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Peary to the Pole
By Walter Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1963 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
"FORWARD, MARCH!" THE COMMAND came in a crisp, clear voice that could be heard even above the howling wind. One by one a little group of fur-clad figures moved out across a jumbled sea of ice, each guiding a heavily laden sledge drawn by seven yelping, frisking dogs.
The group fell into single file and headed north. Above them, the stars danced and twinkled in the queer half-light of an Arctic day. Beneath them, the snow crunched to the tread of their feet. All around them stretched an endless waste of snow and ice. It was bitterly cold—50° below—so cold that a bottle of medicinal brandy, which one of the men tried to keep warm against his chest, was soon frozen solid.
Yet the men trudged on, heads bowed against the biting wind that slashed their faces, kept them from speaking, and all but hid them from view as it whipped the powdered snow into a fine icy dust. Bringing up the rear was the man who had ordered them forward, ready to throw his support wherever needed.
His name was Robert Edwin Peary, and he was a commander in the United States Navy. He was a big man with bristling moustache and steel-gray eyes that peered through the fringe of his hooded jacket. Hampered by his furs, he moved slowly, but his heart beat fast, for on this first morning of March, 1909, he was setting out to achieve his life's dream: to be the first man ever to reach the North Pole.
Now it lay only 413 miles ahead. Not much as distances go—about as far as Boston to Washington—but these were miles of solid ice. Worse, it was not ordinary ice ... the kind that covers a pond or stream. This was sea ice—the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean itself. Strange tides and currents were always at work, leaving treacherous gaps of inky water that seemed just waiting to swallow somebody up. But Peary didn't hesitate as he pushed steadily on.
Behind lay the more familiar world he knew. First, there were the empty igloos at Cape Columbia, the jumping-off place his men had just left. Then, ninety miles behind these, there was the base ship Roosevelt, moored at Cape Sheridan, the farthest north a boat had ever gone. And still farther behind were other things: The memories of twenty-two years of Arctic work, seven expeditions, six attempts on the Pole itself—each defeated by some unexpected, agonizing turn of events.
Could Peary do it this time? Common sense said no. He had always failed. Yet man can profit by failure too, and buried in these past defeats were lessons ... important lessons that one day might lead to success.CHAPTER 2
"The Thing That I Must Do"
IT WAS TWENTY-FIVE YEARS earlier when Robert E. Peary first thought of standing at the top of the world. And it happened not in the frozen north but in the sunny Caribbean.
He was sailing to Nicaragua in 1884 as a young United States naval engineer. At this time there was no canal between the Atlantic and Pacific, and Peary was on a trip to study where one might be built. But as his ship passed the little island of San Salvador his mind was far from canals.
This distant shore had been Columbus's landfall on his first trip to the new world. Now the very sight filled restless twenty-eight-year-old Peary with excitement. What a thrill to have been Columbus! Here was a man, Peary wrote that night in his diary, "whose fame can be equalled only by him who shall one day stand with 360 degrees of longitude beneath his motionless feet and for whom East and West shall have vanished—the discoverer of the North Pole."
At the time it was only natural to think of the Pole this way. The vast, empty Arctic had intrigued men for centuries. At first people hoped that this maze of frozen seas and islands might hide a short cut from Europe to the riches of the Far East, and a long line of explorers searched in vain for what they called "the Northwest Passage." Gaspar CorteReal was doing this for the Portuguese as early as 1500; Henry Hudson was at it for the English in 1610; each country had its heroes.
Later men knew they would never get to the Orient that way, but the fascination of the Arctic remained. It was so big, so dangerous, so unknown. The very mystery of it beckoned anyone who yearned for fame and adventure. But the price was often high. In 1845 Sir John Franklin led two small ships into the ice far north of Hudson's Bay—they were crushed by the floes and all 129 men were lost. In 1879 Lieutenant De Long of the American Navy took another small ship, the Jeannette, through the Bering Straits and into the ice far north of Siberia. It too was crushed, and nearly all were lost. In 1881 a young United States Army officer named Adolphus Washington Greely led a small expedition to Fort Conger, to the west of northern Greenland; three years later only six of forty-two survived.
So it went. But each failure only stirred others to greater effort. Gradually most of the Arctic was explored, mapped, and charted, until at last only one final mystery remained—the greatest of all— the North Pole itself.
This now became the goal of everyone. Rich men like Lord Northcliffe of England poured in money. Royalty like the Prince of Monaco and Italy's Duke of Abruzzi gave their support. Danes, Russians, Americans, explorers from many nations joined the race to get there first. Every conceivable theory was tried—new bases, new kinds of ships, food, and clothing—but in the end the ice and cold always proved too much. Dozens tried, but the Pole remained just out of reach ... ever more tantalizing, ever more challenging and mysterious.
What was it like anyhow? Knowing nothing, men could only imagine. In early times some people felt the Garden of Eden lay at the Pole—a lovely sunlit land magically protected by the barriers of ice and snow. Others claimed they might find there the fabled lost continent of Atlantis. Many assumed that the Pole was not only on land but full of fabulous riches—great untouched deposits of gold and other precious metals. The Eskimos, listening to the explorers talk about the globe spinning on its axis, thought that the Pole was marked by a real spike sticking out of the earth. They even called the Pole "the Big Nail."
It was all so exciting to dream about, and Robert E. Peary was just the man to fall under the spell. From his earliest days he was immensely romantic. Born in Pennsylvania in 1856, he was soon taken by his widowed mother to Maine, where he grew up, a sensitive boy who loved to write about songbirds and the beauty of the sunrise. He liked poetry too and wrote long, romantic verses about knights and fair ladies. Later he composed valentines, full of flowing grace, and once designed a Christmas card showing a pretty girl floating through the sky on a snowflake. It was only natural that such a boy should also feel the romance of the mysterious, undiscovered North Pole.
Other men, of course, dreamed about the Pole too, but most were only dreamers. What made Peary different was his immense determination. As a boy he drove himself tirelessly on long mountain hikes. At Bowdoin College he fought hard to win a place on his class crew. In his studies he worked equally hard, sometimes staying up all night just to finish some classroom problem. He proved a brilliant engineering student, once graded a railroad perfectly without any previous experience.
He was just as industrious and practical after graduation, when he joined the Navy as a young engineer. He quickly impressed his superiors with bright new ideas for building a pier and designing canal locks. He was, in short, not only the kind of man who might dream about the North Pole but might eventually do something about it.
But not yet. Right now, as his ship steamed by San Salvador and headed on for Nicaragua, Peary had his present job to do. So he put aside his dreams of polar conquest and turned to the problem of surveying a transoceanic canal.
All that winter and spring he worked at it. Again and again he showed that streak of stern determination. To make the best survey possible, he struggled through swamps and jungles where no white man had ever been before. During the hot, sticky days he often worked in muddy water up to his waist. In the dripping nights he slept on the ground under a rubber blanket. At last the job was done, largely due to his skill and energy.
Back in Washington in the summer of 1885, Peary felt for his first time the sting of disappointment. No money could be found to go ahead with the canal, and the entire project collapsed. All that work for nothing! Brooding over it, Peary walked along a street one night, aimlessly dropped into a bookstore and began to browse. His fingers idly leafed through the pages of a little pamphlet on the great inland ice of Greenland—a vast glacial sea that no one had ever explored.
Suddenly all the excitement of the Arctic came surging back. Once again he dreamed of the Pole and the unknown region around it. What secrets lay locked in those vast Greenland ice fields? What mysterious force steadily pushed the ice to the coast, where it broke off in huge chunks that drifted south as icebergs? Did the ice reach all the way across Greenland? Did it stretch clear to the Pole? Could a man use it as a great highway to reach the top of the world?
He must see. He had no experience—little matter, that hadn't helped other explorers. He had no reputation—he boldly approached the National Academy of Science anyhow and by the sheer force of his personality won the Academy's interest. He had no free time—somehow he wangled six months' leave from the Navy. He had no money—he borrowed $500 from his mother.
In May, 1886, he was on his way. Taking a steam whaler, he landed on Disko Island, near the west coast of Greenland. Here he found a young Danish official named Christian Maigaard. Peary quickly persuaded the Dane to join him. The two men soon crossed to Greenland and headed inland onto the ice cap. With luck perhaps they could go all the way to the east coast. But it was slow going over the ice, and finally their food ran out. Reluctantly Peary turned back.
There was no denying it was a defeat. They had gone only a hundred miles, not nearly far enough to learn whether the ice cap stretched to the Pole. But there were consolations. Peary now knew that two of his pet theories about expeditions were sound—keep them small and travel light. And he knew something else too: he was more convinced than ever that this was his life's work. He may have been defeated this time, but he would be back.
In Washington again, Peary immediately began planning his next expedition. But then came two interruptions. First, the canal project was revived, and in 1888 Peary made another survey trip to Nicaragua. Then came an even bigger complication. He fell in love.
She was a pretty Washington girl named Josephine Diebitsch, and Peary married her on a blazing August day in 1888. The event naturally raised the question, what would marriage do to his plans for the Arctic? Might he not give it all up, settling for a blissful life at home with his bride?
Instead he took her along. On June 6, 1891, Peary again set out for Greenland, this time with his wife and five hand-picked assistants. By now the Danish explorer Fridtjof Nansen had already succeeded in crossing the Greenland ice cap, so Peary could no longer have the honor of being first. Little matter, he would cross farther north. This would be much more useful in exploring the best route to his ultimate goal, the North Pole.
Misfortune struck almost at once. On July 11 the expedition's little ship Kite was steaming through the frozen seas off Greenland when an icecake crashed against the rudder. The heavy iron tiller swung wildly over ... smashed against Peary's leg, snapping the bone just above the ankle.
The crew carried him below, where the expedition's surgeon quickly set the break. It was a good job, for the doctor was very skillful. He was a pleasant, hard-working young man from Brooklyn, New York. His name—Frederick A. Cook.
Thanks to Dr. Cook's fine care, Peary was soon comfortable. But it was a serious blow. It was difficult enough to explore the Arctic with two sound legs; it was almost impossible with one of them broken. Should he turn back?
Peary never hesitated. He grimly ordered the expedition forward, as if nothing had happened. When the ship reached Greenland, he had himself taken ashore, strapped to a plank. Lying there, he directed his men as they unloaded the ship and built the camp. After five weeks he was limping about. His determination carried him along again.
All that following winter of 1891–92 Peary prepared for his trip across Greenland. He led his men on hunting trips, taught them to build sledges and handle dog teams. The men found him blunt and tactless much of the time but always gentle when they were in trouble. There was the time, for instance, when he and Dr. Cook were caught in a blizzard while probing the ice cap. As Cook began to freeze, Peary dug a hole in the snow, put the doctor in it, and covered the makeshift shelter with his own trousers. Then to give still greater protection, Peary wound himself around the windward side of the hole till Cook revived.
On May 3, 1892, Peary finally started out. The supporting party soon turned back, and Peary continued on with only one companion. Day after day they pushed across the ice cap. Sometimes the blinding glare made it impossible to see; other times the driving snow and bitter winds made them long for the glare again. But on July 4 they finally stood on the northeast coast. They had come five hundred miles, completely across Greenland.
What did it prove? From the lay of the coast Peary now knew that Greenland was an island, that the ice cap itself was no path to the North Pole. But he still didn't know what role this vast empty area might play in helping him reach the target. Just to the north lay more land. Actually this was an extension of the Greenland coast, but to Peary it looked like a new set of islands. Might they be used as stepping stones to the Pole? There was no more time to explore this year, but he must come back.
Next spring, 1893, he again wangled leave from the Navy, and headed north early in June. This year he took eleven men. Dr. Cook didn't come, but an equally valuable member of the last expedition was on hand again. This was Matthew Henson, a Negro helper who had been with Peary since the days in Nicaragua. By now he was a fixture on these trips.
Mrs. Peary came again too, and the expedition gained still another member when she had a little daughter at the base camp in Greenland. This was the farthest north a white child had ever been born, and the world took great interest in her. Christened Marie Ahnighito Peary, she was promptly nicknamed "the snow baby."
March, 1894, and Peary started across the Greenland ice cap again. Once more he headed for the northeast coast, still hoping the land to the north might be an island group that would help him reach the Pole itself. But he never found out. He had set out too early, and a raging winter blizzard soon killed many of his dogs and crippled his men. They were lucky to get back to camp alive. A bitter defeat, but he had two years' leave and resolved to try again next spring.
April, 1895, and he set out with Matthew Henson and a young man named Hugh Lee. This time they started late enough, but in the Arctic disaster can strike in many ways. First, they couldn't find the food they had stored along the early part of the route—it was hopelessly buried in the snow. Then the hunting turned bad. Again and again, they seemed to face retreat or starvation. Again and again, they went on anyhow. Again and again, they found a musk ox or an Arctic hare just in time. Raw meat, torn from the warm body of a freshly killed musk ox, came to seem like a treat.
At last they reached the northeast coast, but so weak they could do no more. There was absolutely no hope of the Pole. Defeated again, Peary led his men back across the ice cap. They could find no food and even had to eat some of their dogs. Lee grew desperately sick, finally lay down to die, begging the others to go on without him. "We'll have no more of that kind of talk," Peary scolded him, "we will all get home or none of us will."
They finally stumbled into their west coast base camp two weeks later. The three men were starving, and only one dog was still alive. Peary took him in his arms and began feeding him great chunks of deer meat. Only when he was sure the dog was full, did he look for something to eat himself.
Excerpted from Peary to the Pole by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1963 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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