Dispute over Mount McKinley ascent heats up again Frederick Cook backers answer critics who say he never reached summit

October 17, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The aging debate about whether Dr. Frederick A. Cook reached the top of Mount McKinley has warmed up again, with warring sides calling each other "vicious" and each other's supporting evidence "diversions."

The Frederick A. Cook Society this month returned fire against naysayers who in July blasted as a giant hoax the doctor's contention that in 1906 he was the first to ascend Alaska's Mount McKinley.

In a small Baltimore-based journal, Dio, critics printed almost 100 pages of detail and declared on the cover, "Dr. Cook-Mt. McKinley Controversy Closed."

Fat chance, Cook supporters say.

Descriptions and sketches made by Cook indicated that he climbed to at least the 11,000-foot level rather than the 5,338 feet claimed by critics, and that he probably scaled McKinley in 1906, say two articles in the society's annual journal, Polar Priorities, just published with 12 of 64 pages devoted to the McKinley controversy.

Ted Heckathorn of Woodenville, Wash., wrote that his 1994 expedition on the upper Ruth Glacier concluded that Cook may well have made it to the top: "The route Cook had taken was the logical choice for his circumstances. It was not an easy route but it was doable."

Heckathorn said his team, which did not attempt to go to the summit, "saw the same features he [Cook] had described," such as the Saddle at 18,200 feet, features that could not have been seen as low as 5,000 feet, which Cook opponents say was as high as Cook climbed.

Another writer in the September issue, Sheldon S. R. Cook (no relation to the explorer), argued that Cook's sketch on Page 52 of his diary "is incontrovertible proof that Cook reached the crest of the East Ridge at 11,500 feet to 11,700 feet near Traleika Col."

Sheldon Cook, an attorney and society historian, further lists several "correct features," recorded by Dr. Cook, such as a "great glacier" known today as Harper Glacier, which he said could have been reported only by someone who climbed high. They "compellingly indicate that he reached the summit in September 1906," he contended.

The editor of Polar Priorities, Russell W. Gibbons of Pittsburgh, in his article, "Dio's Denali Derision," paints the opposition with such phrases as "infantile terminology," "rush to judgment," "egg on his scientific face" and "obsessed" with denigrating Cook. Heckathorn says Cook opponents are often "vindictive and vicious" and have tried to "suppress" pro-Cook evidence.

On the opposite side, Bradford Washburn calls Cook backers "Cookies" and a few "a bunch of bums" trying vainly to restore the doctor's low reputation regarding McKinley.

Dennis Rawlins, a Baltimore astronomer who publishes Dio, calls pro-Cook arguments "an awful lot of blather and smoke" and, at times, "fantastic viciousness."

Rawlins, who published the critical July Dio article by Robert M. Bryce, chief librarian of Montgomery College in Germantown, dismissed the recent Polar Priorities articles as ignoring "all hard evidence" in Dio by Bryce and Washburn, the 88-year-old retired director of the Museum of Science in Boston and longtime student of McKinley.

"Polar Priorities to be substantially answering Dio is just another fake," Rawlins said.

For example, he said, Polar Priorities failed to publish Cook's photographs and address false captions at lower altitudes but printed its own pictures at higher altitudes where there is no proof Cook went. Rawlins calls that "a neat diversion" by Cook people while Heckathorn calls the Cook photos in Dio a "a nice diversion" from descriptive and sketch evidence higher up.

The pictures include Cook's famous summit shot, called "Fake Peak" by detractors. Cook said he took it at the 20,320-foot-high summit. But backing Bryce, Washburn used the satellite Global Positioning System and current photographs to determine it was a 5,338-foot-high hillock far from the summit. The wrong captions were written by people other than Cook, Heckathorn suggested.

Cook never corrected the mistakes, Rawlins said.

Sheldon Cook explained the famous Cook summit picture this way in his article: "Even if it were positively demonstrated that the peak in Cook's summit photograph is not the true summit photograph but another eminence, even Fake Peak, this fact would not establish that Cook did not reach the top."

Most climbing histories credit a four-man team led by Hudson Stuck with the first ascent of McKinley, on June 7, 1913.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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