Dissent on Denali

Climbing Magazine
May 1998
Edited by Alison Osius
© Bill Donahue

“What is true in a man’s life is not what he does, but the legend which grows up around him. . . .You must never destroy legends.” — Oscar Wilde

BY THE TIME THEY REACHED THAT LAST WINDBLOWN PITCH, they were exhausted and chilled to the bone. “We breathed heavily,” the explorer Frederick Cook wrote of his 1906 attempt to become the first person up Alaska’s Denali, “and our hearts labored like gas engines in trouble. . . . The mind was fixed on the glitter of the summit, but the motive force was not in harmony with this ambition.”

And yet they toiled on, Frederick A. Cook, the Brooklyn physician who would later claim discovery of the North Pole, and his Tonto, a burly Montana blacksmith named Edward Barrill. Imagine them that September 16, their backs bent to the ardor of a pure, holy struggle, their mustaches frosted with ice. Cook and Barrill wore flimsy canvas rucksacks and camel-hair capes. They were climbing without crampons, and even their hike inland to the base of the 20,320-foot mountain had been, as Cook noted, a matter of “crossing life-sapping marshes and tundras. . . always with the torment of death before us.

“One hundred steps,” Cook wrote in recounting his summit surge for Harper’s Magazine, “and then a halt… Another hundred steps…and so on in our weary efforts to rise… I shall never forget the notable moment when the rope became taut with a nervous pull, and we crept impatiently over the heaven-scraped granite toward the top.” Cook and Barrill clasped hands on the summit; they gazed down at the “narrow, winding, pearly ribbons” of rivers below.

Or so the story goes.

Before Frederick Cook even got out of Alaska, a young climber, Belmore Browne, decided he was a liar. Browne, a junior member of Cook’s expedition, had stayed near the Alaskan coast, to collect plant specimens, and when Cook returned, boasting that he’d zipped up Denali and back in less than a month, Browne sniffed a hoax. “I knew it,” he said, “in the same way any New Yorker would know that no man could walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grant’s Tomb in 10 minutes.”

A feud was born. In the nine decades since Harper’s ran a photo of Edward Barrill clutching an American flag on the supposed pinnacle of North America, no question in mountaineering has caused more bickering and acid indigestion than Frederick Cook’s claim to Denali. What began as a gentleman’s disagreement, the no-nonsense Browne versus the dreamy-eyed Cook, blossomed into a war, a still-fulminating battle between reason and romance that has engaged a cast of thousands including Cook’s polar rival, Robert Peary; the editors of The New York Times and the directors of the National Geographic Society; huge crowds cheering at train stations; President Franklin Roosevelt, and even the ghost of John F. Kennedy.

There are no neutral parties in this feud. In one corner, you have Browne and his heirs — skeptics who have systematically torn Cook to bits, discrediting his Denali photographs, unearthing geological errors in his field notes, and in general carrying on like beady-eyed scientists gone berserk. David Roberts, author of Great Exploration Hoaxes, notes that these critics have exposed Dr. Cook’s fraud “more conclusively” than any other hoax in “the history of exploration.” They have proven, even, that Cook never made it within two vertical miles of Denali’s summit. But they have not prevailed. In the other corner, Frederick Cook, dead now for over half a century, still looms as a climber in whom we can believe very deeply.

We live in a prosaic era, a time in which almost any bozo with a checkbook can attempt Everest, and Dr. Cook shines to us as a paragon of a grander age. In his day, large chunks of terra incognita were still left. Explorers were romantic heroes, and Cook was the most romantic of all. He was a lifelong loner and a writer whose four books eloquently extolled the “mystery and promise” of the outdoors. He was soft-spoken and kind, and it’s easy to regard him as a martyr. Both of Cook’s great exploration claims — Denali in 1906 and the North Pole in 1908 — were ultimately trashed; the man was tossed into federal prison, on charges of mail fraud. And yet he died insisting that he was honest. Is it any wonder, then, that there is a fan club still loyal to the doctor and his great, good lost cause?

This club, the New York-based Frederick A. Cook Society, has 150 members. The most devoted are tweedy codgers who cling to that quaint notion of heroism, and to a conspiracy theory. According to the Cook Society’s unofficial creed, Frederick Cook was savagely ruined by the “Peary cabal” — that is, the Philistine sponsors of Robert Peary’s 1909 North Pole attempt. The National Geographic Society, The New York Times and a coalition of industrial titans known as the Peary Arctic Club had, the Creed posits, a vested interest in ensuring that their man was credited with the greatest exploration prize of his era. So, pulling strings (supposedly), they saw to it that Cook was kicked out of New York’s prestigious Explorers Club in 1909 and ravaged by the press.

Fueled largely by a recent $500,000-plus bequest from Cook’s late granddaughter, the Society uses a myriad of tactics to counteract the cabal. It publishes a slick quarterly newsletter; offers its historian $150 an hour to ponder, say, what Cook ate for breakfast on the flanks of Denali; and grants scholarships to teen researchers who toe the Cook line. The Cook Society’s members have always clung most fiercely to the dubious claim that, in April 1908, their man became the world’s first human to attain the North Pole. They have expended millions of calories refuting the testimony of Cook’s two Eskimo aides who said that Dr. Cook actually hung up his mukluks hundreds of miles from the Pole, just off the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Land. But on a recent dank day, Cook’s fans shifted to their alternate passion: Thirty-five of the faithful convened in Seattle for a symposium on the peak they invariably call Mount McKinley.

The attendees wore ties, and were as grim as a clutch of professors contemplating the meaning of Melville. Ted Heckathorn, the conference coordinator, delivered the keynote address right after luncheon as one elderly spectator copped a few Z’s. Heckathorn invoked the name of Scott Fischer, the Seattle guide who died on Everest, describing his and Fischer’s 1994 trip to Denali.

“During my last visit with Scott,” Heckathorn intoned with the sort of gravity usually reserved for reading brass plaques, “he told me, ‘I stood where Cook stood [on Denali’s east ridge] and I matched him. I looked up the same ridge and saw the route to the top. It was doable.’”

Nobody said anything; a silent awe hung thick in the room. And the pessimist in me kept thinking that, at any moment, Bradford Washburn could burst through the door.

EIGHTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD, WITH A VOICE LIKE ROUGH SANDPAPER and a will of wrought iron, Bradford Washburn is the Cook Society’s nightmare. He is the last remaining mountaineer who knew Belmore Browne, and a man who believes that Cook’s summit stories are nothing more than “lies conjured up at Cook’s desk in Brooklyn, New York.” He is the director emeritus of the Boston Museum of Science, and he is obsessed. For over 40 years, Washburn has ground each and every one of Cook’s romantical Denali assertions through the mill of scientific analysis. Cook’s passage about scaling the “heaven-scraped granite” atop Denali? Washburn has climbed the mountain three times, and his summit photos reveal that the peak is buried in at least 60 feet of snow and ice. Cook’s claim that he could see “steaming volcanoes” from the top? Washburn points out that intervening mountains would forbid such a view. And the stunning black-and-white photos Cook published in his 1908 book, To the Top of the Continent? Oh, my.

To really understand Washburn’s intricate relationship to those pictures, we need to go back to 1910, the year that Belmore Browne returned to Denali. Browne located, and then photographed, the very rock on which Barrill had stood with his flag. The rock, it turned out, was located 19 miles southeast of the summit, at an elevation of just 5260 feet. It is now called “Fake Peak.”

Browne, a painter, died in 1954, but he bequeathed to Washburn a picture of Denali and how, really, could Washburn refuse the mantle of skepticism? In 1956, the geologist traveled to the mountain to finish his mentor’s work. Washburn indicted six more of Cook’s published photos.

For instance, he duplicated a picture captioned “In the Silent Glory and Snowy Wonder of the Upper World, 15,400 feet” at the rather inglorious altitude of 5240 feet on Denali. For years afterward, Washburn merely trusted that his camera told the truth. In 1996, though, he took his incrimination of Dr. Cook to its logically final step. Washburn brought Cook’s “summit” photo, along with H. Adams, Carter and Browne’s “Fake Peak” pictures, to the very lab that had analyzed the Zapruder film, the grainy home movie of the Kennedy assassination. Itek Optical Systems of Lexington, Massachusetts, pored over the photographed rocks, annotating every nubbin and crack and ultimately producing a lengthy report that concludes that Browne and Cook had photographed “the same peak.”

But the photographic evidence isn’t even the linchpin of Washburn’s anti-Cook proof. There is the affidavit that Barrill, Cook’s climbing partner, signed in 1909, confessing that the Denali claim was a hoax. And then there is the question of timing. The Cook party stood on the Alaskan coast in mid-August of 1906. A succession of early frosts hit them and Cook, suspecting an early winter, abandoned his summit dreams. He decided that he would merely do reconnaissance for future ascents. But then on the flanks of Denali, he glimpsed the dawn in “its fetching polar glory. There was a burst of fire,” he wrote in Harper’s, “and with it the great glittering spires above blazed with a glow of rose.”

He and Barrill decided to press on. Cook later claimed that, from basecamp, they climbed up the gently sloping Ruth Glacier and then up the treacherous East Buttress, a total of 44 miles, in eight days.

Of the thousands of people who have climbed Denali since the Alaska missionary Hudson Stuck notched the first undisputed ascent in 1913 (on the relatively gentle Muldrow route), only a handful have done it inside eight days. And the East Buttress, particularly, has taunted its suitors. When New Hampshire’s Jed Williamson led the first modern party up it in 1963, it took him 25 days and a wealth of fixed rope. Williamson never touched the terrifying double-fluted ridge Cook says he conquered. This hairy, approximately three-quarter mile long stretch of the Buttress has been attempted, but only once — by a party Walt Gonnason led in 1956. Gonnason failed.

“Look,” Washburn says, “all I’m interested in are the facts, and the fact is that Frederick Cook just said he climbed Mount McKinley so he could drum up money for a trip to the North Pole. The fact is that that guy was such a con man he could have sold cracked ice at the North Pole. I have told this to those Cook people. I have challenged the Cook Society to a debate three times, but every time they’ve said they’re too goddamned busy. They don’t have the guts to face me, and they can’t wait till I die; I know it. But before I get hit with a heart attack and get dragged out feet first, I’m going to put together a book telling the definitive story. I’m not going to leave those Cook people one millimeter of rope to work with.”

OH, THE WORLD is full of bullies, and Frederick Cook doesn’t need their abuse; his life was too hard. Cook’s father died when he was five and, as a shy, lisping teenager in Brooklyn, young Fred worked as a rent collector to support his family. He paid his tuition at Columbia University by running a milk-delivery business, then went to medical school. His wife and infant daughter soon died, after a complicated birth, and he turned to long books on exploration to escape grief. (He later remarried and had children.)

Eventually, Cook eyed a newspaper ad calling for an expedition surgeon. He applied and then sailed north with Peary, to begin an exploration career that, even his critics concede, was outstanding. In 1897, Cook traveled to the Antarctic with the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and saved Amundsen’s crew from death by delivering what was then novel advice: He told the explorers to eat penguin steaks to avoid scurvy as their boat sat locked in the ice for a year. In 1902, trying to reach the North Pole with Peary, he journeyed to 84 degrees north, and the next year he made an undisputed circumnavigation of Denali, a feat that was not duplicated for over 70 years.

No one will ever know exactly what Frederick Cook did when he was kicking around in the Arctic in 1908, but he was anointed a hero in April 1909 when he mushed into Annoatok, Greenland, claiming to have reached the North Pole the previous year. The Royal Danish Geographical Society awarded him a gold medal for discovery; a crowd of 15,000 greeted him in St. Louis, bellowing “The Star Spangled Banner.” But by September, when Peary returned to the states from his own Arctic journey, dark clouds were forming.

The Peary Arctic Club began holding clandestine meetings aimed at destroying Cook’s reputation. The Club’s president quietly paid Edward Barrill $5000 to sign an affidavit, and on October 15, 1909, shocking news seeped into the headlines. In a page-one story, The New York Times quoted Barrill saying that Cook had never made it higher than 10,000 feet on Denali and had “doctored” Barrill’s climbing diary, so as to conceal the lie. Barrill described a hike that included a four-mile detour to the top of Fake Peak and ended low on the Ruth Glacier, at 4900 feet. The Times rejoiced, “Smashed is Dr. Cook,” and two days later, Belmore Browne drove another nail into Cook’s coffin. Before a committee of the Explorers Club, Browne asked Cook to defend his Denali claim; the doctor demurred. “Now, gentlemen,” he told the Explorers, “I have been suddenly thrust into a controversy and I have not had time to breathe, have not had time to eat, and it doesn’t seem to me that you should expect me to go into any details just at this moment.”

Cook canceled his imminent lecture tour. He vanished from the public view but remained, his fans claim, the victim of a grisly conspiracy. In 1923, soon after he had launched a new career as an oil prospector, the doctor was charged with fleecing his company’s stockholders — with circulating sales pitches that made great, gushingly fraudulent claims about his Texas oil fields. A federal judge dissolved Cook’s oil business and sent the explorer to the federal pen in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Cook had hundreds of sympathizers at Leavenworth; indeed, on the night before he was sprung, in 1930, the prison’s staff honored him with a rare farewell dinner. Still, he was filled with despair. “Few men in all history …” he wrote, “have ever been made to suffer so bitterly and so inexpressibly as I.” He spent much of his last decade writing a gloomy, unpublished memoir, Hell is a Cold Place, and on his deathbed in 1940, he received at last one stroke of grace — a pardon from President Roosevelt.

THE ASSOCIATE PRESS REPORTS THAT COOK GREETED HIS PARDON with a pained celebration, wheezing, “Happy. Thanks.” It was a fine story, I thought, but I’d heard a more splendid version of Dr. Cook’s exit, one that had him growing delirious in his last moments and whispering in an Eskimo tongue. Sheldon Shackleford Randolph Cook-Dorough, the Georgia lawyer who serves as the Cook Society’s official historian, told me this tale, drawling reverently over the phone. He also told me, “I have made Dr. Cook my life’s work.” Indeed, Cook-Dorough (no relation to the august explorer) had read the entire 32-volume transcript of Cook’s oil trial twice, studying 20 hours a day until, he claims, small flecks of tissue detached from his retina, causing him to see tiny black dots on the page. I was thrilled by the man’s single-minded devotion, so I decided to fly into Atlanta to interview him in person. “Wonderful,” Cook-Dorough exclaimed. “We shall talk all day and long and into the night, for Dr. Cook was truly a great man and …”

On the evening I arrived, Cook-Dorough, 69, came out to the airport to meet me. Never mind that I’d never told him my flight number, or even what I looked like. He presumed, I imagine, that our mutual fondness for Dr. Cook would make everything right. We didn’t connect but, as we later established, we actually did cross paths in the concourse, our eyes locking fatefully. Frederick Cook’s most loyal apostle, Cook-Dorough is hale and ruddy-complected, with an unruly thatch of gray hair and a great urge to testify.

We met the next morning in the living room of Cook-Dorough’s spare apartment. A portrait of his great-granddaddy, a Confederate general, hung on the wall and we discussed the sad case of Brad Washburn. “From the very beginning of his career,” Cook-Dorough said, “Bradford Washburn was tainted. He was associated with the sponsors of Peary’s trip to the North Pole, the National Geographic Society.” The truth is that Washburn has created several National Geographic maps, but has received only one Denali-related paycheck from the Society — a $1000 research grant. Nevertheless, Cook-Dorough carried on. “And when any one of us is ushered into a field of study by people with fixed opinions, we absorb those opinions. It’s very human, of course.”

Cook-Dorough argued that he himself was guided into the Denali controversy by a level-headed soul. His grandfather, he said, talked “with great admiration about Dr. Cook, breakfast, lunch, and dinner” for eight straight years and, though the man died before Sheldon was born, his ardor flowed into his progeny’s blood. As a law student in the late 1950s, Cook-Dorough read tomes like Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole. “I learned of all Dr. Cook had done,” Cook-Dorough recalls, “and of how he had been relegated to the trash bin of history. And one day it hit me: ‘This is a monstrous injustice!’ I was overwhelmed by the personal tragedy of it. I abandoned my law books and rushed to the library.”

For decades, Cook-Dorough focused his studies on the polar expeditions. His interest in Denali wasn’t piqued until 1977, when, at the funeral of Cook’s youngest daughter, he glimpsed the diary Dr. Cook had kept on his climb. Another Cook descendant showed him the ancient document, briefly, before depositing it in a bank vault and Cook-Dorough was not able to give the diary the homage it merited until 1996. Then, he spent three months studying its 172 pages with a magnifying glass. He transcribed the tortuous cursive and gleaned cold proof of Cook’s triumph — most notably, the gradual decay of the doctor’s penmanship.

“As he ascends,” Cook-Dorough explained from his perch on the gold velvet chair in his living room, “his legibility declines markedly until, at above 14,000 feet, he’s just jotting things down. The phrasing is disjointed. The rarefied air of the higher elevations makes it difficult to collect one’s thoughts, you know, and when Dr. Cook is hanging off cliffs or freezing at 16 below, the writing becomes even harder to read. You can almost see the pain he felt in grasping the pen.”

Cook-Dorough has never personally experienced rarefied air. But of late he’s been taking weekly strolls through Atlanta — hour-long walks he devotes exclusively to ruminations on Cook. He has also disconnected his phone, a distraction to study, and stopped going to the symphony or the opera. Dr. Cook is never far from his mind. “Sometimes,” he said, “I just explode with joy. I remember Dr. Cook’s achievements and I think, ‘That is magnificent!'”

Cook-Dorough kept talking. We talked on all morning — four hours without ceasing, even for a drink of water, and at last I asked him what his next project would be. Over the months that followed, Cook-Dorough would write me seven letters, as long as 11 pages, some rendered meticulous by a hired typist. The letters lauded Dr. Cook as “a hero, a very gifted man, a pioneer ethnologist;” they bespoke a tremendously restless passion. But now, in his living room, all Cook-Dorough could do was sit and grin beatifically. “The evidence for Dr. Cook is so monumental,” he said, “I feel the major work has been done. I feel satisfied.”

SATISFIED? I DIDN’T LIKE THAT AT ALL. What I loved most about Cook’s fans was their dissatisfaction, their disdain for accepted truths and their unceasing pursuit of the Real Facts. I needed one more dose of quixotic fervor, so in the end I visited Ted Heckathorn. The host of the Seattle conference, Heckathorn also led a 1994 expedition to Denali. The $30,000 trip was funded by the Cook Society and it was clearly a seminal chapter in Ted Heckathorn’s life. When I stepped into Heckathorn’s home just north of Seattle, a photo from the trip, a huge shot of a sunlit glacier, hung over the shiny faux fireplace. “The Ruth Glacier,” he pronounced with earnest pride. Heckathorn, 59, is a balding, sinewy retiree cum full-time freelance historian, and that afternoon he explained in intricate detail how his photo was connected to the vindication of Cook.

“You know,” he began, “we really need to consider the drawing on page 52 of Cook’s diary.” Cook claimed that this squiggly sketch depicted a Denali neighbor, a spire he called “Pegasus Peak,” as seen from far above the Ruth Glacier, at about 11,700 feet on the east ridge. Heckathorn aimed, in 1994, to prove that Cook’s sketch was legit — that the doctor had indeed rendered it on the ridge.

The expedition started as almost a party, with suppertime sing-alongs and even a cameo appearance by Cook-Dorough, who hung out at the base of the Ruth, endeavoring hopelessly to learn the basics of alpine ropework. Eventually, though, Heckathorn left camp and climbed to 9000 feet on the glacier, a few miles past where he shot the huge photo. His guide, the late Scott Fischer, kept going; Fischer picked his way up to the spot where Cook had supposedly penned his sketch. Then he glimpsed the very view of Pegasus that the doctor had rendered and his certainty that Cook was a liar started to fade.

“We looked up at that double-fluted ridge,” recalls Denali guide Vern Tejas, who was climbing with Fischer that day. “There were fingers of snow on it that extended 10 feet out over a sheer 1000-foot drop-off, but Scott was convinced it was doable — maybe even with the horsehair rope and the buckskin shoes of Cook’s era. He wasn’t exactly saying that Cook did it with that gear; he was saying that he, Scott, could do it. But we talked about getting someone to sponsor us to replicate Cook’s climb. We kicked the idea around.” When Fischer and Tejas descended, they shared their new open-mindedness with Heckathorn. “It was awesome,” the historian reminisces. “I could almost hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!

“Brad keeps pointing to the photographs,” Heckathorn continued, “but they’re just not material. I’m convinced now that Dr. Cook was carrying bad film packs. He’d bought his film early in the year and now it was September and they’d been going through streams and fog and heavy snow for months. His real summit film was probably water-damaged, so he used other photos to express what the summit looked like. Or maybe he just didn’t bring his camera to the summit at all. Cook told one reporter that he left it in camp on the last day of the climb.”

We were still standing in the living room, peering at the drizzle in the woods outside, and Heckathorn began to ravel off onto a new, utterly tangential topic — Robert Peary’s shadowy ties to Kudlooktoo, an Eskimo who murdered one “Professor Marvin” in the Arctic in 1908. He drew me downstairs, into his basement study, to consult various documents on this conundrum and finally, after an hour, he segued back to Denali and its infamous “heaven-scraped granite.”

“I know how Brad feels about the top,” Heckathorn said with concern, “that there’s a lot of ice, and no exposed rock up there. But the real question is whether there was exposed rock up there in 1906. There was a huge earthquake on McKinley in 1912, and the whole Muldrow route was turned into a jumble of ice. I’d like to know how the earthquake changed the configuration of the summit.”

I pointed out that, according to Washburn, Denali wouldn’t have a granite crown even if it were bare of snow. The uppermost rock on the mountain, Washburn says, is black argollite.

“No, no,” Heckathorn said. “There are serious problems to Brad’s thinking there.” Last year, it seems, Heckathorn enlisted Vern Tejas to rappel down from Denali’s summit and pluck the two highest rocks he could get. One rock, it turned out, was white, the other was black. Heckathorn sent the white rock to a geological lab, so that it could be professionally identified. “The report was faxed to me,” he said with great satisfaction. “Granite.”

I wanted to ask Heckathorn why on earth he was investing so much sweat into studying what one guy did in the bush of Alaska 90-odd years ago but he was still talking, with zeal. I couldn’t cut in and finally I realized that, in truth, I didn’t need to. We were surrounded by old books, and you could smell the mustiness of them and see the cracks and the dust in their brown leather spines. You could open them up, as Heckathorn had been doing all afternoon, and gaze at their fading black and white photograph plates. Here was a comely troupe of Eskimo maidens dancing near the North Pole; here was some long-dead explorer peering woefully at an endless snow-and-ice covered sea; and here was “Frederick A. Cook, MD” wearing a silk cravat and a round-collared shirt as his liquid blue eyes, noble and hurt, fixed on the camera. The past, it struck me, is enchanting — a million-branched river of stories. I could understand the urge to dive in and believe.

After a very long while, I made it out of Ted Heckathorn’s basement. I climbed up the stairs and got in my car and drove off towards home, and when I got onto the highway I remembered the last page of Cook’s book on Denali. The doctor wrote of taking Ed Barrill’s flag and pressing it into a small metal tube. The tube was left, Cook said, “in a protected nook a short distance below the summit.” Ted Heckathorn hopes to search for it some day. “I’d like to get up there with a metal detector,” he said. “The tube could have been swept away in a storm or smashed to bits by tumbling rocks, but who knows? It’s possible that if it was tucked away well, that tube could still be there.”

I hope he finds it.