King of the mountain debate rages Exploration: A locally published scientific journal disputes Frederick A. Cook's claim that he was first to reach the top of Mount McKinley, but Cookites say it's a vendetta.

Sun Journal

July 24, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

From Harper's Magazine, May 1907, by Frederick A. Cook:

After a long siege, during which we were compelled to acknowledge several disheartening defeats, we have at last conquered the highest mountain of our continent. We were not days or weeks, but months, in desperate positions, fording icy glacial streams, pushing through thick underbrush, crossing life-sapping marshes and tundras, enduring the tortures of mosquitoes, camping on the top of wind-swept peaks, and being drenched from above and below with frigid waters; in snow-storms, on ice, in gloomy canyons and gulches; on ice cornices and precipices, always with torment and death before us.

Exciting, no?

Yes, indeed. Too bad it's all bunk.

That, at least, is the opinion of a locally published scientific journal titled DIO, which is running an article declaring the famous Arctic explorer Cook a fraud. He never got near the top of Alaska's Mount McKinley, it says. He faked the whole thing.

"I've never seen such evidence on one side of a controversy," says DIO publisher Dennis Rawlins, referring to the article by Montgomery County librarian Robert M. Bryce. "This is not a ton of bricks, it's 10 tons of bricks. It's not even a controversy anymore."

Keith Pickering, DIO's editor, says, "This paper really puts an end to the most remotely reasonable defense of Cook on the Mount McKinley claim."

So it's all over, right?

Wrong. For even as DIO circulates among its thousand or so subscribers on three continents, the Cookites are priming their cannons.

"It's a vendetta," declares Russell W. Gibbons, editor of Polar Priorities, the journal of the Frederick A. Cook Society. "This guy Bryce sits in his library in Maryland and he's never even been to Alaska."

"I call it McKinley-gate," barks Ted Heckathorne, a Seattle historian who favors Cook.

The Cookite rebuttal will detonate in October. Expect a big bang.

So how did this get started? And why does it matter?

The first question is easier. According to Bryce, it began with a telegram from Tyonek, Alaska, sent by Cook in October 1906, to a friend in Brooklyn: "We have reached the summit of Mount McKinley by a new route in the north."

Cook's reputation as an explorer was high at the time. He had been in Greenland with Robert E. Peary. The King of the Belgians gave Cook a medal for his services in the Antarctic. He had tried, and failed, to get to the top of McKinley in 1903.

Revealing photo

Most people believed Cook. He and his assistant, Ed Barrill, had diaries and photographs. The key one was of Barrill standing on the summit, holding an American flag.

Great honor fell to Cook: ticker-tape parades, the presidency of the Explorers Club of New York, the keys to the city, banquets. He lectured, wrote a book. Life was bright for the amiable doctor from Hortonville, N.Y.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1909, he sent another cable, this one from the Shetland Islands. It announced that he had reached the North Pole more than a year earlier, on April 21, 1908 -- a year ahead of Peary, who did not take the news well.

Peary, unable to disprove Cook's North Pole claim, set out to discredit his McKinley claim and smear his name. He succeeded, and many believe Cook never reached either the pole or the top of Mount McKinley. Barrill recanted and said they never got near the top.

The final nail in the coffin of Cook's reputation pounded in by Bryce is the photograph that appeared in Harper's. That picture, which Bryce saw at the headquarters of the Cook Society, in Hurleyville, N.Y., disappeared temporarily. An inferior copy of it reappeared after Cook's papers had been transferred to the University of Ohio in 1996.

This copy was put through a device called a dye sublimation printer. A mountain appeared on the edge of the photograph, part of which had been cropped out. Research showed this was a view not from Mount McKinley, but from a smaller peak, which Cook detractors derisively named Fake Peak. McKinley soars 20,300 feet, Fake Peak 5,000.

Decline of Cook

Life did not improve for Cook. In 1923 he went to jail for mail FTC fraud. He was later pardoned.

"He was the most popular man in jail," says Rawlins. Bryce says he's always been sympathetic to Cook, which seems like affection from the hangman: Bryce not only debunked Cook's Mount McKinley claim, but his North Pole claim in a 1996 book arguing that neither Cook nor Peary reached the pole. Both were knowing frauds, Bryce says.

Rawlins, publisher of DIO, has done his share of debunking. He was the expert in navigation and exploration who, given a copy of Richard E. Byrd's diary in 1996, proved that he, too, failed to reach the North Pole as he said he did 72 years ago. He lied, and another idol of exploration fell to the earth.

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