A Long and Brutal Assault

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

A Long and Brutal Assault

First fiction 93 years ago, Frederick Cook became the first person to reach the difficult summit of Mount McKinley.
Presumed fact Actually, he faked it.
Second fiction Reasoned discussions of Cook's accomplishments have yielded his true and fair place in mountaineering history.
Absolute fact Actually, no one agrees on anything when it comes to Cook, and each side is certain—heatedly, comically, infuriatingly certain—that its view is right.

By David Roberts

As news reports go, it was the closest thing to a ghost story one would ever find on the front page of the New York Times. "Author Says Photo Confirms Mt. McKinley Hoax," the headline blared. It seems that a scholar of exploration history named Robert M. Bryce, while browsing in the archives at Ohio State University, had happened upon an original, unaltered print of an image taken in 1906 that has been called "the most controversial picture in the history of exploration." Using a cropped version of that photograph, which was first published in Harper's Monthly in 1907 and again the following year in his book, To the Top of the Continent, Dr. Frederick A. Cook had perpetrated the most audacious mountaineering hoax of all time—a claim that Cook and Edward Barrill, the climber in the photo who stood holding an American flag on what appeared to be a snowy summit, had been the first men to scale "the highest mount of North America," Alaska's 20,320-foot Mount McKinley.

Reading the story, I thought about how odd it was that, 58 years after he was laid in his grave, Frederick Cook still haunts and afflicts the world of exploration. I could imagine him sitting there in the room, smiling, fingering his mustache as his dreamy eyes focused on something slightly behind or above me—a man of fictions, a persistent shade impervious to vindication or disgrace.

The Times story, which ran last November, reported that Bryce's uncropped photo had revealed additional background features of neighboring mountains that proved more decisively than ever that it had been shot nowhere near the top of McKinley. "This is the single biggest find because it proves positively from Cook's own camera that he was lying," declared Dennis Rawlins, the publisher of Dio, a scholarly journal on exploration.

In fact, this was by no means the first time that Cook's McKinley ascent had been "definitively" debunked. Only four years after Cook and Barrill claimed their outlandish triumph, a climber named Belmore Browne elegantly demonstrated that the pair had actually gotten no higher than 15,000 feet below the summit of McKinley. They had ended their climb, Browne conclusively showed, at a spot that would be known thereafter, appropriately enough, as Fake Peak.

Yet over the past nine decades, Cook's believers have issued innumerable broadsides and conspiracy theories in what has amounted to a nearly ceaseless stream of paranoid defense. For instance, when the Times reporter telephoned Russell W. Gibbons, the executive director of the Frederick A. Cook Society, Gibbons was ready with his rejoinder: "It doesn't really matter where the photograph was taken. Even if it wasn't taken on the summit, he could still have gotten there."

Remarkably, then, the debate over Cook, far from fading, seems to be generating more heat than at any time since 1906. As I considered this, the good doctor seemed to smile that wistful smile of his. "Browne nailed you shut way back in 1910," I told him, "and legions of other climbers have heaped more and more dirt on your grave —yet here you are, still kicking away. How?"


I became a mountaineer while I was still a student at Harvard, in the early 1960s. One of my mentors was Bradford Washburn, who, starting during his own Harvard undergraduate days three decades earlier, had changed the direction of American mountaineering. Washburn became the finest Alaskan mountaineer ever—the first man to climb McKinley three times, the author of brilliant first ascents ranging from Mount Hayes to Mount Lucania. In his spare time, as it were, he became director of Boston's Museum of Science.

Hawk-nosed, eagle-eyed, as slight of build today as he was as a young man, Washburn turns 89 this month. His career as a climber, explorer, geographer, photographer, and historian has been crowned with numerous laurels. Yet as I had learned over the years, Washburn is a fussy, almost obsessive stickler for the truth. (He has measured the heights of McKinley and Everest to within a fraction of an inch.) Thus it drives Washburn crazy that Cook won't dry up and blow away in the gale of reason. The last project Washburn wants to finish in his lifetime is to settle the Cook controversy for good.

When I stopped by to see him recently in his airy office atop the Museum of Science, Washburn was perusing his dossier of maps and charts and photographs that laid out every last detail of the Cook-McKinley matter, a dossier that's the product of four decades of assiduous research. It's odd—and telling—to realize just how much of his life Washburn has exhausted attempting to disprove Dr. Cook. In three successive trips, in 1955, 1956, and 1957, Washburn returned to Fake Peak to assemble a definitive case against Cook's "summit photo." On the third expedition, recognizing that a large snowbank had either melted away or sloughed off in the five intervening decades, Washburn's climbing companion, H. Adams Carter (who would later serve for many years as editor of the American Alpine Journal) erected and scaled a 40-foot aluminum pole to shoot a picture taken from the identical spot where Cook had stood in 1906.

Shortly after their final trip, Carter and Washburn's comparative study was published in the American Alpine Journal. Nobody in his right mind could doubt the conclusion, as unmistakable rock features in Carter's shot matched details in Cook's pictures almost perfectly. Yet this trump card only seemed to goad Cook's defenders to more desperate wriggling. Though they were finally forced to admit that the notorious photograph had been shot nowhere near the summit of McKinley, they blamed the deception on an erroneous photo caption written by Cook's book publisher without his knowledge.

Soon after Cook's death in 1940, a small band of true believers incorporated themselves as the Cook Arctic Club. Now known as the Frederick A. Cook Society and boasting a membership of 150 mostly gray-haired stalwarts, this eccentric group has mounted several expeditions seeking to trace Cook's alleged 1906 route and thus vindicate the doctor. But the Society has never attempted an exact reenactment of the achievement Cook resolutely claimed he made. And so, in December 1997, Washburn issued a written challenge to the Society, daring it to finance a two-man team of mountaineers over the age of 40 (Cook and Barrill were 41 and 42, respectively, in 1906) who would carry the same equipment that the Society's namesake and his partner did. The climbers would have 12 days in early September to go 88 miles round-trip, just as Cook claimed he had done—from Alder Creek, up the Ruth Glacier, along the East Ridge to McKinley's summit, and back.

"Hell, Brad," I said after he showed me his challenge, "the strongest mountaineers in the world couldn't pull that off. Forget over 40; let the Cook Society send anybody it wants."

His face lit up in a weathered grin. "Sure. Why not?"

Of course, the Society has declined to take up Washburn's challenge. And of course, the results of such a meticulously-arranged test would do little one way or the other to sway the thinking of Cook's staunchest believers. And so, one must ask, what kind of man was Cook, that he could inspire a loyalty so obsessive and long-lived that it flies in the face of reason?


Frederick Cook was born to genteel poverty in upstate New York in 1865. He lost his father at the age of four. Through sheer hard work, the ambitious youth—whose lifelong lisp probably helped turn him into a lover of solitude—put himself through medical school at New York University, married at 24, and started an unsuccessful practice in Manhattan.

When Cook's young wife died giving birth to their only child, and the baby died too, the widower turned to accounts of polar exploration to escape his grief. One day in 1891, Cook came across a small item in the New York Telegram. A Navy civil engineer named Robert E. Peary was outfitting an expedition for northern Greenland. Cook wrote to Peary and offered to serve without pay as expedition surgeon, and Peary took him on.

Thus began an exploratory career that might well have been one of the most glorious in American annals. By the time he turned toward his fateful deception on the Ruth Glacier 15 years later, Cook was a veteran of five major Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and the leader, in 1903, of the first circumnavigation of the base of Mount McKinley. But his relationship with Peary was laced with poisonous competition and jealousy. Indeed, if there is a key to understanding Cook's irrevocable wrong turn in 1906, it may lie in the man's long and bitter rivalry with the Admiral.

Though the two men became good friends during Peary's 1891–1892 expedition, they soon fell out over Cook's request to publish an account of the journey. "Not a word can be published by any member of any of my expeditions," Peary haughtily replied. "Their work is my property for my use." Stung, Cook turned down an invitation to come along on a second jaunt to Greenland and then sat by and watched as Peary toured America and became a national hero.

By all odds one of the most pompous, driven, and vindictive of explorers, Peary not only had an egomaniac's insatiable need for notoriety, but could not bear to share that fame with anyone else. But he also had an undeniable charisma, which served him well on the lucrative lecture circuit and won him the backing of influential sponsors, most notably the National Geographic Society, which decided early on to turn him into one of its "boys."

Meanwhile Cook, having repeatedly failed to raise sufficient funds for his own Arctic journeys, seethed at Peary's growing fame and signed on with expeditions led by others. Finally, on a shoestring budget, Cook put together the remarkable 1903 expedition that circled Mount McKinley. Three years later, Cook became the nominal leader of a strong expedition (which also included Browne and Herschel Parker) that was making the third serious attempt to summit Mount McKinley. Cook, Browne, and Parker were the first party to attack the mountain from the south. All summer long, the team plumbed the intricate glaciers that block the southern approach to the great mountain, mapping much new territory but making no real dent in its defenses. (Indeed, the first verifiably successful ascent of McKinley would not be accomplished until 1913; and the first successful climb from the south would not occur until 1954.)

At the end of August, Cook and Barrill, a doughty but nearly illiterate Montana horsepacker and hunting guide, left the others behind and headed up the Ruth Glacier, whose terminus the expedition had just discovered. Twelve days later the duo was back, claiming to have reached the summit. Browne and Parker were instantly certain that Cook was lying. As Browne later wrote, "I knew it in the same way that any New Yorker would know that no man could walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grant's Tomb [a distance of eight miles] in ten minutes."

There the matter might have rested: an almost private quarrel, a jealous dispute among former comrades. But Cook then made his fatal error, publishing his spurious "summit photograph." Having noted the effectiveness of Peary's dramatic salesmanship on the lecture circuit, Cook may, at this point, have decided that he needed bolder deeds on his résumé than the ones he could actually perform. The McKinley "climb," then, would be a crucial triumph that he could use to win backing for an attempt at beating his nemesis in the race to the North Pole.

And in 1909, in fact, Cook would emerge from two years in the Arctic to make his most astonishing adventuring claim yet—one that would turn him into a household name around the world. It was then that he announced that he had reached the North Pole a full year before the well-financed Peary arrived at 90 degrees north.


As with his fateful 12 days in the shadow of McKinley in 1906, what Cook actually did during the 12 months of 1907 and 1908 when he was out of touch with the rest of the world will never be known. His Inuit companions later claimed that he never ventured out of sight of land. Scholars suggest that he may have drifted aimlessly along the shores of Ellesmere and North Devon Islands, a remarkable journey in its own right. In any case, Peary and Cook each announced that he had been the first to reach the Pole.

It's almost impossible today to comprehend the worldwide sensation that these claims and the controversy surrounding them caused. For a time, Cook carried the day. A poll of readers in a Pittsburgh newspaper counted 73,238 who believed Cook and only 2,814 who credited Peary. But Peary's backers, led by the National Geographic Society, launched a campaign against Cook, reviving the McKinley controversy. Edward Barrill came forward with a sworn affidavit claiming that he and Cook never came close to Denali's summit, and that Cook had ordered Barrill to fake diary entries and other supporting evidence for the climb. (Cook's defenders to this day maintain that Peary paid Barrill a hefty bribe for his "confession.") After this assault on Cook's veracity, Browne's 1910 discovery of Fake Peak and his photographic duplication of the "summit photograph" couldn't have come at a worse time for the doctor.

By 1911, as far as most of the public was concerned, the Cook-Peary battle was over, and Cook had lost. Congress passed a declaration crediting Peary with the discovery of the North Pole, and Cook drifted into a limbo of disgrace. (It is only in the last two decades that scholars have again scrutinized Peary's own claim that he reached the Pole and demonstrated with near certainty that Peary himself perpetrated a hoax just as grievous as Cook's.)

The rest of Cook's life was tragicomic. Desperate for a new career, he took up geology in Wyoming. In 1922, he manufactured an oil-industry boom in Texas, selling stock in his newly organized Petroleum Producers Association. He was convicted of mail fraud and spent five years in Leavenworth.

Even this quixotic scam scares up defenders in Cook's camp, because the supposedly worthless land that Cook sold later proved oil-rich. After prison, the doctor whiled away his remaining years in the same poverty into which he had been born. A few people still living recall Cook in person—among them, his great-nephew Warren Cook, Sr. "He wasn't a forceful man," he says, "but he was warm. I was ten years old, and my brother had cerebral palsy. He was never able to walk or talk. I have a mental picture of my great-uncle trying to help my brother walk. He gave my brother and me little Eskimo suits." On his deathbed in 1940, Cook was pardoned by President Roosevelt.

Cook never cracked, going to his grave stoically maintaining the truth of the pair of triumphs on which his career rested. A book-length memoir, never published, resides in the Library of Congress. It is titled Hell Is a Cold Place. Near the beginning of the manuscript, he lays down the twin pillars of his fraud with unblinking panache: "I reached the Pole. I climbed Mount McKinley. The controversy from my angle is at an end."


While the debunkers have been busy over the years, the defense has not been idle. In 1956, the Cook Society sponsored an expedition that tried to climb the mountain by the East Ridge, the route that best fits Cook's vague description, but the team had to turn back at the most difficult stretch, a ferociously corniced ribbon between 11,390 and 11,920 feet that to this day has never been traversed. Then, in 1994, a stronger expedition, led by a retired Social Security bureaucrat named Ted Heckathorn, explored the same route. The party included two stellar mountaineers, Scott Fischer (who would die on Everest in May 1996) and Vern Tejas.

Approaching from the south up the Ruth Glacier, as Cook and Barrill had in 1906, the 1994 team reached the crest of the East Ridge just before the corniced ribbon. From their vantage point, Heckathorn and Fischer thought the view of Pegasus Peak to the north (out of sight from any point lower on the approach) matched a sketch from Cook's diary—thereby "proving" that the explorer had at least reached the East Ridge in 1906.

The debate continued. In February 1996, three judges in Fairbanks presided over a mock trial debating Cook's McKinley claim. Washburn spoke for the prosecution, while the Cook Society declined to appoint a defense attorney. Two judges ruled against Cook, while the third abstained. The next year, Washburn and the 59-year-old Heckathorn, one of the most militant (and one of the youngest) of Cook's champions, locked horns in an impromptu debate at a Mount McKinley symposium in Portland, Oregon.

Also in attendance in Portland was Walter Gonnason, age 74, who had led the 1956 expedition attempting to verify Cook and Barrill's miraculous feat. His passion undimmed by time or his own defeat on the East Ridge, Gonnason inveighed, "People have no right to question Dr. Cook! Belmore Browne was a liar!"

In a valedictory slide show, Washburn showed summit photos revealing a huge billow of snow and ice—"not the 'heaven-scraped granite' Dr. Cook claimed to find." Later, talking to a writer, Washburn derided the "Cookies," as he calls the officers of the Cook Society: "They're a perfect team, because they're all as good at lying as Cook was."

But Heckathorn, the next day, had the last word. Slated to talk only about Cook's uncontroversial 1903 expedition, he veered quickly into the 1906 debacle. Patiently, almost pedantically, he ticked off the evidence he'd found in archives damning Browne and Peary and exonerating Cook—a canceled check for $5,000, ostensibly used to bribe Barrill; the sketch in Cook's diary supposedly showing Pegasus Peak; proof of Peary's financing of Browne and Parker's 1910 trip that discovered Fake Peak; and so on. "Read Dr. Cook's own account," Heckathorn pleaded. "Don't take someone else's word for it." At the conclusion, Heckathorn asked for questions. A stony silence greeted him.

Along with such symposia, a kind of paper duel is currently being waged between a pair of journals devoted to exploration: the Cook Society's own Polar Priorities and Dio, the quirky journal published in Baltimore by Dennis Rawlins. The duel, in all its picayune snideness, has the flavor of the campaigns that were once waged in English poetry and periodicals of the eighteenth century, between such wits as Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison and the "scribblers" whose careers they sought to demolish.

Polar Priorities taunts Washburn with "losing control over the controversy for the first time in over 40 years.... [H]is iron grip has slipped." Writes Heckathorn, "Perhaps the most amazing aspect to my Mount McKinley investigation has been the behavior of Bradford Washburn. He is one of the most intelligent and charming people that this writer has ever met.... Yet, where Dr. Cook is concerned he displays an anger and vindictiveness that is hard to explain." The "Cookies" compare their hero's fate to the Dreyfus affair and Galileo's 1633 trial for heresy. Heckathorn dubs the controversy "McKinleygate." Conspiracy is everywhere: "[T]he Peary-Browne-Washburn vendetta is a nasty, historical cover-up."

The tenor of Dio's rebuttals is more moderate, but the metaphors remain martial: "The pattern of belief in Frederick Cook's claim...has been one of almost continuous retreat." The subheads in the Dio polemics have a loony, jeering tone: "Doc Cooked: the unequal battle between Faith & Data"; "Charge of the Slight Brigade—into the Valley of Eternal Reruns." And Cook's critics have their own demonology, at the core of which is the Cook Society. Its monies, they say, are all that keep their champion's cause alive, as that odd organization spends "tens of thousands of dollars upon its inner circle, and upon a prayerless-wheel of expeditions aimed at the chimera of generating convincing evidence for Cook's claims."

While these factions have battled over Cook's legacy, I've had my own reckoning with the forces and drives he represents. All through my years of Alaskan climbing, the enigma of Frederick A. Cook tantalized me. In part, perhaps, that is because I too have climbed McKinley in dire conditions. Back in 1963, at the suggestion of Brad Washburn, seven of us, all students of his, attempted the first direct ascent of the mountain's 14,000-foot-high Wickersham Wall. When we were reported missing and feared dead high on the wall, Washburn told reporters that we knew what we were doing and would doubtless resurface. He was right.

But during that torturous ascent, I learned firsthand what a challenge it is to struggle to the highest point in North America. Despite all the advances in gear and technique since Cook's day, it took us 35 days to complete our climb. Eleven years after ascending the Wickersham Wall, I stood at the foot of Mount Dickey, exactly where we now know Cook and Barrill turned back on the Ruth Glacier. As I stared at the snow plume blowing from the summit ridge 15,000 feet above me and 13 miles away, the top of McKinley seemed impossibly remote.

In 1982, in my book Great Exploration Hoaxes, I devoted a chapter to Cook, summing up Browne's, Washburn's, and Carter's demonstration of the fraud; but I seriously underestimated the staying power of the Cook legend. "In the history of exploration, no hoax was ever more conclusively exposed than the claim by Dr. Frederick Cook to have reached the summit of Mount McKinley in September 1906," I smugly wrote. Had anyone then predicted the coming onslaught of the new biographies, the adjudicated debates, the Heckathorn-Tejas-Fischer expedition, all aimed at squeezing the last ounces of credibility out of the bruised orange of Cook's strange career, I would have snickered in disbelief.

A few years later I visited the Cook Room, in the basement of the Sullivan County Museum, in the sleepy little burg of Hurleyville, New York. Here the Frederick A. Cook Society had assembled a hodgepodge of relics and documents that constituted a cluttered shrine to the doctor's legacy. Cloudy display cases were crammed with dilapidated sledges and sleeping robes; the walls bore home-printed screeds and posters, each arguing the unmistakable truth of Cook's wildest claims, as well as faded photos of the explorer shaking hands with Roald Amundsen and Knud Rasmussen. The whole thing, I realized, was a monument to a daughter from Cook's second marriage, Helene Cook Vetter, who spent the last 30 years of her life obsessively nursing her father's flame. Her Washburn folder testified to month upon month of mutual exasperation; but by the 1960s the antagonists were trading Christmas cards.

Three years ago, on the way to its rendezvous with Robert Bryce and the New York Times, the Hurleyville archive was packed up and sent to Ohio State University, where it has been cataloged and stored in a new, high-tech conservatory affiliated with the Richard E. Byrd Polar Center. (No more fitting avatar could be devised, for Rear Admiral Byrd built his whole career on an exploration hoax—his now discredited claim to have been the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926.)

Not long ago, over the course of three dank days in Columbus, I pored over mountains of correspondence, mounds of old clippings and telegrams, and great middens of speculation scribbled on yellowing pages by Cook partisans over the years. It seemed odd to discover that the low-budget shrine in Hurleyville has been transmogrified into a sober research facility, with acid-free folders and climate-controlled stacks filled floor-to-ceiling with boxes of fussily numbered files. And yet the mass of material still reeks of the narcotic vapor of true belief.


Several years before my hoaxes book, I wrote a novella about a man who perpetrates a mountaineering fraud in Alaska. My protagonist, Victor Koch, was inspired both by Cook and Cesare Maestri, the obsessive Italian climber who, I am convinced, faked the first ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia in 1959. Koch's character was a blend of Maestri's arrogant wrath, Cook's melancholy stubbornness, and some of my own less winning traits.

In the novella, I had Victor Koch act on impulse: The sole survivor of a desperate attempt on an unclimbed mountain (as was Maestri), he finds his way down in a storm, collapses in the arms of his teammates, and when one of them asks if he made it to the top, blurts out his unprepared lie.

It is more likely, however, that Cook premeditated both his McKinley and his North Pole hoaxes. The McKinley "summit photo," with Barrill triumphantly unfurling an American flag, looks like the deed of a methodical planner, as does the bogus diary he probably dictated to his companion.

Seeing the world through Victor Koch's eyes as I wrote my novella, I learned a troubling truth: that the effort to pull off a hoax inevitably divides the world into two diametrical camps—loyal allies and hostile betrayers. When I wrote my book about real hoaxers, I recognized that the phenomenon may self-select for the kind of person who tends to divide the world in the first place. There is, after all, a certain comfort to be gleaned in reducing all the muddled and murky shades of human character to such a black-and-white dichotomy. For one thing, the truth ceases to trouble your soul. Frederick Cook was, I suspect, such a man.

Men and women of this stamp—one thinks of the abolitionist John Brown, perhaps, and of other pilgrim souls fevered by the blinding clarity of a vision of truth—have always inspired followers. For in our daily trudge through the ambiguous world that most of us inhabit, to linger for a few enchanted hours on a summit no one thought could be climbed is to taste immortality.

After all these years, why does the Cook controversy still matter so much? Most expeditions, whether to McKinley or the Poles or even to Everest, unfold as dull and predictable sequences of camps pitched, slopes traversed, and summits gained. But because mountaineering is a game played for the ultimate stakes of life and death, because at its most extreme it inspires behavior ranging from betrayal to heroism, once in a while a climb will lastingly seize the public imagination. The 1996 tragedy on Everest was such a climb. In all likelihood, 90 years from now armchair zealots will still be wrangling over exactly what Scott Fischer said to fellow climber Anatoli Boukreev on their way down that fatal mountain, or over why guide Rob Hall could not abandon his client Doug Hansen and save his own life. And 90 years on, it will not be surprising to find devotees still charting out proofs that Cook and Barrill sailed past the cornices and up Denali's East Ridge in 1906.

But there is more to Cook's case than that. Something about his fate seems deeply to appeal to those, both inside and outside the climbing world, who identify with underdogs, with the notion of a brilliant feat discredited by the "authorities." Take Vern Tejas. With Scott Fischer dead, Tejas is the most respected living climber who still gives Cook at least some benefit of the doubt. Cornered by a reporter at the Portland symposium on Denali in 1997, Tejas insisted that his role in Heckathorn's East Ridge expedition had been strictly that of hired guide. But he added, "If anybody ever proves Cook was the first to climb McKinley, it'll be the biggest shake-up in mountaineering history."

And so it goes on. As I perused the evidence in Brad Washburn's Museum of Science office, I realized that he and I had been obsessing about Cook for a good 35 years and that Washburn himself had been preoccupied with the phantom doctor for almost twice as long.

As I leafed through the scrapbook to its final page, I came upon an essay by Claude Rusk, a rival McKinley explorer during the first decade of our century and one of Cook's most bitter enemies. There, I found what is perhaps the most moving and judicious assessment of the doctor ever written. If Washburn, as has been his lifelong penchant, means to have the last word on Cook, he is happy to borrow that word from Rusk. I read: "That one trip alone—when, with a single companion, he braved the awful solitude of Ruth Glacier and penetrated the wild, crag-guarded region near the foot of Mount McKinley—should have made him famous. But the Devil took him onto an exceedingly high mount and showed him the glories of the icy alpine world—and the Doctor fell. Let us draw the mantle of charity around him and believe, if we can, that there is a thread of insanity running through the woof of his brilliant mind."

Contributing editor David Roberts is at work on a book about Western explorers Kit Carson and John C. Frémont to be published in January 2000.

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