100 Years Later, North Pole Discovery Still Incites Heated Debate

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

You cannot plant a flag on the North Pole.

It is not Antarctica. It is not a body of land, but a mathematical spot, a maze of shifting ice floes that would swiftly carry any marker away from true north. When explorers reach the Pole, they must rely on navigational instruments and witnesses to prove their location.

One hundred years ago yesterday, Robert Peary and Matthew Henson said they had become the first to reach the North Pole. Yesterday morning at Arlington National Cemetery, more than 20 of the two men's descendants gathered at Peary's and Henson's adjacent graves to honor this achievement. With them were members of the Navy, the Explorers Club and the National Geographic Society, plus an Englishman named Tom Avery -- a young explorer so taken with Peary's story that he re-created the journey himself in 2005. He recently wrote a book about this endeavor.

"My grandfather's motto was 'Find a way, or make one,' " said Edward Peary Stafford, 90, in remarks during the brief ceremony. "All the time there had been human beings . . . no one had been able to reach either axis," but then Peary, pushing 53 and with only two remaining toes, managed to do it with astonishing speed.

After the ceremony, Stafford stressed the importance of remembering the day: "We don't want history to be distorted," he said, adding, "And controversy sells."

Ah, the controversy.

Any new discovery, any new achievement comes with controversy. Sometimes it's tamped down and quickly forgotten. Sometimes it lasts for a century. In short: Some people believe Peary and Henson never reached the North Pole at all.

What you think about the Peary debate comes down to how comfortable you are with uncertainty, to how much stock you place in the spirit of discovery, and to whether you trust charts and mathematics or ice and snow.

Robert Peary was a driven, decorated explorer -- an old-school imperialist who had been trying to reach the Pole for the United States for more than a decade. In the last weeks of the 1909 expedition, his party had been moving an average of 13 miles a day, sometimes losing ground as ice floes shifted south while he mushed north. He traveled with a diminishing party -- members of his team would race ahead, leave caches of supplies, then head homeward. That way, as the food supply decreased, so did mouths to feed.

By the time Peary was within 134 miles of his destination, his only remaining companions were Henson (an African American from Maryland and Peary's right-hand man), Capt. Robert Bartlett and a small team of Inuits. Peary sent Bartlett back. On April 6, he wrote in his diary that he'd reached the Pole.

But some experts began to argue over what they said were troubling aspects of the story. Neither Henson nor the Inuits could read navigational instruments; they had relied on Peary's word that the goal had been accomplished. And after Bartlett -- who could read navigational instruments -- had left the party, Peary's speeds had inexplicably doubled, and sometimes quadrupled. Modern teams with snowmobiles haven't achieved his 37-day dash.

Moreover, the normally glory-seeking Peary hadn't rushed to share his accomplishment with the world until he learned that another Arctic explorer had just claimed the achievement for himself (Frederick Cook, who since has been widely discredited, though he still has some supporters).

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