Sample text for To the end of the earth : our epic journey to the North Pole and the legend of Peary and Henson / Tom Avery.


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Chapter One

The Man with Two Toes

AT 3:34 P.M. ON DECEMBER 28, 2002, WE ARRIVED at the South Pole, becoming the fastest and youngest team in history to complete the journey. The Pole had filled my dreams ever since I was a young boy, when my mother gave me a book about the adventures of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. I was immediately captivated by Scott's heroic story, and my imagination ran wild trying to picture this otherworldly place called Antarctica. From that moment I knew my life wouldn't be complete until I had stood on that hallowed patch of snow at the bottom of the world.

Now that I actually was standing there, beside the red- and- white barber's pole that marks the exact position of 90° south, I felt strangely unfulfilled. While I was overjoyed and proud to have realized my childhood dream, I wasn't sure what my dreams were anymore. I needed a fresh challenge to get my teeth into but I wasn't sure where to start looking for it.

On my return home I was gradually overcome by a feeling of lassitude, unsure of where my life was going. For weeks I drifted around London, jumping from one idea to another. Friends commented on how vacant I had become. The question on everybody's lips seemed to be, "So, what are you going to do next?"

Things got so desperate that I even considered dusting off my calculator and retaking my professional accountancy exams. Still, going back to my former life as an accountant, or in fact to any job that involved putting on a suit and tie and sitting behind a desk all day, now filled me with dread. London life, which I had thrived on before going to Antarctica, had suddenly become claustrophobic and boring. I had to escape.

In early 2003 I headed straight for the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps. I had worked there as a ski guide three years earlier, and it was the place I thought of as my second home. I figured that being up in the mountains, detached from the real world, skiing, climbing, and writing the book about our South Pole adventure would be the perfect way to sort out my head. Unsurprisingly, my decision didn't go down well with my parents, with Dad in particular growing increasingly worried about my total lack of a career plan.

One afternoon toward the end of the winter, I was enjoying a drink with some old climbing friends on the sun- drenched terrace of Chez Dany, a picture- postcard, chalet- style restaurant nestling in the woods above Verbier. A man approached me whom I recognized instantly from my first ski season as Mark Dearlove. Little did I know that the next ten minutes would change my life forever.

Mark and a few work colleagues had come out to Verbier in 2000 for a few days' skiing. As well as guiding for them on the mountain, I had also had the job of collecting a bleary- eyed Mark and his team from the Farm nightclub in the early hours of the morning and driving them back to their chalet. I never managed much sleep during their visit but I did remember them as being an entertaining bunch, so it was great to catch up with Mark again. While chatting about my time in Antarctica, Mark told me that he had been in the office the day the news broke of our arrival at the South Pole.

"There are TV monitors all over the trading floor, which we always have tuned in to Sky News. When your face appeared on one of the bulletins, one of the team pointed to the screen and said, 'Bloody hell, it's Tom from Verbier! He's just become the youngest Brit to ski to the South Pole!' Soon everyone was on their feet cheering."

Then came the bombshell. "Anyway, seeing what a great reaction your success had on the team, I think it would be great if we could get Barclays Capital to consider sponsoring your next trip. Where are you off to next?"

I was speechless. I had no idea where I was off to next. Our journey to the South Pole had been the tenth major expedition that I had put together. I had begun my outdoor career as a mountaineer, leading expeditions to the Alps, Africa, the Andes, New Zealand, and a previously unexplored range of virgin peaks in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The toughest and most challenging part of each of those expeditions hadn't been the extreme altitude, the precipitous rock faces, or the mountain storms. It was trying to secure the sponsorship. Convincing an organization to pay for me and my friends to go gallivanting off to some far- flung corner of the globe was an exhausting, demoralizing, and hapless task.

Over the years I had written thousands of sponsorship letters, sent countless e-mails and faxes, and tried to arrange meetings with whichever company would listen to me. Some had tenuous connections with the cold (things got so desperate that even Fox's Glacier Mints got a letter); others did not. Most of my pleas for cash fell on deaf ears, and as a result, some of those early expeditions had to be aborted. Of the ones that I did miraculously find the money for, sponsorship was usually only forthcoming at the eleventh hour after much stress and a truckload of postage stamps.

The South Pole had been a massive undertaking. The physical effort of the journey, during which we each walked more than one and a half million paces, had taken a huge toll on me both physically and mentally. Nevertheless, that effort was nothing compared to the hard slog of raising the funds, so much so that I did not even know if I could ever face putting myself through the whole expedition process again. I hadn't lost my passion for adventure; in fact by spending a winter in the mountains it was now probably stronger than ever, but I just wasn't sure I had the energy anymore for the often fruitless quest for sponsors.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life as an adventurer, I had a potential sponsor (and in Barclays Capital a sponsor that wasn't short of a penny) talking positively, and voluntarily, about funding my next venture. It was the sort of situation any expedition leader would give his right arm for. The only problem was, I had no expeditions in the pipeline. After an awkward silence, I mumbled, "Ummm, well, I'm ummm, thinking of maybe errr, going to the North Pole."

"Excellent news," replied Mark. "Unfortunately, I don't have much of a say in these things, but I'll set up a dinner with a couple of key guys at the bank. Then it will be up to you to tell them about your plans and convince them that your mission will succeed."

As I walked back to my apartment that evening I kept asking myself, "What on earth have you just got yourself into?" To this day I have no idea what prompted me to give Mark the answer I did. Maybe it was the third glass of Dôle Blanche doing the talking, but up until that moment the thought of going to the North Pole had only ever been a pipe dream. I could have just as easily said, "I'm going to be an accountant again in London," and my life would have continued down a very different path.

For many polar adventurers, it is almost a rite of passage that after a successful expedition to the South Pole, they should don the skis again and set off for the other pole. I had always wondered what it must be like at the North Pole, but I had never even toyed with the idea of one day mounting my own expedition up there. With the ski season almost over, my escapist existence in the mountains was drawing to an end, and I had resigned myself to a return to normality and a search for some form of employment. Quite suddenly those plans had been thrown out the window.

I knew very little about the North Pole, but what I did know filled me with sheer terror. Unlike the South Pole, which is located ten thousand feet above sea level in the heart of Antarctica, the fifth largest continent on the planet, the North Pole lies in the middle of the sea, the frozen Arc- tic Ocean. It had defeated such legendary figures as Reinhold Messner and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and those explorers who had been fortunate to escape the clutches of the North with their lives often came home with a few less fingers or toes than they started out with. No wonder, then, that the North Pole was often referred to as the "Horizontal Everest."

What seemed to make North Pole expeditions particularly grisly was that they traditionally took place during the bitterly cold winter months before the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean had started to break up. As if things weren't hard enough, there was precious little daylight, making pressure ridges and areas of open water all the more treacherous to negotiate. And then there were the polar bears. As far as I could make out, the Arctic was a sinister place where most days were a battle for survival. Messner, the greatest mountaineer of them all, described the frozen ocean as "ten times more difficult than Everest." It made our route to the South Pole seem like a simple nursery slope.

My stomach was so tied up in knots that following my conversation with Mark, I hardly slept a wink. Most of this could be put down to blind panic, but despite the obvious dangers, my natural wanderlust sparked into life. I was intrigued by the Arctic and wondered if I had what it took to survive up there. Yes, I was filled with fear and trepidation, but I was totally exhilarated, too. At last I had found a new dream to follow. There was no getting away from it, the North Pole was beckoning, and the sooner I started learning about what I was letting myself in for the better.

The romance of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration has stirred my imagination ever since I can remember. I had been very conscious of the link between our journey to the South Pole in 2002 and the giants whose footsteps we followed. Our expedition had deliberately coincided with the centennial of the relatively unknown Discovery Expedition (Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton's joint attempt to reach the South Pole in 1902), and I had spent many hours lying awake in the tent at night trying to comprehend what they must have endured. Despite unimaginable hardship, inadequate equipment, and paltry provisions, they had battled on with astonishing courage, tenacity, a sense of humor, and a British stiff upper lip. Their spirit had been a source of great inspiration to me as we hauled our own sleds across Antarctica's frozen wastes.

Now that I had decided to go to the North Pole, I knew that it would help my mental preparation for the long journey ahead if I could build a similar connection with the heroes of the North. The only problem (as our tent- bound Christmas Eve 2002 chat with Paul had made glaringly obvious) was that I didn't know much about them. As a child I remember reading about Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin embarking on an "expotition" to the North Pole, but my knowledge of Arctic exploration didn't stretch much beyond that.

The reason for this could be that we Brits can be somewhat short sighted when it comes to our polar history. While our Antarctic explorers have become house hold names in Britain, few people have heard of the likes of Edward Parry, George Nares, and Wally Herbert, who in their day were at the forefront of Arctic exploration. On the other hand, Captain Scott's ill- fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912 has now almost become part of the national curriculum, and in boardrooms throughout the country, Shackleton's achievements are used as a shining example of successful corporate leadership. This anomaly has often struck me as a bit strange, especially when one thinks that the North Pole is almost on our doorstep while the South Pole is nearly ten thousand miles away on the bottom of the world.

Eager to find out more about the Arctic explorers of yesteryear, on my return from the Alps I visited the library at the Royal Geo graph i cal Society in London, the home of British exploration, to begin my research. I wanted to understand what had made these men tick and hoped that reading about their experiences would broaden my knowledge of the frozen Arctic Ocean. I also wanted to learn more about this extraordinary character called Robert Peary. Little did I know that from the moment I walked through the old timber doors of the RGS that day, my life would be totally consumed by this incredible man and his final expedition to the roof of the world.

People might wonder why it matters who the first person was to reach the North Pole. I believe it's one of the most momentous achievements in the history of the human race. We've inhabited the earth for two hundred thousand years, and there are now over six billion of us crowded onto this giant rock in the center of the solar system. Yet we only managed to conquer our planet's true summit during the last century, and I believe the people who first reached that northernmost place should be celebrated for eternity.

As I trawled through the polar history books, I was almost dumbfounded by the early polar adventures and misadventures I read about. Some were extraordinarily brave, others downright suicidal, but over the course of many centuries, generations of explorers had helped unlock the door to the frozen Arctic. Pioneers like Leif Erikson, William Baffin, Fridjtof Nansen, and Umberto Cagni had been responsible for nudging humankind's limit of discovery ever northward so that by the time Peary made his first concerted bid to reach the top of the world in 1902, the final 206 miles of the map were all that remained untouched. Nevertheless, those were to prove the hardest, most fought- over miles of all, and it would be another seven years of superhuman effort before the ultimate prize could finally be claimed.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, the North Pole had defeated almost every industrialized nation. Attention then turned south, with the hope that Antarctica would prove a less fearsome adversary than the frozen North. The British were among the first on the scene, when the young torpedo lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott, commanding the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904, made the first concerted bid to reach the South Pole. The Germans, Belgians, Norwegians, French, Japanese, and Australians all followed suit as the world turned its back on the Arctic and headed south. Yet one man still refused to give up on his dream of conquering the North Pole—Robert Edwin Peary.

ON A COLD OCTOBER DAY IN 1898, THE NORWEGIAN OTTO SVERDRUP was sitting in his tent on Ellesmere Island's east coast. Sverdrup was just starting out on a four- year expedition to map one hundred thousand square miles of uncharted islands and waterways in the Canadian High Arctic. He was preparing his dinner when a tall, powerfully built, barrel- chested man dressed from head to toe in animal furs strolled into camp. Peary's exploits in the Arctic were already becoming legendary, and Sverdrup recognized him instantly from his chiselled jaw, steely gray eyes, weathered face, and gravity- defying walrus moustache.

"Are you Sverdrup?" Peary asked.

The affable Sverdrup greeted him warmly and invited him in for coffee.

Peary declined, saying, "My ship is frozen in. There is no way of getting through Robeson Channel. It has frozen fast."

What Peary failed to tell Sverdrup was that he was planning an assault on the North Pole the following spring and hoped to use the American explorer Adolphus Greely's old huts at Fort Conger as his base camp. Before Sverdrup had the chance to talk to him more, Peary turned around and left. A baffled Sverdrup later wrote that Peary had barely had the time to remove his mittens.

Sverdrup had no intention of going anywhere near the Pole, but so convinced was Peary that Sverdrup posed a threat to his own polar ambitions, that on returning to his ship he yelled, "Sverdrup may at this minute be planning to beat me to Fort Conger! . . . I can't let him do it! I'll get to Conger before Sverdrup if it kills me!" It very nearly did.

This bizarre encounter with Sverdrup was an eye- opening introduction for me to Peary's extraordinary character. Never before had I come across a polar explorer who seemed so fiercely determined in the pursuit of his goal as Robert Peary. Some of the words that Peary's biographers used to describe him included single- minded, creative, paranoid, resolute, competitive, ruthless, meticulously prepared, arrogant, brilliant, egocentric, fearless, and controversial.

As I slowly discovered, however, these qualities helped explain why he was able to push on where others had failed, and why he was able to return to the Arctic again and again in his never- ending quest for the North Pole, a quest that he hoped would one day propel him to immortality. During the debate about Peary's attainment of the Pole, notwithstanding whether the polar fraternity loathed him or admired him, they almost universally seemed to regard him as one of the most formidable polar explorers that ever lived.

"I Must Have Fame"

Born in 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania, to a family of humble merchants, Robert Peary was brought up alone by his mother after his father died when he was just two years old. As a child he spoke with a lisp, a source of much ridicule from his classmates, but he worked hard to overcome it and by adulthood he had managed to disguise it by speaking slowly and clearly. Only when he lost his temper would the lisp reveal itself again.

Despite being a keen sportsman, hunter, and sailor, Peary was always somewhat of a loner, although fiercely ambitious. In an early letter to his mother Peary wrote, "I feel myself overmastered by a resistless desire to do something. I do not wish to live and die without accomplishing anything or without being known beyond a narrow circle of friends. I wish to acquire a name which can be an open sesame to circles of culture and refinement anywhere, a name which shall make my Mother proud and which shall make me feel that I am peer to anyone I may meet."

It was fascinating to gain such a personal and revealing insight into the forces that drove Peary. I am often asked why I choose to take part in dangerous challenges, and part of me can identify with some of what Peary was saying. Like Peary, I've always been a dreamer, with an insatiable urge to do something different with my life. Ever since my childhood, Dad has always told me to "Carpe diem," literally "Seize the day," with the result that I have always had a single- minded determination to fulfill my destiny, what ever it might be.

I find that expeditions, whether they be sledding to a Pole, sailing across an ocean, climbing up or skiing down a mountain, allow me to escape from modern life's many constraints and give me a more balanced view of the world. They offer me a unique sense of freedom that I would never find sitting behind an office desk.

But while I, too, hoped that my parents would be proud of my expeditions, I have never viewed my travels as a means of becoming rich and famous. It's flattering to be recognized for one's achievements, but that is completely different from deliberately seeking fame. Our South Pole exploits in 2002 generated a great deal of press interest, something we had actively promoted to keep our sponsors satisfied, but I would be horrified if my friends thought that my fifteen minutes in the media spotlight had changed me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a warm glow of pride the first time I saw my photo in the newspapers, but the reality is that the novelty wears off very quickly.

After graduating with top honors as a civil engineer from Bowdoin College in Maine, Peary joined the U.S. Navy and was soon posted to Central America. With a team of 150 men under his control, the twenty- seven- year- old Peary was given the task of conducting a detailed survey of the jungles and swamps of Nicaragua for a possible shipping canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a discovery he hoped would give him the fame he yearned for. Sadly, all Peary's hard work was to no avail as neighboring Panama eventually emerged as the preferred choice of route.

Following his return to the United States, Peary was in a Washington, D.C., bookstore where "I picked up a copy on the Inland Ice of Greenland. A chord, which as a boy, had vibrated intensely in me at the reading of Kane's wonderful book,* was touched again. I read all I could on the subject . . . and felt that I must see for myself what the truth was of this great mysterious interior."

In 1886 Peary took a summer's leave from the Navy to attempt the first crossing of the Greenland ice cap, a trip he hoped would be a springboard for a future assault on the Pole. After twenty- six days he turned back, having made little more than a hundred nautical miles and climbed to an altitude of seventy- five hundred feet.

As he would demonstrate throughout his expedition career, Peary was a master of giving the press a story that sold newspapers. He portrayed his defeat as a resounding success by claiming that he had penetrated the ice cap "a greater distance than any white man previously." This boast was extremely tenuous. Although Peary had beaten the Swedish explorer Erik Nordenskiöld's record by a few miles, two of the Swede's sami companions (often referred to as Lapps) had actually gone farther than Peary, but because they weren't white men, Peary ignored their achievement.

"My last trip has brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world. I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future," he wrote home, adding, "Remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now and sip the delicious drafts while yet I have youth and strength to enjoy it to the utmost . . . I want my fame now."

I found Peary's words quite extraordinary, but his dream of fame had to wait when news arrived that the great Norwegian explorer Fridjtof Nansen had made the first successful Greenland traverse in 1888. Peary was infuriated, claiming that Nansen had in effect stolen his plan. The fact that Nansen had actually been preparing his expedition for six years seemed irrelevant.

Peary married his beautiful fiance;e, Josephine, the following summer and immediately began preparations for a traverse of the unexplored and much wider northern half of Greenland. It was still not known how far north Greenland extended, and Peary believed that his expedition might reveal a land route extending all the way to the North Pole.

This time he prepared meticulously, the journals of all those Arctic explorers who had preceded him providing invaluable background reading. He concluded, "The old method of large parties and several ships has been run into the ground. The English, with true John Bull obstinacy, still stick to the old plan. The new plan of a small party depending largely on native assistance . . . deserves to be recorded as the American plan, and a successful expedition . . . will put us far ahead in the race."

Peary was already proving himself an inventive thinker, although his next idea was particularly original. He wrote, "If colonisation is to be a success in the polar regions, let white men take with them native wives, then from this union may spring a race combining the hardness of the mothers with the intelligence of the fathers. Such a race would surely reach the Pole if their fathers did not." This was no joke, either, as he was to father at least two half- Inuit children on subsequent expeditions to the Arctic.*

By June 1891 Peary had raised ten thousand dollars for the venture and set sail from New York with seven companions, one of whom was his wife, Jo. This was highly controversial but Peary, just like the Inuit, believed that women were vital for team morale on a long trip. No Western woman had ever traveled so far north. Although I never put the question to her, I know that if I had asked my girlfriend, Mary, whether she fancied spending a few months on the ice with me, I would have got a resounding "No thank you!"

Another key member of the team was Matthew Henson, the black American Peary had met by chance back in 1887 while shopping for a sunhat for his travels in Nicaragua and impulsively employed as his personal assistant for his Central American fieldwork. Standing at just five- feet- six, Henson was wiry, hard working, well read, and extremely bright, and the two would go on to forge one of the strongest partnerships in polar history. Over the course of more than two de cades, Henson was Peary's most loyal traveling companion, Peary later commenting, "I cannot get along without him."

The journey did not get off to the best of starts when the ship's rudder, having glanced off an iceberg, swung violently and broke Peary's right leg. Peary contemplated returning home, but Frederick Cook, the young expedition doctor who would one day become his fiercest rival in the race for the North Pole, did an expert job of resetting the leg, and Peary went on to make a full recovery.

After overwintering on the west Greenland coast, Peary set off on his "White March" over the inland ice alongside the expert Norwegian skier Eivind Astrup and a team of dogs. Nine weeks of hard sledding later, the two men arrived at what Peary thought was the northernmost point of Greenland on July 4, 1892. Appropriately, he named it Independence Bay.

Peary had failed to find a land route to the Pole but he had proven that Greenland was an island—or so he thought. Although his mistake would not be uncovered for another twenty years, the vast mountainous landmass that he could see in the distance (and named Peary Land) wasn't the separate island he believed it to be, but a seventy- five- mile- long peninsula jutting out from Greenland's north coast.

Nonetheless, the expedition was a spectacular success. Peary and Astrup had completed the longest (both in terms of distance—1,100 miles, and time—85 days), fastest, and most efficient sledding journey in Arctic history. It had also given Peary an invaluable lesson in the Inuit way of life. The men were protected from the cold by their warm, lightweight deerskin parkas, polar bear fur pants, and waterproof sealskin boots.

Peary learned how to build igloos and drive a dog team. When he could, he lived off the land. He understood the value of laying caches of fresh meat during the hunting seasons so that scurvy would never cripple his teams. And by providing the Inuit with western inventions like knives, boats, needles, and metal tools, Peary was able to win their trust and respect, something the early explorers had failed to do. He called them "my Eskimos," sometimes even "my children." To them, he was simply "Pearyarksuah," literally "The Big Peary."

Find a Way or Make One

When Peary returned home, he at last received the fame he had so desperately craved. He was in every newspaper, was recognized in the street, and even his former rival Nansen joined the chorus of adulation, signing a congratulatory letter to Peary as "Your Admirer." Peary went on a grueling lecture tour across America, giving 165 speeches in 103 days.

Now that I had set my mind on going to the North Pole, I, too, had in effect become a professional explorer. With barely a penny to my name, I urgently needed to find a way of earning a living until the expedition got under way and so, like Peary, I, too, joined the corporate lecture circuit. As a schoolboy, I used to be terrified of public speaking, not helped by my voice, which didn't break until I was seventeen. With a few talks under my belt my confidence grew, however, and I now find it really energizing and humbling to speak in front of an audience about my expeditions. My props aren't a match for Peary's, though. He would transform his stage into an Inuit camp, with Henson joining Peary on stage, decked out in full Arctic furs. He also brought with him five dogs from his Greenland crossing that howled in unison at the climax of his speech. The whole performance must have brought the house down.

With appearance fees of up to two thousand dollars a show, Peary had saved enough to fund a third expedition, which sailed for Greenland in the summer of 1893. He was still employed by the Navy and again had to go through the tricky conversation of asking his superiors for more time off . However, Peary was fast becoming an A-list celebrity, and much to the aggravation of his fellow naval officers, he now had influential friends in high places who could pull the strings necessary for him to secure another long leave of absence.

Astrup, Henson, and a heavily pregnant Jo joined him again, but not Cook, who resigned from his position as team doctor after his leader disallowed him from publishing a medical report about expedition life. Peary actually got on quite well with Cook in those early years, but Peary's unquenchable thirst for fame meant that he couldn't let anyone take even the thinnest ray of the limelight away from him.

Other than the birth of Marie, the Pearys' first child, the two- year expedition achieved little. Peary and Henson made the strange decision to repeat his 1892 traverse to Independence Bay, although this time they took a slightly different route. The whole trip would have dealt Peary's credibility as an explorer a major dent had he not brought three large meteorites from the Greenland coast home with him on his ship. One of the stones weighed a world- record thirty- four tons and they proved to be hugely popular attractions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they remain today.

Peary's other Arctic treasures were on display for far less time. Of the six Inuit men and women from Greenland he brought back as a gift to the museum's curator, five of them succumbed to pneumonia within twelve months of being put on display, and died. The only survivor, a young boy called Minik, not only had to watch all his relatives die, but was then made to attend a fake funeral in which his father's body was removed from its coffin and replaced with a log.

As Minik later discovered, the corpse had been stripped to the bone and the skeleton exhibited in a glass cabinet at the museum.GIVE ME MY FATHER'S BODY screamed the newspaper headlines. Although much of the Inuit scandal could not be directly attributed to Peary, it wasn't his finest hour, and the huge media interest in the story threatened to tarnish his reputation.

Nevertheless, Peary's achievements were now receiving worldwide recognition. The American Geographic Society awarded him a gold medal for establishing the insularity of Greenland, as did the Royal Geographical Society in London, which described him as "without exception, the greatest glacial traveller in the world." Still, Peary, now aged forty- two, was no nearer his goal of discovering the North Pole, and he wasn't getting any younger.

Abandoning Greenland's inland route, Peary decided to take a different approach, sailing all the way up Smith Sound toward the Arctic Ocean. He planned to establish a base as close to the northern coasts of Ellesmere Island or Greenland as his ship could sail, where he would lie in wait until the ice and weather conditions allowed him to "shoot forward to the Pole like a ball from a cannon."

After securing a bumper five- year leave of absence from the Navy, he then approached the railway tycoon Morris Jesup for financial help. Jesup would become one of Peary's most ardent supporters, establishing the Peary Arctic Club with a group of prominent businessmen whose chief role was to bankroll and support Peary's future ventures. Peary set sail on July 4, 1898, with the brilliant Newfoundland sea captain Bob Bartlett at the helm, another person whose life would become inexorably linked with Peary's over the next decade.

The only other expedition in the Arctic that year was Otto Sverdrup's, whose ship was anchored just twenty miles away near Cape Sabine. Although Sverdrup had consistently repeated that his expedition was limited to scientific research, Peary didn't trust him an inch and thought he had secret designs on the North Pole—particularly as his fellow countryman Nansen had, in his view, poached his Greenland traverse plans ten years earlier. Consequently, on that chilly October evening in 1898, Peary felt it necessary to jump on his sled and pay Sverdrup a brief visit to dissuade him from heading north.

So convinced was Peary that Sverdrup would "forestall" him and steal his idea of using Greely's former headquarters at Fort Conger as his base, that he set off in the dead of winter to beat him to it. Traveling in almost total darkness, the 250- mile journey was unimaginably horrific. The temperature hovered around -50°C, the team was ravaged by blizzards, and they nearly ran out of food. It was a miracle they all survived. The huts were found just as Greely had left them in 1883, with equipment and provisions strewn everywhere. Incredibly, much of the food was still edible.

As Peary sat down to remove his boots, three toes from each foot snapped off at the joint. "My god, Lieutenant!" cried Henson, "Why didn't you tell me your feet were frozen?"

"There's no time to pamper sick men on the trail," Peary replied matter- of- factly, "Besides, a few toes aren't much to give to achieve the Pole."

The more I read about Peary, the more I realized just how unbelievably resilient this man was. When compared to us modern- day polar travelers with our synthetic fleeces, down sleeping bags, and boil- in- the- bag freeze- dried meals, I had always thought that those men from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration were tough as old boots. For all that, Peary struck me as being in a league of his own. Even though I've had my fair share of frostbite injuries over the years, there's no doubt that if I ever found so much as a single toe rattling around at the bottom of my boot, I would throw in the towel immediately. Peary merely saw it as a minor inconvenience.

Further amputations were carried out, leaving Peary with just the little toe of each foot, but aborting the expedition and heading home never crossed his mind. On the walls of the hut he inscribed, "Inveniam viam aut faciam," literally, "Find a way or make one." For the rest of his exploration life, he developed an effective shuffle, which was just as fast as a brisk walk.

Peary lay in his bunk for six weeks before being strapped to a sled and taken back to the ship. He must have been in excruciating pain during the eleven- day journey but never once complained. A few frostbitten toes weren't going to deter him, and he made plans to spend three more years in the Arctic. In a letter back home to Jo, Peary wrote, "Life is slipping away. That cannot come more forcibly to you than it has repeatedly to me in times of darkness and inaction the past year. More than once I have taken myself to task for my folly in leaving such a wife and baby (babies now) for this work. But there is something beyond me, something outside of me, that compels me to the work."

More sledding forays followed during the summer of 1899. Although he still found it painful to walk on his mangled feet, in 1900 Peary reached Greenland's most northerly point at 83°39'N, which he named Cape Morris Jesup after his chief benefactor. As he and Matt Henson gazed out over the rough ice and open water of the Arctic Ocean for the first time, it must have dawned on them just how challenging those final 381 miles to the Pole were going to be.*

A couple of tentative outings onto the polar sea confirmed this, and they returned to Fort Conger, a journey of some 350 miles, in a rapid nineteen days. Something else that I was becoming increasingly aware of as I made my way through the history books wasn't just Peary's indestructibility, but also his ability to cover vast distances in double- quick time.

In the summer of 1901 Peary was visited by Frederick Cook, the doctor from his first successful Greenland expedition in 1892, who had been dispatched by the Peary Arctic Club to check up on their man who was still holed up in the Arctic after three years. After examining Peary, Cook told him that he was suffering from anemia and should eat raw liver to help his condition. When he saw the condition of his feet, Cook urged him to return home, saying, "You are through as a traveler on snow on foot. For without toes and a painful stub you can never wear snowshoes or ski." Peary ignored him. A relationship that had begun with much mutual admiration had now turned sour.

This little spat with Cook only motivated Peary to stay on for one more year and launch another bid for the Pole. By now he realized that the only way he was going to achieve his goal was to confront the Arctic Ocean head- on. In early March 1902, along with Henson and four Inuit, he stepped out onto the sea ice and headed north.

For sixteen days the exhausted party battled to lift their sleds over forty- foot pressure ridges and around fissures of open water. They used pickaxes to chop a route through the jumbled mass of ice blocks on a surface that drifted erratically with the currents. Then at 84°17'N, barely eighty miles out to sea, they came to an impassable lead. Peary called it the Big Lead and compared its appearance to the Hudson River. Despite the fierce cold, it showed no signs of freezing over, and they had little choice but to turn back and begin the long journey home. It wouldn't be the last time that the Big Lead put an end to his plans.

A dejected Peary wrote in his diary, "The game is off. My dream of sixteen years is over. I have made a good fight but I cannot accomplish the impossible . . . I close the book and . . . accept the result calmly. . . . The goal still remains for a better man than I." He was a beaten man.

A few months later came the news that the Italian, Umberto Cagni, had set a new farthest north record, just 206 miles shy of the Pole and a massive 137 miles beyond Peary's best effort in all these years of trying. But when Peary learned that Cagni had announced to the Italian press, "We have conquered! We have surpassed the greatest explorer of the century" (clearly not referring to Peary but the previous record holder, Fridjtof Nansen, who had reached 86°13'N in 1895), he hit the roof.

Excerpted from To the End of the Earth by Tom Avery

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Avery

Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Peary, Robert E. -- (Robert Edwin), -- 1856-1920.
Henson, Matthew Alexander, -- 1866-1955.
Explorers -- United States -- Biography.
African American explorers -- Biography.
North Pole -- Discovery and exploration.