May 04 2009
World-famous explorer Tom Avery — the youngest Briton to have reached both North and South Poles on foot — has written a splendid book (To The End of the Earth; 2009) celebrating Admiral Robert Peary’s great exploration of the North Pole that culminated in April, 1909 — 100 years ago. For decades there has been controversy about how close Peary actually got to the pole — which Avery’s expedition has helped to resolve — but there has been none about the ebullient nature of early polar exploration.
Attaining the North Pole during the early 20th Century Maslow Window was the equivalent of being the first man on the Moon during the 1960s. According to Avery, reaching the North Pole was “one of the most momentous achievements in the history of the human race.” By 1898, Peary’s explorations were already achieving global recognition including gold medals from both the American Geographical Society and the Royal Geographic Society; the latter called him “without exception, the greatest glacial traveller in the world.” And typical of the ebullience of the time, Peary’s life and family were secondary to achieving the pole; after accidentally snapping off 6 toes while removing his boots, Peary quipped, “a few toes aren’t much to give to achieve the Pole.”
“Pole mania” and “Panama fever” were prominent during the first decade of the 20th Century. The last 200 years show that such remarkable behavior is typical of Maslow Windows when major, twice-per-century economic booms produce widespread affluence-induced ebullience. This catapults many to elevated levels in Maslow’s heirarchy where large technology projects (e.g., Panama Canal) and great explorations (e.g., Peary’s polar expeditions) become almost irresistible.
The role of President Theodore Roosevelt — the John F. Kennedy Camelot-style icon of the early 20th century — was important throughout the Peary/Panama Maslow Window. For example, after leaving Manhattan in July, 1908, Peary’s ship “The Roosevelt” stopped in Long Island where, after spending two hours inspecting it President Roosevelt announced, “I believe in you, Peary.” This was only a few years after Roosevelt had started the U.S. phase of building the Panama Canal. Indeed, after graduating from college as a civil engineer and joining the US Navy, Peary had almost become focused on the Panama Canal himself, when he led 150 men in a detailed survey of Nicaragua for a possible transcontinental canal.
The momentous nature of Peary’s great exploration of the “horizontal Everest” –which the North Pole is often called because of its extreme dangers — is evidenced by the continuing 100-year controversy about how close Peary actually got to the North Pole. In his 1988 book, British explorer Sir Wally Herbert — who reached the North Pole overland in 1968-69 — concluded that Peary never got closer than 60 miles, and found Peary’s alleged 26 miles per day speeds over the final 5 days to be unrealistic.
Although the National Geographic Society soon refuted Herbert’s claims, Tom Avery decided to duplicate Peary’s North Pole expedition to settle the argument. And he did just that in 2005.
Using Peary-type equipment, including dog teams and wooden sledges, on April 26 Avery’s GPS finally read 89deg 59′.999N and he ebulliently yelled, “We’ve done it!…The time was exactly 7:32 am. We had beaten Peary to the North Pole with barely four hours to spare.”
According to Gilbert Grosvenor, President of the National Geographic Society, “Their 37-day dash to the North Pole has wiped out ninety-six years of doubt about Peary’s feat.”