Book Review:
The Dishonorable Dr. Cook: Debunking the Notorious McKinley Hoax

by Bradford Washburn and Peter Cherici

The Mountaineers Books, 2001, 192 pages, Hardcover, 

ISBN 0898868041  $29.95

Dishonorable history: The last literary
hurrah of Brad Washburn

By Ted Heckathorn

Four years ago Brad Washburn advised me that he was writing a book about Dr. Cook that "would knock my socks off." Recently, when this new book finally arrived, I tied my shoelaces with double knots before opening the odd-sized volume. A quick glance at the contents revealed that book's unusual shape was to accommodate the numerous photographs. The text represents Washburn's 60-plus years of research about Dr. Cook's controversial assertion that he reached the summit of Mount McKinley in 1906.

For those not familiar with the history of Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska, it is the highest peak in North America and recently was measured at 20,308 feet above sea level. Dr. Cook led pioneering expeditions in 1903 and again in 1906. His first trip made the first low-altitude circumnavigation of the mountain (that was not duplicated again until 1995), and ascended to over 11,000 on the northwestern slope. On the southeastern side he named the Ruth Glacier after his daughter, and the Fidele (now called Eldredge) Glacier for his wife.

In 1906 he returned with a new expedition, and spent the summer unsuccessfully probing to find a southern approach to the mountain. In September, after part of his team had departed, he selected Ed Barrill, a hunting guide and blacksmith from Darby, Montana, and John Dokkin, a gold prospector, to make a reconnaissance of the Ruth Glacier. Dokkin soon returned because of his fear of glacial crevasses, but Cook and Barrill continued up the Ruth Glacier. On September 20, Cook returned to his base camp at the foot of the glacier, reporting that he and Barrill had reached the summit of Mount McKinley on September 16. After returning from Alaska, Dr. Cook gave lectures about his achievement including one in Seattle that inspired the organization of The Mountaineers. He left his 1903 and 1906 book manuscripts with a publisher in 1907, and departed on the trip to Greenland, which later evolved into the expedition to reach the North Pole.

When Dr. Cook returned from his Arctic trip in September 1909, he reported that he had reached the North Pole in April 1908. This quickly developed into a huge media controversy when Robert E. Peary, a US Navy engineer, claimed to be the discoverer of the North Pole in April 1909. Peary could not prove that Cook had not been to the pole in 1908, or that he had been there in 1909, so he instigated a character assassination campaign against Cook.

Peary's advocates included a number of wealthy, politically savvy tycoons, and he instructed them to conduct the matter like "a Presidential election campaign." An affidavit from Ed Barrill suddenly materialized in Tacoma, stating that he and Cook did not reach the summit in 1906, but had turned back at what is now called the Ruth Glacier's Gateway (adjacent to Mt. Barrille) because of bad crevasses. Two disgruntled members of Cook's 1906 group that were not selected for the ascent, Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker, testified to the Explorers Club (EC) against Cook. Peary was the current president of that organization, and Cook was an ex-president. Browne and Parker claimed that Cook could not have climbed the mountain in the time specified, that he did not have a rope, avalanches did not occur with the frequency that he described, along with several other complaints. Charles Sheldon, an Alaska naturalist, testified to the EC that Cook could not have climbed the mountain because Mount McKinley was "unclimbable." The Barrill affidavit and the EC's action in dropping Dr. Cook from membership succeeded in destroying credibility about both his Mount McKinley and North Pole claims. Browne and Parker subsequently made a 1910 expedition to the Ruth Glacier. They claimed that they located a "Fake Peak" on the lower Ruth Glacier where Cook had made a fraudulent summit photo. Browne proudly wrote that he had "settled the North Pole Controversy," although he had never gone within a thousand miles of the North Pole.

In the 1930s, Brad Washburn, a youthful protégé of Browne, began Mount McKinley photographic studies for the National Geographic Society, a leading advocate of Peary's North Pole claim. In the 1950s after Browne's death, Washburn continued Browne's photographic work on the lower Ruth Glacier to discredit Cook's claim, and has published a number of related articles during the past half century.

This new book covers both of Cook's Mount McKinley expeditions. Both Cook supporters and detractors will find the 1903 maps, narrative and photographs useful and non-controversial. One photo does have the wrong caption (proving that it can happen to anyone!). Washburn relied heavily on his friend, Robert Dunn for an account of this trip. Dunn was an extremely abrasive, racially bigoted individual who was hypercritical of Cook during their 1903 journey, but his account did provide interesting details not mentioned in Cook's narrative, such as Dunn's assault on a Jewish companion.

Washburn's photographic studies on the lower Ruth Glacier are excellent and appear to match those that Cook made in 1906. In many instances, Washburn found the exact spot where Cook took particular photos and duplicated the shots. The only place where he could not do so was with Browne's "Fake Peak" location, even with the aid of a 50-foot tower in 1957. He makes a compelling case that the captions in Cook's 1907 Harper's Magazine and 1908 book were incorrect, and presents his latest evidence that "Fake Peak" is identical with Cook's summit photo.

Had Cook taken photographs at "Fake Peak" and returned from that point, Washburn would have had a very convincing case. The only problem is that Washburn and all other Cook critics agree that Cook returned to the Ruth Glacier and continued ascending the glacier to the Gateway and Mt. Barrille. The Washburn and Cook photographs confirm that Cook reached that spot. Barrill's affidavit asserted that he and Cook returned from that point because of bad crevasses. Photographs by Cook (1906), Browne (1910), Washburn (1956) and Heckathorn (1994) show no such crevasses that would preclude a higher ascent. Washburn believed that Cook returned from this location because of Barrill's allegation, that he was unable to verify Cook photographs beyond this point and that Cook had insufficient food to proceed further.

Brad Washburn examines a piece of granite from Denali/McKinley (1996) but ignores the original Cook description of the rock formations at the summit. .....

The Barrill affidavit has other problems in addition to the "bad crevasses" aspect. In 1989, this reviewer examined Peary's long-suppressed personal papers at the US National Archives, and found a $5,000 bank draft and related telegrams documenting that Barrill was bribed to make the damaging allegation. Had Cook and Barrill been short of food, this undoubtedly would have been included in the affidavit as the reason for their supposed return rather than the spurious crevasse excuse. Since Barrill and Cook carried all of their food in backpacks, Barrill certainly knew the exact status of their food supply. The absence of any Barrill comment about a food shortage clearly indicates that this was not a factor in their alleged return. Peary's files also disclosed that he had secretly funded Belmore Browne's 1910 expedition, which refuted the claim that Browne and Parker were impartial investigators in the controversy.

In addition to the lack of verifiable photographs, Washburn's other reasons for disbelieving Cook fall into the following general categories:

His narrative suddenly became "flowery," Cook wrote that he traveled on a moraine while ascending the North Fork of the Ruth Glacier

He lacked necessary equipment such as crampons, gloves, snowgoggles, snowshoes, parkas, gloves, etc.

The East Ridge is impossible to cross from the Traleika Col to the Thayer Basin

Sixteen days was insufficient time to make the ascent and return

Mount McKinley's south peak is argilite, not granite as Cook reported

The claim that Cook's description of his route was "flowery" is incorrect. Those who have personally examined Cook's route on the Ruth Glacier's North Fork have found his narrative accurate with details that could have been obtained only by someone who had been there. What Cook called a moraine on the upper Ruth Glacier is not a true moraine, but it does resemble one and it is shown on the right side of pages 136­37 in the Cook and Washburn photos.

As for equipment, Cook did not like or use crampons. His technique for ascending steep slopes was to cut steps with an ice ax, as he had done in Greenland (1892), Antarctica (1898) and on his 1903 expedition. The allegation that Cook had no gloves or mittens is false, and was refuted by a 1906 photograph found by a virulently anti-Cook researcher, Robert Bryce. The snowgoggles invented by Dr. Cook later were shared with his Norwegian friend, Roald Amundsen, for use on his famous 1910-1912 expedition to the South Pole.

In 1999, this reviewer examined the clothing and equipment found with the corpse of the legendary Mt. Everest pioneer, George Mallory. The two Cook and Mallory ice axes appeared to be nearly identical in size and features. However, Cook's 1906 boots, clothing and other equipment were far superior to those used by Mallory in 1924, and Mallory also was not using crampons. It has never been resolved if Mallory actually reached the summit of Mt. Everest, but he clearly went above 27,000 feet with clothing and equipment greatly inferior to that which Cook used.

Dr. Joseph Davidson refuted the allegation that the East Ridge was "uncrossable" when he negotiated the difficult western segment in 1969 to reach the Thayer Basin and the summit. Davidson personally told this reviewer that the only two technical parts of his route were ascending the East Ridge and then ascending the steep slope from the East Ridge to the Thayer Basin. That was where he had to use his fixed ropes and other ice equipment. Above the Thayer Basin his only problem was dealing with the altitude. In 1969, Davidson wrote that the portion of the East Ridge to the east of his route (that Cook followed) appeared to be easier than his route. With reasonable weather and traveling alpine style, Cook's 16-day trip would have been difficult but certainly not impossible. Most of distance involved an uncomplicated hike up the Ruth Glacier to the East Ridge.

In February 1996, Washburn and his associate Michael Sfraga convened a mock trial of Dr. Cook at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, before two local judges who had no mountaineering experience or special knowledge of the history of Mount McKinley. Washburn presented virtually all of the evidence and served as both prosecutor and primary witness. No knowledgeable Cook advocates, such as this reviewer or Walt Gonnason, a graduate of University of Alaska-Fairbanks were invited. Instead, an unqualified local attorney was drafted to defend Cook. During this Galileo-type proceeding Washburn made a number of false statements after demanding to be put under oath. Among them was the assertion that the summit of the mountain was not granite at all as Cook had reported, but that it was actually argilite. In July 1996, noted alpine guide, Vernon Tejas, obtained a sample from the highest exposed rock near the summit. Professional geological testing vindicated Cook and disclosed that it was granite. Other Washburn statements included the claim that one cannot see for two hundred miles from the summit because of curvature of the earth. This was easily proven false by aerial photographs taken from that altitude.

This volume contains a number of minor errors. They include the dates of Peary's first North Greenland expedition, not identifying Peary's "Independence Bay" hoax, confusing the science fiction writer, Frederick Pohl with the historian, Frederick Pohl, that Jack Carroll was hired in Seattle in 1903, and that Barrill "had no mountaineering experience whatsoever." There are a few errors about the 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition's work. Also, the statement that Cook never claimed that there were errors in his book, To the Top of the Continent, is false, as documented by Bryce, and also in Cook's own archival notes.

Washburn omitted two major items that are favorable to Cook. The first was the fact that Barrill disappeared on the day that he was supposed to testify to the 1909 EC committee that was investigating Dr. Cook's ascent. Since he was the primary witness against Cook, no explanation was provided to the EC for this delinquency that prevented any cross-examination of his affidavit. Peary had gone to great expense and trouble to bring Barrill to New York for publicity purposes. Additionally, Bryce refuted the claim that Barrill never told anyone about his successful ascent to the summit.

The second major Washburn omission was the 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition's discovery that the sketch on page 52 of Dr. Cook's 1906 diary matched the view from atop the East Ridge. The sketch clearly showed what is today called Pegasus Peak to the north of the ridge. On the south, an oddly shaped feature was labeled "Gunsight Peak." This sketch could only have been made from atop the ridge and could not be drawn from either the Gateway or Fake Peak. Since Cook was the first to explore this area, he could not have copied this from anyone else. The diary clearly is written in Dr. Cook's abominable handwriting, and he died in 1940 before the area was carefully mapped. Other Cook skeptics such as Bryce examined this diary as well as Cook's other diaries and documents and have not found any doubt about the authenticity of the 1906 diary.

The Gateway with Mt. Barrille in the background.

Washburn's new book is indexed and contains a reasonably good bibliography. There is a wonderful appendix of his stunning photographs from different views of the mountain. Unfortunately he omitted the fine panorama from his 1991 book that shows the entire disputed route from Glacier Point to the summit. This particular photo would have been equally striking, but more useful to illustrate the route and issues involved.

Overall, this is an important volume for anyone who is interested in Mount McKinley or the North Pole Controversy. It appears that these will be the final comments on the subject from 91-year-old Brad Washburn, one of the greatest mountaineers of our times. Since 1991, he actually did change several of his arguments against Cook, but also has ignored other facts and issues that should have openly discussed and debated in the Alpine Community. Sadly, our 1994 agreement to do so never materialized at the American Alpine Club or the 1996 and 1997 Mount McKinley Symposia. Frederick Cook and Brad Washburn will go down as the two competing giants in Mount McKinley history. That is how I will remember them, and after reading this book, it appears that my socks are not endangered.

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society