Man’s mad quest for the prize that never was—

FARLEY MOWAT September 4 1965

Man’s mad quest for the prize that never was—

FARLEY MOWAT September 4 1965

Man’s mad quest for the prize that never was—


A noted Canadian chronicler of the north

probes the mystery of



MAN’S TIRELESS, EXHAUSTING attempts to “capture” the North Pole, far from being a magnificent obsession that engrossed brave men through admirable motives, is the serial story of repeated acts of selftorture impelled by self-interest, overwhelming ambition, or blatant chauvinism.

This objective of almost a century of effort was not, alas, a candystriped barber pole standing in the waste of ice. Had it been, there might have been some faint justification for finding it. In reality, the North Pole has always been the complete nonobjective, being no more than a mathematical chimera created by man himself in his attempts to systematize nature.

By comparison, the Holy Grail and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow seem like attainable objectives. Nevertheless, the polar chimera has been the goal of an endless stream of men and ships into the high Arctic. Many of both were to perish miserably in attempts to “carry home the pole for England,” “put the pole in our pocket,” “nail the Stars and Stripes to the pole” . . .

So deeply rooted did the quest become that traces of it still linger. A few years ago the U. S. atomic submarine Nautilus cautiously poked her snout through the polar pack and her skipper ecstatically radioed that they had reached the pole. More recently a party of Scandinavians set out to ski across the polar sea, intending to leave their calling cards at the pole en route. Doubtless the day will come when some daft frogman will try to swim to the pole under the ice and then, as usual, mankind will cheer with moonstruck adulation.

The polar assault began in 1827 when Captain Edward Parry, RN, attempted a sled-and-boat journey by way of Spitzbergen. He set off with a party of obedient British tars who alternately hauled and rowed a number of steel-shod boats laden with food and fuel. A month later he was one hundred and seventy miles north of his starting point, with four hundred and thirty miles to go. He probably would have pressed on until he and his party starved or froze to death had not his sailors threatened to give him a speedier death unless he turned for home. The whole affair was a grand fiasco, but Parry was knighted for his try.

Britain was the first to suffer from polar fever, but the United States soon followed suit. In 1853 Elisha Kane, a navy surgeon, set out to show the British how the pole ought to be assaulted, by sailing straight north through Baffin Bay.

Kane’s ship, the brig Advance, hardly lived up to her name. She was frozen in between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, and during the ensuing two years Kane lost three of his eighteen men to disease and accident, while the remainder were incapacitated by frostbite, scurvy, tetanus and amputations. Kane’s personal record of the trip is an account of blunders fringed with agony; but, almost alone among his peers, he at least had the honesty to note that there were times when he doubted his own sanity.

The world at large had no such doubts. Kane was hailed as a national hero when he and his invalid crew were eventually returned home by the courteous Greenland Danes after they had been forced to abandon their doomed ship to the engulfing ice.


A tidal wave of polar enthusiasm now swept the United States and one of those caught up in the delirium was Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, who had gone as a surgeon with Kane. In July 1860 Hayes headed north in an unseaworthy wooden schooner with a crew of fourteen. The vessel barely reached the entrance of Smith Sound, more than seven hundred miles south of the pole, and there her battered hulk was run ashore for the winter.

But Hayes actually believed that the polar sea was open, bounded on the south only by a narrow band of ice; and so he set out to drag a thirty-foot iron boat north to the edge of this imaginary unfrozen water. It cost Hayes three men’s lives before he gave up — temporarily — and limped back to the United States.

In 1869 the Germans made a try for the pole from the east side of Greenland, with two big well-built ships. This was a catastrophe. Not only did they lose their biggest ship, the Hansa, but the survivors were forced to endure a midwinter drift of two hundred days and thirteen hundred miles on an icefloe, which eventually carried them

to the southern tip of Greenland. This was one of the most agonizing epics in polar annals, and it cured the Germans temporarily of polar ambitions.

It did not cure the Americans. In 1871 Charles Francis Hall decided he was the man to bring the pole home. He had no trouble persuading the U. S. congress to support and outfit him and he sailed off in the ex-tugboat Periwinkle, which had been grandiloquently renamed Polaris.

Somehow Hall forced his little tub through the pack to Robeson Channel on the lip of the polar sea. He proposed to winter here while preparing for a spring sled trip to the pole. But it was not to be. Hall died, apparently poisoned. The survivors fought among themselves while the Polaris, caught in the ice. drifted for two dreadful months, gradually going to pieces. Eventually a party ot Eskimos who had been dragooned into the expedition took to the ice, accompanied by a few of the saner white men. For five more months this little group survived the most harrowing hardships on the drifting ice pans. They were eventually rescued by a Newfoundland sealing vessel off the coast of Labrador. The wreck of the Polaris grounded on the Greenland coast, where the remaining survivors were found and rescued.

The Polaris should have cooled the polar fever; instead, it initiated a new attack, one of the wilder manifestations of which took place in 1872. A party calling itself the Austro-Hungarian Expedition set off to reach the pole by way of the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya. There were twenty-four members speaking a mixture of German, Italian, Slavonic and Hungarian.

Within hours of reaching the ice, their ship was trapped, never to be released, and drifted in the ice for two interminable winters, during which Slav fought Italian, Hungarians fought each other, and the Germans fought everybody. It was finally decided to abandon the ship and walk home. After weeks of misery on the disintegrating floes, the survivors reached Novaya Zemlya, where they were rescued by Russian fishermen.

Now it was time for Great Britain to / continued on page 28

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The Swedes tried a new way—a balloon propelled by sails


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re-enter the arena, with a naval expedition led by Captain George Nares. Nares had two fine ships, which he took north through Baffin Bay in 1875. One of the ships got fourteen miles farther north than had been reached by the Polaris, and erne of Nares’ lieutenants scrambled out over the polar pack to latitude 83 degrees 20 minutes — four hundred miles from the objective, but closer to it than any American had ever been.

Nares’ success roused a furious reaction in the United States and resulted in the launching of a massive two-pronged assault on the pole by the combined U. S. armed services. A naval expedition under Lieutenant George Washington De Long was ordered to “fetch home the pole” by way of Wrangel island off the east Siberian coast. De Long put his ship into the ice beyond the Bering Strait —and found himself stuck. For two years the Jeannette drifted around the rim of the Arctic basin with a scurvy-ridden crew who suffered additional torments with lead poisoning from improperly tinned foods. Then in June 1881 the ice opened a little and the shattered Jeannette immediately sank, leaving the survivors to make their way ashore as best they could.

After a horrifying struggle lasting two months, they reached the uninhabited coast of Siberia as winter was coming on. By the time they stumbled on a remote Russian outpost there were only ten survivors, and De Long was not among them. He and nineteen of his men were dead.

Meanwhile, the U. S. Army had been doing its stuff. Having been landed on Ellesemere Island in 1881, Lieutenant Adolphus Greely and twenty-five men spent two years trying to get north. Their final achievement was to better Nares’ mark by four miles. Then starvation, disease and insanity overcame them. One man was executed for the theft of a little food. When they were finally found, there were seven still living and they had remained alive only by eating the corpses of their companions.

The Scandinavians now were struck with pole fever. In 1892 two Swedes bought a small Newfoundland schooner, enlisted a crew and started to the pole. None of them came back. A diary found years later describes the deaths by starvation of most of the party.

Then it was the turn of the Norwegians. In 1893 Fridtjof Nansen procured a little ship, the Fram, which was designed to be frozen into the ice, so that she could drift across the polar sea, passing the pole en route. The Fram was a credit to Norwegian shipbuilding. Provisioned for a full five years, she took the ice and began her drift. At one time she came within two hundred and fortythree miles of the goal. But by then Nansen was no longer with her: he had grown impatient, abandoned his

original plan and, with one other man, had set out to sled to the pole.

Nansen and his companion spent a hundred and fifty-six days on the open ice and never got as close to the pole as did the Fram. They eventually reached shore at uninhabited Franz Joseph Land, where they spent a hellish winter holed up in a cave. There they would have perished but for amazing luck which brought an English scientific expedition to the islands in the spring. The valiant little Fram survived to be spewed out of I he ice near Spitzbergen, three years after she entered it.

The Swedes tried to match the Norwegians’ feat by sending a balloon, manned by three men, and propelled by sails, to reach the pole. Under command of a young dreamer named S. A. Andrée, this expedition was launched from Spitzbergen in July 1897. Neither the balloon nor the men were ever seen again.

Italy’s turn came next. In 1900 the Duke of Abruzzi launched a sled party over the polar pack from Franz Joseph Land. This party claimed to have surpassed Nansen’s best by reaching a point two hundred and six miles from the pole, with the loss of only three lives. The claim, like most other polar records, rested on the statements of the men involved, and was subject to no external test of truth.

The new Land that wasn’t

At the turn of the century the polar obsession reached its fullest flowering in an American, Robert E. Peary. From about 1886 Peary believed that fate had marked him out to wave the Stars and Stripes in the van of all the others who were marching toward the pole.

In 1892 he began his campaign by crossing the north Greenland icecap. On his return he announced that he had discovered an immense island, which he modestly called Peary Land. This was separated from Greenland by a broad channel, which he modestly called the Peary Channel. He also reported the existence of a brandnew sea which, through some oversight, he called the East Greenland Sea.

These discoveries were proudly inscribed on U. S. naval and survey maps and Peary’s reputation as an arctic explorer was established. Some years later it was revealed that the Peary Channel did not exist, that Peary Land was only the north section of Greenland, and that the East Greenland Sea was largely land.

On the strength of his 1892 “discoveries,” Peary had little trouble financing his polar expedition of 1902. Accompanied by his Negro manservant, Peary claimed to have reached latitude 84 degrees 17 minutes— farther north than anyone else had gone via the so-called “American Route” from northwest Greenland. Peary was sure he would make it all the way next time, but back in the States he found difficulty raising money since the U. S. government was in financial trouble. Peary ex-

ploited other sources, offering the rich men whose cash he needed geographic immortality by naming new lands after them.

New lands were scarce, but on examining his notes for the previous expeditions, Peary was happy to find that he had sighted a vast new land west of Ellesemere Island. He now named this Jessup Land, and a very rich Mr. Jessup was inordinately grateful. A good many of his friends decided to join the Peary Arctic Club, the qualification for membership being a handsome donation to assist Peary to the pole. It is doubtful whether Jessup got his money’s worth, since Jessup Land has never again been sighted by mortal men.

Solvent once more, Peary built a ship called the Roosevelt, which was manned by Newfoundlanders and skippered by Bob Bartlett of Brigus. In 1905 Bartlett took this ship about as far north as a ship could go, and in the early spring of 1906 Peary began his second journey out over the shifting polar pack, carried forward by a picked band of Eskimos with dogs and sleds. Despite the excellence of the Eskimos, Peary again met failure and returned south in a state of frustration. This time he claimed he had reached 87 degrees 6 minutes —a world’s record.

America seethed with pride. “Nearest The Pole,” shrilled the headlines, and Peary was the hero of the hour.

He was now fifty years old, but hardly was he home before he began planning his next polar assault. Apart from the limitations of increasing age, he was discovering that even American millionaires have limits to their generosity. “It was,” Peary wrote, “my last game on the great Arctic chessboard. It was win this time or be defeated forever.”

In 1908 Bartlett and his fellow Newfoundlanders carried Peary north again to the limits that a ship could reach. When the Roosevelt nosed into harbor at Cape Sheridan on the tip of Ellesemere Island her decks were swarming with more than twohundred Eskimo dogs, most of them doomed to die as part of the “expendable” stores. There were also sixty Eskimos, with whom Peary intended to fashion his final fantasy.

On February 22, 1909, in temperatures close to sixty below zero and with the long night still shrouding the Arctic world, Peary and a great line of men, sleds and dogs started on their way north.

Traveling conditions were atrocious, worse than those encountered by almost any previous polar explorer. The party slugged on for twenty days. Every few days one of the supporting groups loaded its surplus supplies on the north-bound sleds, and turned for home. The black line on the limitless white desert grew shorter and shorter until it included only Peary, Bartlett, Peary’s Negro manservant Matthew Henson and a handful of Eskimos.

Navigation was by guess. The few attempts made to obtain a latitude were rendered completely unreliable because the sun never rose more than 8 degrees above the horizon. The

course was steered by compasses whose needles now pointed back to the magnetic pole, and which were subject to unknown deviations. Distances traveled were simply guessed at. The trip to the pole was being made by the roughest kind of deadreckoning.

On March 31 Peary decided, for reasons that have never been adequately explained in print, to send Bartlett back and continue accompanied only by Henson and the Eskimos. Thus Bartlett, a trained navigator and the one man whose observations could conceivably have confirmed Peary's sights if he had reached the pole, was dispensed with.

Bartlett claims to have turned back about one hundred and thirty miles from the pole. He states in his biography that Peary ought to have been able to cover the remaining distance in a week, although to do so he would have had to have averaged twenty miles a day under conditions that had slowed the indomitable Nansen to six miles. Under optimum conditions Peary could not have been expected to regain the base camp (the ship) until at least two weeks after Bartlett, who was, incidentally, a very fast Arctic traveler. Bartlett reached the PvOosevell on April 24. Three days later Peary arrived at the vessel. There is no way of knowing what actually was said at the moment of reunion, for both men are dead now. but Bartlett later wrote that he greeted Peary with these improbable words:

“I congratulate you. sir, on the discovery of the pole!”

He was a loyal man. was Newfoundlander Bob Bartlett.

For the world, “a gold brick”

Peary himself made no immediate claim to have reached the pole. Doubtless he realized that the members of his expedition would have found such a claim difficult to credit, for they knew what the traveling conditions had been like. It would have been hard for them to have believed that Peary had traveled three hundred miles farther than Bartlett; had spent thirty hours at the pole taking observations (as he later claimed): had spent two days on the homeward trip resting at Cape Columbia—and had still managed to arrive back only three days behind Bartlett.

It is a matter of record that Peary did not tell any of his expedition members that he had reached the pole until some months later when the homewardbound Roosevelt stopped at Cape York to pick up coal and mail. I here Peary received a letter informing him of the shattering news that a rival. Dr. F. A. Cook, had announced to the world that he had reached the pole the previous year, having traveled to it from the western extremity of Ellesemere Island.

Peary’s rage was monumental. Under torced draft the Roosevelt raced for the nearest wireless transmitter, which was on the I.abrador coast. There, Peary dispatched a ferocious message condemning Cook as a charlatan and saying that he “had handed the world a gold brick.” It is I, said Peary, who have captured the P°*econtinued on paye 30\

continued on paye 30

There was no backing out after that blast, and so Peary followed it with a message to President Theodore Roosevelt that he was bringing him the pole as a gift! Roosevelt replied, thanking Peary very much, but adding that he really had no idea what to do with the thing. It was the only light touch in what was to become a classic battle of invective and hatred between Cook and Peary.

The controversy raged for years. Peary slowly gained the upper hand, mainly because his had been a large and formal expedition with such august backers as the National Geographic Society, while Cook’s had been a small and informal expedition with a single private backer. So Peary succeeded in burying Cook’s reputation.

Peary’s was a Pyrrhic victory. Within a few years most of his claims to fame had become questionable, and by 1914 a number of his dis-

coveries had been shown to be fictitious. Partly on the unwitting testimony of his faithful servant Matthew Henson (who also wrote a book), it became obvious that the latitude observations reputedly taken at the pole must, in fact, have been taken some distance to the south of it. The United States congress, which had earlier granted Peary a life pension and the rank of rear admiral as a reward for “nailing the Stars and Stripes to the pole,’’ was so outraged that a number of congressmen demanded that Peary be stripped of his rank and forbidden to wear the uniform. It was also suggested that the United States formally repudiate the dubious polar record. In the end no action was taken, since the loss of face all around would have been too much for the nation.

Peary’s tale marks the finale of the long history of polar folly—this record of an obsession which may have had some admirable elements, but

which wound its way through interminable stupidities, incredible human anguish and a welter of insane and useless ambitions to its termination in a gigantic and sorry fraud.

The rest is anticlimax. As the air age developed, many attempts were made to claim the pole from the skies, including one that cost the Italian government the great airship Italia. More lives were lost; even more, perhaps, still remain to be lost in vain. The truth of the matter is that the North Pole has been discovered—at least as convincingly as most of the other claims.

It was found floating disconsolately in a little stream by a bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh hauled it out and set it up for all to see, and tacked on it this succinct notice: “North Pole. Discovered By Pooh. Pooh Found It.”

Pooh’s is a fitting finis with which to conclude the tale of one of mankind’s most inexplicable passions. ★