The harsh, icy wilderness of the Arctic has posed – and continues to pose – formidable challenges, with its extreme cold, unpredictable weather, and treacherous terrain. The allure of this vast, uncharted territory has drawn explorers from around the world, seeking to conquer its hostile environment. It stands as a testament to ambition, resilience and the unyielding desire to explore the unknown.
Within the realm of exploration, there has always been a certain amount of scepticism over purported discoveries – such as the controversial claims of figures including Amerigo Vespucci and Pedro Álvares Cabral – and the subject of who was the first person to reach the North Pole is no different.
The controversy surrounding the first successful expedition to the North Pole stemmed from a mixture of ambition, nationalistic fervour, and the era’s limited ability to verify such claims.
Yet today, over a century after two men – Frederick Cook and Robert Peary – both claimed to have been the first man to reach the North Pole, the debate remains. It’s one that may never be conclusively resolved. So who really was the first person to reach the North Pole?
In 1909 American investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens called the battle between Cook and Peary ‘the story of the century’ and said that regardless of the truth, the story was as wonderful as the Pole itself.
Let’s take a trip to the frigid, icy wastes of the Arctic in an attempt to discover the answer to one of the most fascinating questions in the long history of exploration – who was the first person to reach the North Pole?
A Short History of Arctic Exploration
The North Pole has been on our metaphorical radar for thousands of years. It’s believed that ancient Greek sailor Pytheas may have reached the northern extremes of the Atlantic Ocean or even as far north as the Arctic in the third century BC while on an expedition to source tin.
What may be the first modern expedition to find the North Pole was led by William Edward Parry, a British naval officer, who reached the 82nd parallel north, around 900 kilometres (560 miles) from the North Pole.
In 1871, the ill-fated Polaris expedition led by Charles Francis Hall, ended in disaster. Five years later, another British attempt, this time led by Commander Albert Markham looking to become the first to reach the North Pole, reached the 83rd parallel north (approximately 780 kilometres, or 485 miles from the North Pole) before turning back.
Further attempts by Americans, Norwegians, Swedes and Italians also fell short of the intended target. That was, perhaps, until 1908.
Was Frederick Cook the First Man to Reach the North Pole?
Frederick Albert Cook, an American physician and explorer, embarked on his controversial expedition to the North Pole in 1907. Setting out from Greenland with two Inuit companions, Ahwelah and Etukishook, Cook claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole on April 21, 1908.
His claim, later called ‘the greatest scandal in polar history’, was not without precedent. In 1906, two years before he alleged to have reached the North Pole, he claimed to have climbed Mount McKinley, now called Denali, the highest mountain in North America. A claim that was subsequently discredited.
Cook’s journey, he asserted, involved a gruelling trek across the Arctic ice, facing extreme cold, treacherous ice conditions, and limited supplies. After supposedly reaching the pole, he’s believed to have spent the winter of 1908-1909 in Greenland, isolated from the outside world.
It wasn’t until he returned to civilisation in the Shetland Islands in July 1909 – without any original navigational records that could substantiate his route and the distances covered – that he made his announcement. This delay, coupled with the distinct lack of detailed records or corroborating evidence, raised questions about the authenticity of his expedition, and therefore his claim to the title of first person to the North Pole.
Over time, further analysis and retrospective scrutiny of Cook’s claim revealed inconsistencies in his account, leading many experts to conclude that he was not the first person to reach the North Pole. The controversy over Cook’s claim contributed to a broader debate about the reliability and integrity of early polar exploration, highlighting the challenges of verifying such monumental achievements in an era before advanced navigational technology.
So, if Frederick Cook wasn’t the first person to reach the North Pole, then who was?
Was Robert Peary the First Man to Reach the North Pole?
Within days of Cook’s announcement, Robert Edwin Peary, a US navy officer and Arctic explorer made his own claim to have been the first to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909.
Accompanied by Matthew Henson, an experienced Arctic explorer, and four Inuit men, Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, Peary’s expedition set off from Ellesmere Island and made a challenging trek across the ice to the pole. When he returned, Peary announced his achievement, presenting it as a historic milestone in polar exploration.
His claim was initially met with widespread acclaim and recognition, especially in the United States, where it was seen as a matter of national pride. For years, it was believed the honour was Peary’s. It was even taught in schools.
However, like Cook, Peary’s claim to have been the first man to reach the North Pole have been subsequently disputed amid allegations of dishonesty. One of the main sources of doubt was the lack of independent verification of his journey.
Peary’s navigational records, particularly his diary and sextant observations, were questioned for their accuracy and completeness. Critics pointed out discrepancies and gaps in the data, suggesting that Peary might not have travelled as far north as he claimed. In 1989, the US National Geographic Society, having studied Peary’s photographs and analysed his ocean depth data, suggested he may have been 8,000 metres short of the North Pole. Other analyses have indicated further distances.
Additionally, Peary’s unwillingness to openly share his records with the public or allow impartial experts to thoroughly examine them fuelled suspicion at the time. Another factor contributing to scepticism was the speed at which Peary claimed to have travelled during the final stages of his expedition. His reported pace was significantly faster than that which he had achieved on previous days, and what was generally considered feasible under Arctic conditions.
In fact, in recent years, Olympic-standard skiers using state-of-the-art equipment and precise navigational devices, have contended that Peary couldn’t have got to the pole as quickly as he suggested.
The conflicting claims of Cook and Peary, that each was the first person to reach the North Pole, and the ensuing public debate, raised questions about the reliability and integrity of both explorers’ assertions, leaving the historical record of the first attainment of the North Pole mired in uncertainty and dispute.
On May 9, 1926, American navy officer Richard Evelyn Byrd and his pilot Floyd Bennett claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole by air, but this claim, like those of Cook and Peary, has also been discredited.
Like Peary, they fell short, but not by a distance of eight kilometres. It was, according to some sources, more like 160 kilometres (around 100 miles) although – as with many other aspects of these stories – the exact shortfall is the topic of ongoing debate. Byrd was even awarded the Medal of Honor by Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States.
On May 12, 1926, just three days after a previous attempt, a team led by the renowned explorer Roald Amundsen successfully crossed the Arctic and flew over the North Pole. This team included American polar explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen (known for founding the Royal Norwegian Air Force), Oscar Wisting (who had accompanied Amundsen to the South Pole fourteen years earlier), and fifteen other crew members.
They flew in a semi-rigid airship called the Norge, flown by Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile. They left the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago on May 11 and flew over the North Pole the following day. Two days later they landed in Alaska.
The First Confirmed Land Journeys to the North Pole
While these early claims by explorers such as Cook and Peary were mired in controversy, it was not until much later that the first confirmed overland journeys to the North Pole were accomplished.
Ralph Plaisted’s 1968 Snowmobile Expedition
In 1968, Ralph Plaisted, an insurance salesman from Minnesota, led an expedition that became the first generally accepted land journey to the North Pole. Plaisted and his team set out on snowmobiles, a mode of transport that was unconventional at the time for polar exploration. Their journey was a combination of meticulous planning, resilience against harsh Arctic conditions, and technological innovation. The expedition’s route began in Canada’s Ward Hunt Island, and they navigated the treacherous ice and frigid temperatures of the Arctic. The team’s arrival at the North Pole on April 19, 1968, was confirmed via sextant and sun sightings, and their position was verified by a U.S. Air Force plane that flew overhead. This expedition marked a significant moment in polar exploration history, as it was the first to be independently verified.
A year later, British explorer Wally Herbert made history by becoming the first person to reach the North Pole on foot. His expedition, which commenced from Alaska and concluded in Spitsbergen, was a remarkable feat of endurance and navigation, solidifying Herbert’s place as a key figure in polar exploration at the time.
The Soviet Expeditions
In the years following Plaisted’s journey, the Soviet Union also made significant contributions to Arctic exploration. Starting in 1978, the Soviets established a series of drifting ice stations, known as “North Pole” stations, which facilitated a continuous human presence in the high Arctic. These stations played a crucial role in scientific research and also in confirming the feasibility of reaching the North Pole overland. Soviet icebreakers, such as the Arktika in 1977, further demonstrated the capability of surface vehicles to reach the geographic North Pole.
Modern Expeditions and Technological Advancements
With advancements in technology and navigation, reaching the North Pole became more accessible, yet remained a formidable challenge. Modern expeditions have utilised a range of methods, from traditional dog sleds to advanced GPS systems, which can more definitively confirm their arrival at the Pole.
Frozen in Time: The First Man to Reach the North Pole
The debate over who was the first person to reach the North Pole remains one of the most enduring controversies in the annals of exploration. This ongoing question not only illustrates the difficulties encountered in early Arctic expeditions but also reflects the intertwined roles of politics, ambition, and the quest for glory that were undeniable aspects of early polar exploration.