Polar explorers, fabulists, believers in blond Eskimos and other chilly adventurers. By Dennis Drabelle

By Cold Cases
Sunday, March 6, 2005

Up and Down

The reputations of polar explorers are so variable that it may help to think of them as stocks. Judging by a pair of new books, Scott is up, Peary has fallen to a new low, and Cook, once thought to be all but worthless, is rallying.

In 1911-12, as you may recall, expeditions headed by Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen were vying to discover the South Pole. Relying on dogs to pull their sledges, Amundsen and his men not only got there first, they also made it look easy. Scott, who put more faith in man-hauling, reached the coveted spot only to find the Norwegian flag flying there. After great suffering, Scott and company died on the way back. Scott's eloquent last message, found with his body, earned him a place in English history as the epitome of valor in the face of crushing odds. As Pierre Berton wrote in another context, "The English had a special fondness for those adventurers who insisted on doing things the hard way, especially those who failed nobly."

All was well until 1979, when Roland Huntford published Scott and Amundsen , one of the most persuasive demolition jobs ever penned. Scott, in Huntford's view, was a bumbler whose incompetence led to five deaths, including his own. Pro-Scott partisans have been stepping up to defend him ever since, and the latest is Ranulph Fiennes, himself a renowned traveler in both polar regions.

In Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott's Antarctic Quest (Hyperion, $27.95), Fiennes draws upon his own know-how to gloss the historical record. This can be effective, as when he speculates on why the spent, ailing and starving Scott and two surviving companions holed up in their tent and seemingly waited to die rather than making a dash for the next food depot, only 11 miles off: "The longer you lie in a freezing tent listening to the wind outside, the more difficult it can be to rouse yourself to face the elements, even to sit up in your bag, let alone to struggle with the door lashings that bring down showers of frost shavings from the tent lining and set you biting your lips to prevent you screaming as your raw-ended fingers touch the material and blood stirs in your damaged feet."

But Fiennes's disgust with Huntford is so intemperate that it ends up undercutting his case. He even implies that Huntford has repudiated his background, which appears to be Lithuanian-Jewish but should have no bearing on anyone's opinion of Scott. In The Coldest March (2002), meteorologist Susan Solomon showed that Scott and his crew ran into a freakish spell of horribly cold weather; this bad luck, she contended, more than anything else, was what killed them. Such an approach is likely to do more for Scott's reputation than fulminations against a fellow biographer.

Who's on First?

Bruce Henderson sheds new light on the Cook case in True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole (Norton, $24.95; forthcoming in April). The thing to keep in mind about the North Pole is that, located in the frozen Arctic Ocean, it's hard to pin down. Even if you leave a flag or cairn where you reckon the Pole to be, ice will shift and migrate, so the inability of later explorers to find your token doesn't mean you weren't there. Your best evidence is likely to be a matter of bookkeeping: a careful record of your navigational observations.

Neither Robert E. Peary nor Frederick A. Cook (both American) supplied a persuasive record to back up his "me-first" assertion. It now seems clear that Peary--haughty, vindictive and desperate for fame--was lying when he claimed to have reached the pole in 1909. The more clubbable Cook was widely believed when he said he'd beaten Peary to the goal in 1908, but a pair of unrelated frauds later eroded his credibility. In 1906, he'd supposedly led the first expedition to conquer Mt. McKinley in Alaska, but critics proved that the summit photo was taken from a lesser peak, and a climbing partner ratted Cook out, swearing in an affidavit that they'd turned back well below the top. Later, in the 1920s, Cook got embroiled in an oil-stock scandal that led to a jail term. Reflecting the latter-day consensus on Peary and Cook, the recent reissue of David Roberts's Great Exploration Hoaxes features them (along with Adm. Richard Byrd) as cover boys.

Henderson adduces evidence that tends to exonerate Cook. Peary, it seems, was partly to blame for the loss of Cook's polar records. (In brief, Cook had counted on sending them home on Peary's boat, but Peary refused to let any of Cook's possessions on board. Cook said he cached his records in the far north, but they have never been found.) And the stock fraud seems to have occurred without Cook knowing much about it. But the most startling new material has to do with that McKinley climb. Cook himself may not have submitted or relied upon the disputed photo, and later climbers have confirmed his account in every particular. Moreover, Henderson has found documents in the National Archives suggesting that a Peary ally bribed Cook's partner to disavow their McKinley triumph.

Suddenly the pattern of skullduggery that got Cook's polar claim laughed out of court is looking like no pattern at all. As Henderson sees it, Cook owes his reputation as a chronic fabulist largely to machinations by a bitter rival and those acting on his behalf. This admirably crisp account, which is certain to draw rejoinders, has injected new life into an old debate.

O Canada

Pierre Berton, a master storyteller who died last year, did more than anyone else to dispel the myth of Canada as a country where not much happens. He wrote popular histories of the Klondike gold rush, the building of the trans-Canada railroad, tourism at Niagara Falls and the Dionne-quintuplet phenomenon, along with many short biographies of exceptional men and women who hailed from or left a mark on his beloved country.

In Prisoners of the North (Carroll & Graf, $26), Berton encapsulates the lives of Joseph Boyle, a gold-mining industrialist who became a lover of Romania's Queen Marie; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose Arctic explorations have been overshadowed by his cockeyed certainty that there existed a tribe of blond Eskimos; Lady Jane Franklin, who championed the cause of her late husband, Sir John Franklin, so effectively that he was (wrongly) credited with discovering the Northwest Passage; John Hornby, an eccentric who thought he knew everything there was to know about the North, but didn't; and Robert Service, the bard of the Yukon.

The least-known member of the quintet is probably Hornby, an Englishman whose disdain for civilized ways and passion for northern Canada were fine as far as they went. But he was also so feckless that his traveling companions couldn't count on him to carry out the simplest tasks, and his smugness proved fatal. In 1927, after firing up two younger men to travel with him (one of them his naive, hero-worshiping second cousin), Hornby insisted that the region's great caribou herds always followed the same migration route. Not having been informed of this, the caribou went elsewhere that year, and Hornby and his acolytes starved to death. Berton intersperses his tale with quotes from the journal kept by that poor, wide-eyed cousin: testimony to a "tragedy," Berton writes, of which Hornby's "own purposeless life was the root cause."

Murder North

Both Hornby and Stefansson also figure in McKay Jenkins's Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913 (Random House, $25.95), an account of the killing of two Catholic priests. The Coppermine River runs through the Barren Grounds of north-central Canada, where the fathers were out to make converts. Hornby guided one of them to his post, and Stefansson had worked with the Eskimo who translated for the Mountie assigned to investigate the homicides.

The priests were ill-equipped for their assignment, with paltry skills for surviving in the wilderness and not much sense of diplomacy, either. One of them reacted badly to what he perceived as a theft; his threatening manner sparked the confrontation that resulted in the double slaying. This is a tale of misunderstanding and cross purposes, and Jenkins tells it well. A grim epilogue provides a snapshot of the Coppermine people today, suffering from high incidences of alcoholism, diabetes and suicide, their Catholic church long since closed. As Jenkins reminds us, while explorers and missionaries were busy clothing themselves in glory, aboriginal peoples were being stripped of everything they held dear. •

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

Frederick A. Cook (left) and Robert E. Peary

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