawn, much to his dismay. Some have suggested that this might have been because Henson’s footprints were already on the spot that Peary had determined to be the true north pole. Maybe he’d been scooped by his own expedition. But It’s likely that his worries ran deeper than that. He could feel the weight of history upon the decision he’d just made:
Peary wired news of his attainment of the pole from Labrador on September 6th. The response he got could not have been worse. Cook had announced just five days earlier that he had already been to the pole. Even worse, Cook had allegedly reached the pole almost a year before Peary, in April of nineteen oh eight, before Peary had even set out. In contrast to Peary’s system of caches and subsidiary parties, Cook’s team was miniscule and poorly outfitted.
He apparently reached the pole in the spring of ‘08 and then survived the summer on the arctic Devon Island before returning the following spring.
It appears to be true that Cook survived north of the arctic circle for 14 months, living off the land, which is an incredible feat itself. But Cook claimed far more than that. He claimed the pole.
Both men were asked to produce proof, as you would expect. Cook’s logs were supposedly lost in Greenland because Peary refused to let them be transported on his SS Roosevelt. This is consistent with the narrative you often see around him. He is supposedly well-intentioned and somewhat innocent to the guile of others and constantly a victim of circumstance. He only presented a typewritten version of his notebooks, which the University of Copenhagen rejected that December. Soon after, the exploration community at large rejected the idea that Cook could have made such a journey without Peary’s system of caching. But the mortal blow to Cook’s claim would come from an unexpected source. Cook’s credibility, his climb of Mt. McKinley, came apart thanks to the work of a couple of his old friends
At first, the photos seemed convincing. After all, he was the first to climb the mountain, there was nothing to compare them too. In his summit photo, he does appear to be at the top of a peak. But in the corner of this “summit photo” (cropped from some publications of it) is a distant peak. This allows for a technique for finding the exact spot where a photo was taken by comparing the near and distant mountain features. But worse, there isn’t any peak nearby that would look that large from the summit of McKinley.
His two former companions from McKinley, Belmore Brown and Herschel Parker, smelled a rat as soon as Cook returned to civilization. They knew from their expeditions that the climb hadn’t taken nearly long enough to complete, quote “in the same way that any New Yorker would know that no man could walk from the brooklyn bridge to grant’s tomb in ten minutes”. For years, they harbored quiet suspicions but did not care to publicly embarrass Cook. They thought they could quietly confront him, but then he disappeared. When he returned two years later with his story about reaching the north pole, Browne and Parker decided it was time.
In 1910 they set out to summit Mt. McKinley. They failed in that endeavor but they did find the spot where Cook’s photo was taken. It was an underwhelming outcropping short of one of the hardest stretches of the mountain, right where Cook’s narrative changes to the vague wording. In retrospect, you really have to wonder what he was thinking. He must have known that eventually someone would reach the top of Denali again and discover that his photo didn’t match it. Maybe he didn’t realize how unforgiving the medium of photography could be. At any rate, Browne and Parker published their recreation of the summit photo and professional opinion rapidly turned against Cook. Cook insisted in many publications that this was a plot by Peary and the National Geographic to discredit him for his own fame, but at least within the community, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Although he retained a contingent of loyalists, and still does today, Cook hasn’t had widespread support of his claim since the first few months after his announcement, when he was acting magnanimous about Peary’s own expedition and Peary was vehemently denouncing him as a liar. The two would slug it out in public forums until Peary’s death in nineteen twenty, at which point his supporters happily took up the cause.
Eventually, Cook’s climbing companion, Barrill, signed an affidavit saying that he and Cook hadn’t come close to climbing mount mckinley. Cook strenuously tried to discredit him in the press but the jury was already in. Even the Inuits on the north pole expedition eventually turned on him. They alleged that they’d only traversed a few islands around nunavut, overwintered, and returned, never going north of land. Cook no longer had the clout to control the narrative.
The last word I’ve found on the matter of Cook’s north pole claim was published by Cambridge in 2014. They did a new analysis of his journals and found that he was verifiably well behind schedule before he even set out on the ice. There was no chance he could have made the pole that winter from his actual locations, he had too much ground to make up. And yet, the Frederick A. Cook Society maintains to this day an intricate website defending not only his polar expedition but also his McKinley climb. He himself continued to profess the truth of his claims until he died in nineteen forty, after a stay in prison for an unrelated fraud. According to his later contemporaries his repeated retellings of his conquests become hollow and pathetic.
For his part, Peary only shared his records with the National Geographic Society. Yes, that national geographic. This is where it gets a little weird because I tend to think of the National Geographic as a generally great and unbiased source. As recently as 2018, National Geographic has published work in support of the Peary expedition, albeit in a sneaky way. Their latest info gives the first to Matthew Henson or one of the inuits on the expedition, which is just a new way of saying that Peary’s expedition got there first.
Back in 1908, they convened a subcommittee to verify the navigational information in his logs and granted Peary their highest honor. In doing so, their credibility became inexorably linked to Peary’s. On this subcommittee were three personal friends of Peary’s. And by the way, the National Geographic Society had funded the expedition. To this day they have refused to allow anyone not already friendly to their organization view the books. Although several researchers have tried to explain the issues with the Peary expedition, none have accounted for the incredible speed or the angle of approach, although the men who recreated it in 2005 came away convinced of its veracity. In the public consciousness of the time, as soon as Cook was discredited, Peary emerged the victor by default.
This either/or fallacy still lies at the heart of the question. The majority of articles I can find note that both men’s claims have problems, but almost all are written with a clear preference for one candidate or the other. “Great Exploration Hoaxes” is one of very few collections that unequivocally states that neither man reached the pole. And it makes a couple of interesting observations. Typically these hoaxes are carried out by men who have suffered loss and see exploration as the only way to distinguish themselves. They start to see whatever they’re attempting as an all-or-nothing proposition, and failure becomes unthinkable. Often most of the journey is attempted earnestly and then, as a spur of the moment, the decision to lie is made. At this point things that were clear and specific in their logs become opaque and vague. The original sources become unavailable, the companions become enemies, and any hint of suspicion becomes heretical.
So if it wasn’t Cook and it wasn’t Peary, who did reach the north pole first? Well the next generally accepted claim belongs to Admiral Richard Byrd, the famous airman and darling of the national geographic society. It is generally accepted that he flew over the north pole in May of nineteen twenty six, just barely beating out Roald Amundsen’s dirigible flight a few days later. This flight made him an american hero and set him on a long career of distinguished flights and explorations. It’s also likely Admiral Richard Byrd never flew over the north pole.
Unlike Peary, Byrd’s expedition was at the beginning of his career, at least in the public eye. He grew up well off, in a preeminent family in Virginia and, spurred by his small stature, turned to sports to distinguish himself. At age twenty-three he shattered his right foot doing gymnastics and the next year he slipped aboard ship and broke it again. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and became an ensign but after just four years of service he was medically retired as a lieutenant for his foot injury. He went on to Capitol Hill where he became a lobbyist working to champion aviation. By age 38 he had fallen short of his own expectations.
On May 9, nineteen twenty six, he and Navy Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennet left from Spitsbergen, north of Norway, and returned fifteen hours and fifty-seven minutes later claiming to have flown over the north pole. It’s worth noting that Bennet was the pilot, Byrd the navigator. Byrd was immediately thrust into the public eye and became a national hero. As with Peary seventeen years before, the national geographic society convened a subcommittee and five days they affirmed that Byrd’s account was correct in every particular. He was given the key to New York City, enjoyed a ticker-tape parade down broadway, and received from President Coolidge the Hubbard Gold Medal, the National Geographic Society’s honor for great explorers, joining its earlier recipients, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen.
With the time and resources afforded by his newfound celebrity, he turned his attention towards completing a transatlantic flight. In May of nineteen twenty seven, Charles Lindbergh beat him to the punch but at the end of the following month, Byrd matched this feat with a three-man crew. Again Byrd was not the pilot but in this case he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Then, in 1928 he set up a base on the Ross Ice Shelf in antarctica which he called Little America. From here, he flew his plane, the Floyd Bennet, named for his old pilot who had died of pneumonia the previous year, over the south pole, becoming the first man to have flown over both poles. He was promoted to the rank of rear admiral by a special act of Congress that December which made him the youngest admiral in the history of the United States Navy. He was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in nineteen forty five. He later established Little America as the first permanent military base on Antarctica. He died of a heart ailment in his sleep at age 68. It was a distinguished life in the public eye, a life to be very proud of, and it all started with that flight over the north pole.
And yet, as with Peary, there was more to the story.
You see, Byrd had competition. Very serious competition. When he arrived in Spitzenberg, there was already an explorer there attempting a flyover of the north pole. And unfortunately for Byrd, he was the preeminent polar explorer of the age. It was Roald Amundsen and he was preparing to fly over the north pole in a dirigible called the Norge. Roald Amundsen was more than well suited to the task. Amundsen came from a maritime family in Norway. He attended school to be a doctor at his mother’s urging only to quit as soon as she died when he was 21. At that point he took to the sea. He was part of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition as first mate which was the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica. He noted that the crew would likely have died of scurvy if not for the hunting skills of their American doctor, anthropologist and photographer, a certain Doctor Frederick Cook.
In nineteen oh three, Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse Canada’s northwest passage. As of 2007 this is considered an open passage due to the melting of polar ice, but in nineteen oh three it was considered a historically impossible route. Amundsen finally proved that a skillful crew could make it without getting stuck in the ice. For this he was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal. In 1909 he got word that Cook or Peary had been the first to reach the north pole, so he set his sights on the south pole. For a number of complex reasons that I will untangle in another episode, by nineteen twelve, Amundsen returned home successful, a national hero, and Robert F. Scott, his brittish rival, had frozen to death in the ice and snow.
For the next several years, Amundsen worked towards finding a northeastern passage, north of Russia, before setting his sights again towards the north pole. First he tried using the natural rotation of the arctic sea ice to carry a ship over the north pole but was unsuccessful and went bankrupt in the attempt. He then turned to airplanes and across two harrowing flights that he was lucky to survive, Amundsen determined that no plane could reach the north pole on one tank of fuel and survive the harsh conditions. In order to be sturdy enough to survive the flight, it had to be too heavy to make the distance on one tank of fuel. So, he hit on another idea: a semi-rigid balloon, a dirigible. This seemed like the best of both worlds. He could carry more weight and could drift without spending fuel when the wind was right.
And then Byrd steamed into port. He had made his own tests in his tri-motor Fokker and had determined that by dropping three hundred gallons of fuel and taking off at midnight when the snow would be hard, he could just make it to the pole. It is unclear why Byrd thought an airplane could make the distance when Amundsen did not. We do know that he kept his calculations on the matter private. On May 9th at 12:37, two days before Amundsen was able to launch his dirigible the Norge, Byrd took off in his plane, the Josephine Ford. Byrd navigated while Floyd Bennet piloted. At 4:07 pm, they touched down. It had only been fifteen hours and thirty seven minutes and the right engine was leaking oil.
Before he left, Byrd told a norwegian journalist that he expected the flight to last twenty hours. Some have tried to explain away the fast flight time with a polar cyclone that could have provided a tailwind both on the way out and on the way back. Byrd wrote that when they reached to pole the wind “began to freshen and change direction”. However, weather data from that day suggests they were flying in a virtually “no-wind atmosphere”.
Then there’s the issue of the leaking engine. Any sane pilot would turn around as soon as they noticed the malfunction. Byrd reported that they had noticed it right over the pole. Could it be that they did turn around as soon as the malfunction began?
Then Bernt Balchen published his autobiography “Come North With Me” in 1958. Balchen had assisted in getting the plane ready for the north pole flight, went on the national tour with Byrd that followed, and eventually became his main pilot after Floyd Bennet’s early death. He was the chief pilot on the flight over the south pole. His friend, Dickie Byrd, as Admiral Byrd was affectionately called, had died the previous year, which emboldened him to share what he knew. He relayed that on flights that he piloted, Byrd hadn’t taken a single sextant reading, which meant that even the south pole flight could not be verified. Byrd liked to drink cognac in flight and after one flight had to be carried to his bunk, he was so insensible from drink.
He also wrote about the north pole flight. He had taken to making calculations on mileage and fuel consumption, which are crucial metrics when you’re trying to fly with just enough fuel. Byrd told him, with quote “eyes full of cold fire, ‘forget about that slide rule. From now on you stick to flying, I’ll do the figuring.” According to Balchen’s calculations based on their tests, Byrd and Bennet couldn’t have gotten closer to the pole than eighty eight degrees, fifteen minutes and thirty seconds. Furthermore, Floyd Bennet had confided in him near the end of his life that he didn’t believe that he or Byrd had flown over the north pole.
And then there’s Byrd’s data itself. Dennis Rawlins is a researcher who made his name debunking the Peary expedition in nineteen seventy three. In nineteen ninety six he wrote a book about his attempts to verify Byrd’s north pole flight. He found that the National Geographic study of Byrd’s data took place from June 23rd to June 28th and yet Byrd was given the Hubbard Medal on the 23rd. So the study happened after the medal was awarded, if it happened at all. He also found a letter from Byrd to the American Geographic Society (a different body from National Geographic) apologizing for the delay in supplying his navigational records because he had not yet quote “mathematically worked [them] out.” But what was there to work out? He would have needed to “work out” his figures in flight to tell where the north pole was. His private papers remain in the custody of his family in Boston. Even Byrd’s biographer was not given access when he wrote his official biography.
Biographies written by his contemporaries in Antarctica reveal a man obsessed with secrecy and loyalty. He would take crew members off on long walks to question them about their loyalty and insist that they report any sign of disloyalty in others directly to him. Despite his cheery public persona, most people who worked with him found him to be standoffish and intentionally opaque. What was the purpose of all this secrecy? Could this have been the result of a lifetime of maintaining a guilty conscience? Or perhaps a general insecurity about his place in America’s pantheon of explorers?
One of Byrd’s antarctic pilots wrote of him quote “He did not fly, he was flown, he did no navigating at all on any of my flights with him, nor, according to Balchen, did he do any on his transatlantic flight.” So what did Byrd do? Well, it appears he courted the press well and he cultivated powerful friendships. The plane he flew north, the Josephine Ford, was named for the daughter of his benefactor, the president of the Ford corporation. He kept his connections from his DC days and he delivered what the country wanted: prestige.
I will give the final word on this matter to Byrd, albeit via hearsay. Rawlins found a letter from another of Byrd’s antarctic pilots. In it he discusses a conversation he had with the then-president of the American Geographical Society who had confided in him quote “I managed to break down Dicky-Byrd[... and he confessed] that he had not reached the north pole, but had missed it by about 150 miles.” If this is true, then Byrd did something that Cook and Peary could not. He admitted his hoax, however privately.
Which brings us back to the original question. If not Cook, if not Peary, if not Byrd, who was the first person to reach the north pole? We must give that honor to Amundsen, who flew over it in his dirigible the Norge on May 12th of nineteen twenty six at 1:25 AM, three days after Byrd stole his glory. They made a small circle to ensure they’d passed over the pole, and landed on the other side of the world in Point Barrow, Alaska. It also made Amundsen the first person to have been to both poles. Two years later he went out of this world in a remarkably heroic and fitting way. He flew north to rescue a group of italians, men who had helped with his Norge flight, who had crashed their own dirigible in the arctic. He flew north and never returned. His plane has yet to be found. He is almost certainly still in that plane, somewhere at the bottom of the arctic sea. He died without knowing that he had achieved what Cook, Peary and Byrd could not.
Ah but I hear the purists among you saying “flying over doesn’t count.” That’s really a matter of opinion, but I’ll offer you a few options: the first people to stand on the pole were soviet scientists who landed near the north pole in 1948 and set up a camp to conduct experiments. In 1959 the USS Skate, an american submarine, surfaced at the pole, breaking through the ice above it, so they were on the surface of the earth at the pole and the first to reach it by water. The first undisputed attainment by land was that of Ralph Plaisted and his crew of three who traveled there by snowmobile in 1968. That’s right, because of Cook and Peary, the first land attainment probably happened six decades later than we previously thought. The following year, in 1969, Wally Herbert and his crew were the first to reach the pole by unpowered travel, using only feet and dogsleds, although they were aided by airdrops of supplies. You are welcome to take your pick of which of those is the realest attainment.
Now you know the shockingly complex answer to the question, who was the first person to reach the north pole? It makes you wonder what other world firsts are shrouded in politics and nationalism and makes you realize just how fragile our knowledge of the past is. Bodies like the National Geographic build their reputations through the reflected light of their champions. When explorers lie, it’s not just their reputation at stake but a whole network of reputations and societies and personal fortunes. Even a century later, there are political and professional reasons not to confront the truth. But everyone, even respected explorers, have the capacity to lie.
It appears that those lies took a toll on the people who perpetrated them. David Roberts writes that quote “theirs is a silent conspiracy against the world. The hoax became the central fact of their existence. The world was reduced to allies and betrayers” He’s right, this is a very personal form of lying and it uncovers manipulative and paranoid tendencies in the men who must, day after day, reconfirm their lie, constantly confronted by the opportunity to come clean but trapped by the enormity of the consequences. Furthermore, these deceits rely on the imbalance of power. We see this in how Cook treated Barrill, how Peary treated Henson, how both treated their inuit companions, and how Byrd treated Bennett. The only people allowed to have firsthand knowledge of the hoax must be of lower social standing so they can be denigrated and discredited. Even from their unwitting co-conspirators, the hoaxer must isolate.
For this podcast we went in search of the north pole but instead found cold, dark places in the hearts of three men who could not admit the truth. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been my unlikely explanation.