WHO WAS THE FIRST person to stand at the North Pole? There are various theories, but nobody knows for sure. Some believe it was Commander Robert E. Peary, who, along with the African-American Matthew Henson. four Inuit men, and 40 dogs, claimed to have reached that destination on April 6, 1909. after a nip of more than 400 miles across the most hostile environment on Earth. Peary sacrificed 23 years of his life in various attempts to achieve his ultimate ambition, losing eight of his toes in the process, but, in 1909 he finally made it after a journey of just 37 days.
Expecting in be hailed a national hero I back home, Peary returned to New York to find that most of America hat--only three days previous--heard the news that his rival, Frederick Cook, had beaten him to the Pole on a separate expedition. Although Cook eventually was proven to be a fraud--also ticking the first ascent of Mr. McKinley in Alaska: he later would be convicted of illegal business activities--the huge public skepticism that arose during the fierce Peary-Cook controversy never really died down.
It became clear to me that the questions would continue to be asked until somebody tried to re-create Peary's final expedition as closely as possible and show that the travel speeds he claimed really were possible.
Training began in earnest in February 2004, when our team (two Brits. a pair of Canadians, and a South African) got together in Baffin Island, high in the Canadian Arctic, for an intensive three-week dog driving program. At the time. 188 people had reached the Pole since Peary and nobody had been able to better his time of 37 days. The fastest that anyone has managed is 42 days by a Swedish party in 2000. Typically. an expedition to the North Pole takes 60 or 70 days and only one in four attempts to reach the Pole end in success.
To press Peary's case, we set out to simulate his journey as closely as possible. Peary used the Eskimo dog from northwest Greenland on his 1909 expedition. We did likewise and employed eight dogs per sled. We took a total of 16, selected from a squad of 22 animals. The Eskimo dog is considered the best expedition canine in the Arctic, although there are less than 500 purebreds left in the world and theft future remains uncertain.
Peary and Henson were expert navigators. They spent several years working on the construction of the Panama Canal, where Peary was assigned as a surveyor for the U.S. Engineering Corps. The Inuit who accompanied Peary also were highly skilled navigators. Traveling in the Arctic was in their blood, and Peary learned to adopt their techniques. Like Peary, we were able to maintain our course by traveling with sun, shadow, wind direction, and sastrugi (sharp irregular grooves or ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition)--and by checking our compasses in overcast or snowy conditions.
Peary built wooden sleds that resembled those used by the Inuit for travel and hunting. reinforced to withstand the ragged terrain of sea ice. We built two sleds from Canadian Spruce of the same dimensions and design to the Peary sleds. Just like his. the loads never exceeded 500 pounds.
The flight from the weather station at Eureka (the most northerly community on Earth) to Cape Columbia was utterly spell-binding...