Science refutes a 92-year-old McKinley claim Exploration: Satellite measurements and photography set to rest Dr. Frederick A. Cook's 1906 claim to be the first to the summit of North America's highest peak.

October 02, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

BOSTON — The caption accompanying a photograph of Alaska's Mount McKinley, published on Page 8A yesterday in The Sun, failed to credit the photographer, Bradford Washburn. He took the picture of the knife-edged Hairy Ridge while flying in 1956 at 11,000 feet altitude with the famed Alaskan bush pilot Don Sheldon.

The Sun regrets the error.

BOSTON -- A 90-year-old controversy over whether Dr. Frederick A. Cook was the first to ascend Alaska's Mount McKinley is as relentless a phenomenon as the glaciers inching down North America's highest mountain.

Cook said he and a colleague, Edward Barrill, made it up and down a difficult route in 12 days. Detractors -- and there are many -- say the feat is impossible.


New evidence gathered in July by Global Positioning System measurements and photography on Mount McKinley proves "conclusively" that Cook faked his claim of making the first ascent of the 20,320-foot peak in 1906, a McKinley authority says.

Bradford Washburn, 88, retired director of the Museum of Science in Boston and longtime climber, photographer and cartographer of McKinley and other mountains, said Cook "grossly misrepresented the altitude of three of his photographs" in captions in Cook's 1908 book, "To the Top of the Continent."

"Dr. Cook never got nearer than 12.65 miles from the top of McKinley and never got higher than 5,338 feet," Washburn concluded.

Washburn said Cook, who made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mount McKinley in 1903, faked his 1906 claim to write a book, get publicity and finance an adventure that interested him far more -- becoming the first to reach the North Pole.

Washburn said his findings were based on two helicopter flights he made in July to four points actually reached by Cook and Barrill.

The first, July 29, was with GPS technical experts and a McKinley guide for GPS measurements, and the second, July 31, with his wife, Barbara, to duplicate with photographs the pictures Cook took at the same locations. GPS determines a location on Earth by using triangulation from satellites.

Washburn compared Cook's figures in "false captions" and his own July figures for altitude and distance at the three locations: "Fake Peak," which Cook photographed as the summit in a much-reproduced picture, is actually only 5,338 feet high and 17.7 miles from the top, Washburn said. It was the highest point Cook reached, Washburn said, and was given its name by detractors.

A spot Cook said he reached at 13,000 feet but which Washburn said was 4,767 feet high and 12.65 miles from the summit.

A point Cook said was 15,400 feet up but which the July expedition showed was 5,305 feet high and 18.94 miles from the summit.

Washburn said no mountaineer has ever duplicated Cook's route and that Cook returned with no proof he had reached the peak's higher elevations.

Many histories credit a four-man team led by Hudson Stuck with the first ascent of the mountain's higher South Peak on June 7, 1913.

Questions have been raised about allegedly phony captions before; some Cook backers say Cook was absent when they were written.

The Frederick A. Cook Society of Hurleyville, N.Y., site of the Sullivan County Museum housing his papers, supports Cook's contentions and dismisses attempts to discredit him.

An item in the July issue of its annual journal, Polar Polarities, rejected "the debunking cult" of "guardians of the truth" such as Washburn and Robert M. Bryce, head librarian at Montgomery College in Germantown.

Bryce's book "Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved" contends that Cook lied and failed to reach the summit, views also contained with photographs in a July issue of a Baltimore journal, Dio.

Washburn's interest in discrediting Cook's claim might be considered a fixation, though he said he admires some of the doctor's explorations. In 1958, after investigating Cook's steps on the Ruth Glacier in Alaska, Washburn blasted his summit assertion in an article in American Alpine Journal.

Unlike many armchair observers, Washburn has climbed extensively on Mount McKinley. He says he has pursued the case because "it was fun to check Dr. Cook's account. I thought it's a very thrilling detective story."

Washburn said most mountaineers he knows who have reached McKinley's summit doubt that Cook could have completed his claimed difficult route in 12 days. He quoted Belmore Browne, a Cook associate, as disbelieving it "in the same way that any New Yorker would know that no man could walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grant's Tomb [8 miles] in 10 minutes."

Cook and Adm. Robert E. Peary, once fellow explorers, each claimed to have beaten the other to the North Pole in 1908. Many now disbelieve their claims.

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