Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Quest for the Top of the World

For eons, humans have sought the North Pole. These exceptional polar expeditions by the likes of Buchan, Kane, and Peary have been bold, cold, and often enthrallingly bad. Their tales, woven here by political scientist, historian, and journalist Aaron Spitzer, are sure to send vicarious shivers down your spine.
Cook and Peary political cartoon

© Wikimedia Commons public domain

This political cartoon that depicts Robert Peary and Frederick Cook grappling over a literal pole appeared in a 1909 book titled "Discovery of the North Pole" by J. Martin Miller.

The North Pole is, possibly, the worst place on earth. There’s monotonous jumbled ice, crusty snow, and lurking fissures of seawater. No birds or animals, no warmth, little sun. Droning winds and clammy fog all summer. Worse weather—plus prolonged darkness—in winter.

Given how grim the North Pole is, it seems odd that, for centuries, people were quite literally dying to get there. Indeed, few spots on earth have been sought with such zeal for so long.

The effort to reach 90° North began in ancient times, around 2,300 years ago. That’s when the Greek geographer Pytheas set out in search of Ultima Thule, the theoretical northern limit of the world and the home of a hypothesized race of giants, the Hyperboreans. Pythias didn’t make it, but according to second-hand accounts, he did manage to travel high enough into the North Atlantic to witness the midnight sun and the “congealed sea”—perhaps the earliest European description of sea ice.

Modern Attempts

That same path was followed by the first modern attempts at the pole. In 1818, David Buchan of the British Admiralty sailed to the Svalbard archipelago atop the Norwegian Sea. From there he expected to encounter a cordon of slush, break through, and reach the rumoured Open Polar Sea. Instead, he and his second in command, the soon-to-be-legendary John Franklin, met merciless ten-foot-thick floes.

1818 Buchan Expedition beset in Ice

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London / Wikimedia CC BY NC SA 3.0

This lithograph created by Frederick William Beechey shows the HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent beset in ice on Buchan's 1818 expedition.

Risking pulverization, they bumped and even dragged their vessels fifty kilometres into the pack, eventually giving up at 80° North. Eight years later, also from Svalbard, the Admiralty’s William Edward Parry sailed slightly farther—82° 45’—before being similarly repelled.

It was during the search for Franklin that the next quests were launched. Franklin, of course, vanished in 1845 in Canada’s Northwest Passage, spurring history’s most exhaustive manhunt. Some of the searchers, convinced the lost expedition had headed poleward—or simply justifying their own grasp at glory—sailed due north.

The Arctic Council planning search for Franklin painting by Stephen Pearce

© National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1208 / Wikimedia Commons public domain

Sir William Edward Parry is shown second from the left in this 1851 painting "The Arctic Council Planning a Search for Sir John Franklin" by Stephen Pearce.

Key among them was the American romantic Elisha Kent Kane, who from 1853-55 prodded into Smith Sound, between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, reaching at least as far as 81° 20’. But his journey was a horror: scurvy, famine, fire, bears, desertion, attempted murder, shipwreck, and a frantic three-month lifeboat journey southbound. Miraculously, he lost only one man.

Harrowing Tales

In a sense, Kane paved the way for even worse journeys. In 1871, another American explorer, the irascible Charles Frances Hall, launched an expedition following Kane’s route. He attained 82° 29’, but then took mysteriously ill. In his final act, he attempted to spell the word “murder,” then died, likely poisoned by his crew. The next year, half that crew accidentally drifted away from the ship on an ice floe, floating for six months and 2,900 kilometres before being rescued near Newfoundland.

Four years later, the British Admiralty’s George Nares squeezed decisively through the channel between Ellesmere and Greenland, wintering near what is now Canadian Forces Station Alert. Sledge parties were then deployed. Scurvy and frostbite led to deaths and amputations, but 83° 20’ was achieved—a new record.

Sir George Strong Nares

© National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1212 / Wikimedia Commons public domain

An 1877 portrait of George Nares by artist Stephen Pearce

Could the bid for the pole get any more harrowing? Of course it could.

In 1879, the U.S. Navy’s George Washington De Long, seeking to sail and sledge to the pole from Alaska, lost twenty of his thirty-three men to shipwreck, hypothermia, disappearance, exhaustion, and insanity, and starved to death himself on the Siberian coast.

Then in 1881, the U.S. Army’s Adolphus Greeley, seeking to sail and sledge to the pole from Ellesmere Island, grappled with starvation, drowning, hypothermia, amputation, cannibalism, and execution, losing nineteen of his twenty-five men and barely surviving himself.

Diaorama of the Greely Expedition at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Columbian Exposition

© Library of Congress reproduction number: LC-USZ62-136202 / Wikimedia Commons public domain

A diorama of Greeley's expedition was on display at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

In 1897, the Swedish balloonist Salomon Andrée and two crew, seeking to fly to the pole from Svalbard, simply vanished; 33 years later their corpses were found on an Arctic island, along with diaries revealing they had crashed, trekked over the ice for two months, then died, possibly of trichinosis from eating polar bear meat.

Inching Closer

On the cusp of the twentieth century, attempts to reach the North Pole became safer and more professionalized. This new era was launched by the indomitable Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who in 1893 sailed a purpose-built ice ship, the Fram, into the polar pack north of Russia. His intention was to drift to the pole. After eighteen months of slow progress, Nansen and a companion quit the ship and skied to 86°14’, demolishing the existing record. They then trekked hundreds of kilometres to uninhabited Franz Josef Land, where (despite walruses damaging their equipment) they thrived for almost a year before being safely found.

Nansen walrus pastel sketch

© Wikimedia Commons public domain

A pastel sketch of a walrus created by Fridtjof Nansen in 1893

Meanwhile, an equally indominable American, Robert Peary, had begun his twenty-year-long quest for the pole. Peary made four initial expeditions to Greenland, spending years perfecting his travel techniques and learning from, but also exploiting, the Inuit. In 1900, Peary mapped Cape Jesup, the northernmost point in Greenland, but froze eight of his toes, which literally snapped off in his sock.

In 1906, Peary dogsledded to 87°06', a new farthest north. In 1908, Peary set out for a fifth and final time, employing a veritable army of supporters, determined to discover the pole or die. Covering twenty kilometres per day, they reached 87° 45' N, then made camp. From among the supporters, Peary selected a small strike team—his African-American assistant Matthew Henson and four Inuit named Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah—and continued north for several days. He reported that on April 6, 1909, he reached the North Pole.

Sledge Party and Flags at the Pole image by Robert Peary public domain 3x2

© Wikimedia Commons public domain

A photo taken by Robert Peary of the sled party holding flags at the North Pole. From left to right: Ooqueah, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Egingwah, and Seeglo.

But Peary's purported travel times have since been deemed improbable. Indeed, it now seems certain Peary fell short and fibbed his achievement. There's also evidence to suggest that if his expedition were to have truly reached the pole, Matthew Henson had in fact arrived there first.

A Rivalry Grows

When Peary returned south, brandishing his false accomplishment, he was dismayed to learn that another American explorer, Frederick Cook, was claiming to have reached the pole a full year earlier. A medical doctor, Cook was indisputably intrepid—he had been the hero of a disastrous Belgian Antarctic expedition a decade previously.

Cook was also known as the first explorer to climb America’s highest mountain, Denali in Alaska—though Cook’s summit photo has since been proven fake. So too seem to be his pole claims. Though Cook certainly wandered the Canadian High Arctic with two Inuit companions for fourteen remarkable months, there is no evidence that he reached—or even seriously tried to reach—the North Pole. Peary quickly attacked Cook’s claims, reducing Cook to infamy.

Matthew Henson Smithsonian Magazine

© Wikimedia Commons public domain

A portrait of Matthew Henson taken in 1901

So if Cook and Peary were both liars, who was actually the first person to trek to the North Pole? If in fact it wasn't Matthew Henson, it's quite possible that it wasn’t a swashbuckling explorer, nor even a tough-as-nails Inuk, but rather an unsung insurance agent from Minnesota.

In the early 1960s, Ralph Plaisted had become fascinated with a new invention, the snowmobile. He conducted marathon journeys in the upper American Midwest, then got support from Bombardier, maker of the Ski-Doo, to do a publicity stunt, snowmobiling to the North Pole.

In 1967, Plaisted’s first effort with newsman Charles Kuralt and a CBS camera crew failed. His second try the next year took forty-three days from Ellesmere Island but was an indisputable success. Upon returning to Minnesota, Plaisted told his local newspaper, “Boy, it’s cold up there. I don’t know why anyone would want to do it again.”

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.