Truth Be Told They Lied

Sport and adventure are often yoked to deception, and the chronicle of outdoor accomplishment comes studded with tales of those who deployed the Big Lie.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

What drives us to lie about outdoor pursuits?    Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

On a backpacking trip to the high peaks region of the Adirondacks last January, my party set out late one morning for the tenth-highest mountain in New York: Gothics. There was a lot of deep new snow, and we lost the trail somewhere near Ore Bed Brook. But when we finally came to a 1,000-foot slide that seemed to lead toward the col, I pushed the others on. If I could only climb the 4,736-foot Gothics, I said, I would have another of New York State's 46 High Peaks under my belt.

What's more, I would be able to hold it over my friend and rival John, who had failed to appear in camp the night before.

We didn't make it. We slumped in the high snow just below the col between Saddleback and Gothics. And when we got back to our hut that night, the aforementioned John was sitting there with his boots off, drinking tea by the fire. It turned out he had taken the Range Trail and, amazingly, bagged three neighboring 4,000-footers that day: Armstrong, Upper Wolf Jaw, and Lower Wolf Jaw.

I glanced in the back of his guidebook and thought I saw penciled checks beside peak numbers 22, 29, and 30. I slid into a terrible funk.

It was not until we'd finished our quesadillas and opened the second bottle of wine that John turned to me with guile in his eyes.

"What if I was lying?" he said.

I drew myself up, honor bursting in my breast. "You wouldn't lie," I said. "I wouldn't be friends with you if you did that sort of thing."

"Well I did. I lied."


"Yes. Really."

And everyone else had gone along with it to trap me in my competitive spirit. Ha ha.

I managed to laugh at my folly. And then the next morning four of us set out from our hut in one party, and John and I bagged Gothics together.

A lie at 4,700 feet may not be of much consequence in the shadow of Mount McKinley or the Guinness Book of Records, but the matter is one that has bedeviled sport and adventure from the beginning, and will forever: the Big Lie, the thoroughgoing fraud aimed at gaining credit for something one hasn't done. Marathoner Rosie Ruiz took the subway, not the streets, for a good portion of the 1979 New York Marathon (in which she came in first) and likewise cheated in the 1980 Boston Marathon. Great athletes like Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson have sacrificed Olympic gold medals — and their careers — by lying about their steroid use.

The Big Lie is an integral part of this country's legend. An American hero, Richard Byrd, was long suspected of having faked his pioneering flight to the North Pole in 1926, largely because he failed to dump the American flags he had aboard his airplane. Recent archival research has for the most part confirmed those suspicions; scholars have concluded that Byrd was well short of the Pole when he discovered a fuel leak and turned back. Similarly, the overland discovery of the North Pole is the source of undying controversy among people who have never set foot on an ice pack. A new book by scholar Robert Bryce, Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved, is a mere 1,133 pages long and concludes that both Frederick Cook and Robert Peary lied about reaching the Pole not only to aggrandize themselves, but also to satisfy a nation hungry for the prize.

My curiosity about the sporting lie was piqued by an episode that took place in the Midwest 11 years ago but came to light only late last fall, in Britain, when Ffyona Campbell, a distance walker, admitted that she had lied about a walk across the United States. During a 1,000-mile stretch, she said, she had cheated, accepting occasional rides from her companion and driver.

"Nobody knew, nobody was hurt, I rationalized," Campbell wrote in her book The Whole Story, published amid controversy last November in Britain. Campbell's American crossing was the first of four tremendous walks, totaling 19,586 miles, that won her a place in the Guinness Book of Records with the longest distance ever walked by a female. But the lie preyed on Campbell for years.

The high-strung blond's confession was met with a surprising degree of scorn in England. "An alluring drama queen," said the Daily Mail; "a self-serving ninny," said the Evening Standard; and the Daily Telegraph added, "out of control, in emotional freefall, totally and fatally self-obsessed."

I got a copy of Campbell's book from its British publisher, Orion House, and read it hungrily. Campbell is an attractive woman with a sharp face, and she is, to put it mildly, a difficult person. Restless, self-absorbed, and prone to moralistic pronouncements, she covers her body with the logos of corporate sponsors while castigating multinational corporations for destroying the earth. She walks farther than any woman before her but doesn't seem to notice a single pretty thing during the entire journey.

What on earth possesses a person to walk for 20,000 miles? I wanted to ask her. That's a question that most people who push themselves in sport ask — or at least should ask. A noble answer might be that we're exploring our own limits and don't care a fig about who sees. A not-so-noble answer is that we're trying to gain the world's approval. That's politically quite incorrect; no wonder my friends set that trap for me in the Adirondacks.

But so long as we glorify the holistic motive and deny the whorish one, I suspect we'll be surprised again and again by the likes of the mendacious British globe-walker.

It didn't seem very much fun, did it?" Ffyona Campbell says to me with a slightly muted laugh.

After days of trying, I've finally reached her by phone at the place she's renting in Devon. She's reflecting on her book's description of the walk, and she seems calm but resolute.

"I was always inspired," she adds, "by what [the late English mountaineer] Alison Hargreaves said — to do things the hard way. Every hard thing you do, there's an equal amount of pleasure to be gotten out of it."

Certainly, Campbell's childhood was hard. Her family moved 25 times in 12 years. Her mother seems not to have known how to handle Ffyona's ferocious spirit. Campbell's relations with her father, a tightly wound former Royal Marine helicopter pilot, were smoldering and remote.

As a young woman, Campbell frequently ran away from home and at age 16 somehow hatched the idea of walking the full length of Britain, a dream that slowly consumed first her imagination and then her energies. She was starved for attention in those days (she wore a sweatshirt that said sponsor me). She walked from John O'Groats in the north to Land's End in the south, and the publicity seems to have been grandly fulfilling.

In 1988 she walked Australia. In 1991-1993 she traversed Africa, a walk interrupted twice by political unrest. Along the way, she wrote two popular books that described her adventures. Then in 1994 she did Europe. Typically she would walk 30 miles a day on the shoulder of the highway. Every ten miles, a companion would be waiting for her in the supply vehicle. She'd take a break, eat, maybe drain some blisters with a syringe.

Her life between walks wasn't any easier, Campbell says. Men came and went, a blur of names. She flitted from job to job and seems to have alienated many supporters with her self-involvement and lecturing manner. But as she worked her way across Europe, a worm was turning inside her. She was being devoured by a lie that was now almost a decade old.

It all began back in Indiana, a little over a thousand miles into her east-to-west walk across America in the mideighties. Her pace had left her exhausted and weepy, and as she fell behind she fought with Brian Noel, her young British driver, whom she had also "bonked" (as she puts it in her book) on a pretty regular basis. Meanwhile, Campbell started canceling her appointments with reporters as she fell farther and farther behind schedule. Her sponsor, Campbell's Soups (identified in the book only as The Company), threatened to pull out. Then one afternoon she discovered why she was flagging: She was pregnant.

The moment Campbell gave in to Noel's offer to give her a lift, her misery faded. "When things got too hard, I just got in the van till I was walking very little at all, just on the approach to a town to do the interviews," Campbell writes in The Whole Story. "A little farther past the town and I'd jump in again, all through Illinois and Missouri and Oklahoma and Texas." She had an abortion in Clovis, New Mexico, and resumed walking.

In her book, Campbell makes clear that the lie had value for her. She understood that her walks were not very well thought out, that they lacked a clear rationale. The all-too-easy explanation that kept cropping up in the press was that she was walking to prove something to her angry father. There was truth in that, but not enough to push her across North America. And yet, oddly, the lie gave her reason to push on: She was seized with the need to outdistance her own deception, to prove to herself that she was not a fraud. Maybe if she had told the truth early on, she never would have found the grit inside to do the rest.

By the time she finished her European leg by crossing England in 1994, Campbell's tantrums were so infamous that she was a controversial figure, to say the least. "They were slagging me off through Britain, calling me 'superbitch,'" Campbell says now. (The contempt was mutual; in her book, she refers to reporters, among other things, as "hacks," "flies," and "scum.") "And people would say to me, it doesn't matter what the press says. You know you walked around the world. Well, that was the worst of it: They thought I had walked across the world."

The lie kept eating away at Campbell. For all the negative press, she had become a national symbol of postcolonial British fortitude. After completing her trek, she was paraded through the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister John Major praised her courage and determination. She held herself out as a role model, saying things like, "You can conquer any obstacle if you just believe in yourself."

Privately, Campbell had no such belief. After the European walk, with a book due, she found she couldn't write and was increasingly turning to drugs to assuage her guilt. One day, an acquaintance gave her a dose of heroin, and she took it. Afterward, she decided she faced a choice: fess up or die.

"I couldn't continue with the lie," she says. "I had a choice between another hit of smack, or something else. I was doomed. I was going to die, that was the alternative. I thought I could get away with it. I couldn't get away with it. I couldn't carry on living it."

When she broke her story last fall with a book excerpt in the British paper Express, some in the media accused her of concocting the lie as a publicity stunt in order to sell books. If that was indeed the case, then her ploy failed. If anything, it seems to have hurt sales. "My book about walking across Africa sold 60,000 copies," Campbell says. "The Whole Story has sold a third of that so far, but the library copies are oversubscribed. At most libraries, there's a three-month waiting list. People seem to be saying, 'We understand and we accept her story, but she's not going to make money off it.'"

She pauses for moment and then adds, simply, "I can understand that."

One reason the British reporters might dislike Campbell so much is that she denounced herself, thereby depriving them of one of the rituals of modern sport: the public stoning. These roles and conventions have been evolving for at least 150 years now, so that today they are almost predictable — and filled with risk for all parties.

Some of the earliest big lies date to the age of exploration. The English sailor Sebastian Cabot claimed he had sailed into Hudson Bay in 1508. In his book Great Exploration Hoaxes, David Roberts says there is considerable evidence that Cabot was a con man who never even left England. Two centuries later the explorer Louis Hennepin's claim to have descended the Mississippi was shown to be a fraud; he had stolen observations from LaSalle, who actually made the descent, and when Hennepin's logs were compared with what was later determined about the geography, his reported canoeing pace seemed dubious, to say the least: Some 1,700 miles in 19 days — upstream.

American mountaineering has been riddled with accusations of fraud at least since the first summiting of Oregon's Mount Hood, in the 1850s. In 1854, Thomas Dryer, the publisher of the Weekly Oregonian, claimed to have bagged Hood along with a man later referred to as an "unknown Indian." (His greatest fraud may have been exaggerating Hood's height. Dryer put it at 18,361 feet; in fact, it's 11,245.)

But Dryer is not generally credited with the climb. That honor belongs to the party of Henry Pittock, an English-born printer who worked for Dryer and who climbed Hood with four companions on August 6, 1857. Soon thereafter, Pittock disputed key portions of his boss's account. In a letter published in the rival Democratic Standard, Pittock's party argued that Dryer had only reached a point that appears now to have been the Steel Cliff, on the south face of the mountain, a good 500 feet of hard going below the true summit. The letter set the tone for many explorers' denunciations that would follow in years to come: tentative, ploddingly descriptive, offered more in sorrow than in anger, and suggesting that the accused may have deluded himself: "This we believe to be the part of the mountain heretofore described as the summit, from the fact that it best answers the description; and again from the fact that directly behind the summit ridge from this point, we discovered two quite extensive lakes, which, had the party reached the summit ridge, they could not have helped seeing, and would have been most likely to have described."

In the Weekly Oregonian, Dryer attacked Pittock in the roundest terms: "Well, these young gentlemen may learn to their own advantage, that to become great or good men, they must learn the elementary principles that constitute gentlemen; they must not measure the veracity of those far their seniors in years, experience and standing, with their panting desire for fame."

Yet it is the desire for fame, panting or otherwise, that most often fuels these sorts of sporting and exploratory deceits. And let's face it, there is a definite upside to the Big Lie: Sometimes it works. Byrd, for example, was greeted with a ticker tape parade on Broadway and a visit with President Calvin Coolidge after claiming to have flown for 13 minutes over the North Pole. In recent years, all sorts of explorers and athletes have landed lucrative endorsement contracts and received endless press, only to have their accomplishments called into question.

In the 1990s, after a famed solo up the difficult south face of Nepal's 27,891-foot Lhotse, Slovenian climber Tomo Cesen became the toast of the alpine world and won assorted endorsement contracts — only to have his climb disputed.

Like Campbell, some liars find that after they've succeeded in convincing the world of their bogus achievements, they can no longer live with the consequences of their lie. In 1968, English sailor Donald Crowhurst won great praise and made front-page news with a series of fraudulent radio reports from a trimaran that he claimed to have sailed around the world. Apparently Crowhurst was so ashamed of his lie that sometime later he threw himself overboard into the Atlantic, the only ocean he'd actually sailed across. He was never heard from again.

The big liars tend to be desperate, deeply driven people who before long have created a superstructure of admirers and supporters who are innocently but fervently invested in their achievement. In his book on hoaxers, David Roberts argues that many of his subjects had lost a parent early in life and were on a mission to recover that person. In his view, they are also generally paranoid individuals, and they usually end up believing their own lies, so much so that their own children sometimes take on the burden of vindicating them.

Dennis Rawlins, a Maryland-based investigator and author whose studies of Byrd's notebooks suggest that he was lying, emphasizes that these great adventurers are a breed apart. "If a person is willing to risk his life, as all these guys did," he notes, "wouldn't they be willing to risk their reputation by exaggerating if they were up against it?"

At the same time, it's too easy to condemn figures like Byrd as complete frauds. Rawlins, for one, remains filled with admiration for the man he exposed. "There was always a suspicion that Richard Byrd flew around for a few hours, then turned back," he says. "Actually, he was very brave. He was 500 miles out from land in a dangerous airplane, with a fuel leak. Coming back he had to find a tiny island, and if he missed it he was dead. After he turned around, you can see in his notebook where he was scribbling to try to calculate the wind resistance. He was figuring that if the wind hadn't been there he would have made it. Mentally I think that's how he rationalized lying: 'I've risked my life, and dammit, I deserve it.'"

Almost invariably when adventurers are accused of fraud, they resort to the amateur's defense: I wasn't doing it for fame — I was doing it for the pure love and enjoyment of the pursuit. In 1990, when Cesen was accused of lying about summiting Lhotse, he said, "I have always climbed for myself, it doesn't matter to me if you believe me or if you don't."

Recently, when a climber named Louie Anderson was accused of faking a climb of a smooth granite wall near Victorville, California, that was widely considered one of the hardest routes in the country, he defended himself in the pages of Climbing by saying, "I did not do it for Randy [Leavitt, his accuser], for any other individual, for any sponsor or company, or for the climbing community as a whole, but solely as a personal goal and achievement."

The belief that people only pursue adventure for love and enjoyment is a lie we all tell. Among devoted amateurs — and here I include myself — loving the activity for itself can reach cult levels. I know from my own experience as a backpacker and tennis player that the ethos of those sports is to diminish the challenge and the achievement: It wasn't very cold that day (it was actually three below when we got up); I have an OK serve (it ticks the tape every time).

The same ethos holds among big-wave surfers: The wave I caught wasn't more than 20 feet high — even if there's a video taken from the beach that shows it was 30-plus. But macho underestimation is just another sort of lie, the casual flip side of the same phenomenon.

Maybe there are a few upright people out there who test themselves in the outdoors strictly for their own satisfaction, to discover their own talents. But those people are, I would submit, extremely rare. By insisting that true explorers and athletes are purists, one could argue, we make it more difficult for the liars among us to come forward. Since her confession, Campbell has encountered a number of high-minded adventurers who say she should have kept her mouth shut."The other day I got a letter from a guy who walked the length of the Americas, straight through, very pure," she says, "and he was upset about my book. He said, 'Your admitting this is going to shed doubt on other people's records.'"

Others have needed to make a monster of Campbell by focusing on her problems with drugs and sex. "I look at some of them and I say, 'Why does what I've done make you so uncomfortable?'" she says. "I think some people haven't come to terms with their own truth, their own skeleton."

Campbell's case is unsettling because it suggests that all achievement is interlarded with lies. Sissela Bok, a Harvard University scholar who is an expert on lying, maintains that we should all fight such cynicism. "We have to be careful when things are exposed not to leap to the conclusion that this goes on all the time," she says.

Maybe so, but Americans seem to have developed just that attitude about politics and business — and, given the endless scandals in high places, from insider trading schemes to Clinton's fund-raising improprieties, who can blame them?

It's quite another thing to accept that sportsmen and adventurers lie. "Sport seems to be much more important to people than politics," says Philip Kerr, the English novelist and editor of The Penguin Book of Lies, an anthology of tales and essays on mendacity. "Sport crosses party lines and ethnic lines. It occupies a greater realm, and it's all the more disappointing when sports figures turn out to be like everyone else."

"Sport implies a contrast to mundane considerations of earning a living," says Australian sociologist John Barnes, author of A Pack of Lies, a study of the history and sociology of lying. "To be sportsmanlike means being altruistic. If swimming were ruled by the same considerations as economic activity, then we would expect people to be taking steroids all the time."

We don't, of course. And when we learn that some do, we're outraged. Over the last 100 years or so, though, sport has obviously changed. Amateurism has gradually eroded."There has been a lot more emphasis on entertainment for spectators than on the enjoyment of the participants," Barnes says. "Many of these activities used to be done strictly for their own pleasure. Now it's TV and lights and sponsorships. And the amount of lying has gone up."

But the choice shouldn't simply be between outrage and innocence. The problem with an honor code is that it makes us all out to be honorable by saying that there are just a few scoundrels. Maybe we just haven't been tempted. Perhaps we would all be better off if we accepted that, black as her deeds were, there's a little of Ffyona Campbell's thirst in all of us.

Campbell is still on the move. She lived with aboriginal women in northern Australia for a few weeks last year, and though gratified by the challenges of tracking in the bush, she felt called back to the developed world. "I found out I had to go back, to find my home."

She looked for a home in Cornwall for a time, but that wasn't quite right. Devon she likes, but it's way too expensive. She flirts with London, but city life is too easy; she doesn't want to end up depending on washing machines and other conveniences, meanwhile missing out on the moon and stars.

"I'll be 30 in a couple of weeks," she says. "Every animal has its own home. But I'm still in that phase when an animal leaves its mother's burrow and runs out across an open wasteland to make its own burrow. I think I'm going to Wales next."

"Ffyona, what are you going to do for a living?" I ask.

"I'm a retired pedestrian," she says. "But I really don't like people asking me what I'm going to do. It's limiting when you declare something."

At times, Campbell's righteousness can be off-putting. But after hours of conversation, I came away admiring her. Having struggled to gain first her father's approval (they're on good terms at last) and then her own, she seems to have settled into a role she feels comfortable with: telling people what they don't want to hear.

She's done that at considerable cost to herself. She's said you can't outrun a lie. She has taken a stand by asking to have her name withdrawn from the Guinness Book of Records, even though she rewalked the portion of the United States that she got rides through in 1986."That book is based on trust," she says. "They can't be there every step of the way. Once I said, 'I lied about it,' I couldn't ask them to include me." The Guinness record-keepers will duly expunge her name from future editions of the Book.

Some time ago, somewhere, I believe I may have stated that I conquered Gothics Mountain in January. to say this: On reviewing the situation, I find that I must now retract that claim.

The truth is that after a scary climb with crampons but no ice axes up the steep ice fields on the western face, we only made it as far as the western summit. It's a false summit. The true summit of Gothics is over a saddle, a half-mile away and up another 100 feet or so. We could see it, but we were whipped.

"I just don't care," my friend John said, turning back from the challenge.

"Neither do I," I said.

But if anyone should come across John's guidebook to the High Peaks, do turn to page 291, Appendix II — and make sure there is no check next to Gothics.

I've erased the one in mine.

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