A Century Later, a Polarizing Debate Endures

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).

"It just really seemed impossible," says Bruce Henderson, author of the Peary history "True North." "This was his eighth try, and he knew it would be his last." He wanted it badly, Henderson says. Either he'd found a way to achieve his goal, or, perhaps, he'd made one up.

The National Geographic Society -- which had funded Peary's expeditions -- and then a congressional committee put together research panels, and both decided that Peary and Henson had, in fact, reached the Pole. When Peary died as a rear admiral in the Navy in 1920, he was interred in Arlington, under a globe-shaped monument celebrating the Pole discovery. Henson died 35 years later, was buried in New York, then moved to the spot next to his friend in 1988.

Yesterday morning, Robert Peary III, another Peary grandson, and Diane Savoy, Henson's great-grandniece, solemnly approached the monument with two large wreaths. There was a color guard and a 19-piece military band.

But the controversy never went away. Famed Arctic explorer Wally Herbert called Peary's claim impossible in the 1960s; National Geographic came back with more pro-Peary evidence in the 1980s. Stafford, a Navy man himself, became the protector of his grandfather's reputation online, posting letters to the editor with lines like, "This Peary grandson is taking extra good care of himself in the hope that he will still be around on that day to relish the massive ingestion of crow that will ensue."

It's almost become a morality play. "It's about justice. It's about truth. It's about giving credit where credit is due," says Robert Bryce, author of "Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved," who doesn't believe that Peary reached the Pole.

And in 2005, another voice entered the debate. Avery, a 29-year-old British adventurer who had already traveled to the South Pole, concluded that the only way to know whether Peary had succeeded was to re-create the journey.

"Recent arguments," relying on diaries and historical documents, says Avery, "have gone way off tangent. They have nothing to do with driving dog teams across the Arctic, which is what it's all about. . . . The rest is completely irrelevant."

His five-person team built a to-scale replica of Peary's sled, loading it with the same weight of supplies. They learned how to handle dogs and put together a team of Canadian Eskimo Dogs, a now-rare breed, like those Peary and Henson had used.

The team managed -- to their surprise and delight -- to undercut Peary's 37-day journey by five hours. Not in spite of the old-fashioned equipment, Avery says, but because of it. Because the sled was lashed together with ropes, not nails, "it flexed with the undulating terrain of the Arctic," Avery says. As Peary had reported, Avery's team also experienced substantial speed increases as it approached the Pole, due to smoother terrain and favorable weather conditions.

Stafford, who insisted yesterday that he "didn't feel the admiral needed" more evidence in his favor, said he was nonetheless grateful for Avery's vote of confidence.

Henderson remains unconvinced. "I think people are running the 100-meter dash a lot faster than they did 100 years ago," he says. "I don't know what [Avery's expedition] proves as to what Peary did."

Proof. Of course, real, beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt proof is impossible to come by now, decades after the expedition. At a ceremony yesterday for two brave men who surely deserve accolades regardless of whether they reached the Pole, one wonders if this explains the continuing fascination with the story.

Maybe it's not that controversy sells, but that ambiguity intoxicates -- that in an age of scientific proof, we are enthralled by the fact that we cannot know for sure what happened on a barren, isolated dot of land 100 years ago.

As it happens, Peary said he had left something at the Pole; a strip of American flag, stuffed in a tin and buried in the ground. It was never located, and it is probably stuck in the ice somewhere, or floating in the Arctic Ocean.

In any case, to the people who care deeply, it wouldn't prove anything either way.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company