At the Pole

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 2, 1910

Has any human being ever actually stood upon the North Pole? Dr. Frederick A. Cook, that accomplished liar, used to claim that he had done so, but the world has long since dismissed that claim as absurd, and of late he has even become disposed to admit its absurdity himself. But did Peary do what Cook failed to do? The answer must be a qualified one, for while Peary offers plenty of proof, in his recently published book “The North Pole,” that he got within plain sight of his goal on April 6, 1909, he frankly confesses that he doesn’t know whether or not he really touched it with his foot.

The Glare Of The Ice

The Pole, in brief, is an elusive prize. If it were possible to set up, on the shifting icefield thereabout, the instruments available in a first-class observatory, it would be possible to determine the location of the earth’s axis to within a few feet. Even under the conditions met with by the average shipmaster in “taking the sun” on a fine day at sea the error would be less than a mile. But at the top of the earth, in a glare of sun and snow that tortures the eyes, and with only the crude instruments that will bear transportation over the icefields, it is difficult to do more than strike within, say five miles.

That is what Peary did. He took “thirteen single, or six and a half double, altitude of the sun, at two different stations, in three different directions, at four different times,” and then, having thus marked off an area which certainly surrounded the Pole, he crossed and recrossed that area on foot, in the hope that somewhere near its center chance would take him over the Pole itself. He says:

No one, except those entirely ignorant of such matters, has imagined for a moment that I was able to determine, with my instruments, the precise positions of the Pole, but after having determined its position approximately, then setting an arbitrary allowance of about 10 miles for possible errors of the instruments and myself as observer, and then crossing and recrossing that 10 miles area in various directions, no one except the most ignorant will have any doubt but what, at some time. I had passed close to the precise point, and had perhaps, actually passed over it.

Peary gives an eloquent description of the difficulties he encountered in making his observations. Those difficulties did not arise from the excessive cold, for as a matter of fact he found comparatively mild weather at the Pole, but from the blinding glare of the summer sun upon the unbroken expanse of white ice. So long as the temperature is above minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, he says, and the observer is properly clad, the handling of the instruments is a simple matter. But the strain upon the eyes is extremely severe, and for two or three days after leaving the Pole Peary could scarcely see. He says:

 To eyes which have been subjected to brilliant and unremitting daylight for days and weeks, and to the strain of continually setting a course with the compass, and traveling toward a fixed point in such light, the taking of a series of observations is usually a nightmare: and the strain of focusing, of getting precise contact of the sun’s images, and of reading the vernier, all in the blinding light which only those who have taken observations in bright sunlight on an unbroken snow expanse in the arctic regions can form any conception, usually leaves the eyes bloodshot and smarting for hours afterward.

Peary and his party, consisting of Henson, the negro, and three Eskimos came within sight of the Pole at 10 o’clock on the morning of April 6, 1909. Camp was at once pitched on the ice, and at noon the commander took an observation. It “indicated our position as 89 degrees, 57 minutes”—or, roughly speaking, as within four miles of the pole. But the little party did not push on in a final, glorious dash. Instead, like General Oyama at Mukden, Peary took a nap and the others proceeded to unload the sledges and to make a meal.

At 6 P.M. another observation was attempted, but the sky had become overcast and the sun was invisible. But there was still broad daylight, and so Peary and two of the Eskimos, with a double team of dogs, set off to the northward. They proceeded 10 miles, no doubt passing very near to the Pole on the way. A halt was then called and, the sky having cleared, an observation was made. It showed that the Pole was to the rear. Then the little party turned backward, passing near the Pole again, and arriving in camp at 6 o’clock on the morning of April 7.

More observations were made in camp and another round trip through the Pole area was made. On a little snow mound, at what seemed to be the very centre of this area, five flags were planted, and as they were unfurled the Eskimos, led by Hanson, gave three cheers. Then Peary deposited a bottle in the ice containing a record of achievement, scribbled three lines on a postcard as a souvenir for his wife, entered a few lines in his diary, repacked his instruments, shook hands with his men and gave the order for the beginning of the long march southward. He had been in sight of the Pole for 30 hours.

The Thoughts Of Peary

What were the conqueror’s thoughts? Banal enough they seem to have been. He sat down and marveled that “in the first miles of our brief march we had been traveling north, while on the last few miles of the same march we had been traveling south.” “In a march of only a few hours, I had passed from the Western to the Eastern hemisphere. It would be difficult to imagine a better illustration of the fact that most things are relative.”

It would be difficult, too, to imagine a better illustration of the fact that great events benumb the human mind. Here was one of the world’s greatest adventurers, face to face with the glorious end of his greatest adventures, and yet the thoughts which bobbed up in him were the jejune and obvious ones which might have come to any empty platitudinarian.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other Ameican journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.