On Top of the World | HistoryNet MENU

On Top of the World

6/12/2017 • American History Magazine

Robert E. Peary focused fearlessly on a single quest: to stand where East meets West and North disappears.

He began his obsessive quest to reach the North Pole soon after joining the U.S. Navy Corps of Engineers in 1881. In subsequent years Peary used his leave time to launch one expedition after another in search of a path to that forbidding summit, including two attempts to cross northwest Greenland over the ice cap. Even losing eight toes from frostbite on a trek in 1899 did not deter him. In this excerpt from his 1909 expedition journal, Peary, then 52, describes his final thrust for the pole in the vast whiteness of the Arctic, assisted by his longtime manservant, Matthew Henson, four Eskimos and 38 sled-pulling dogs.



I had not dared to hope for such progress as we were making. Still, the biting cold would have been impossible to face by anyone not fortified by an inflexible purpose. The bitter wind burned our faces so that they cracked, and long after we got into camp each day they pained us so that we could hardly go to sleep. The Eskimos complained much, and fixed their fur clothing about their faces, waists, knees, and wrists. They also complained of their noses, which I had never known them to do before. The air was as keen and bitter as frozen steel.

During the daily march my mind and body were too busy with the problem of covering as many miles of distance as possible to permit me to enjoy the beauty of the frozen wilderness through which we tramped. But at the end of the day’s march, while the igloos were being built, I usually had a few minutes to look about me and to realize the picturesqueness of our situation—we, the only living things in a trackless, colorless, inhospitable desert of ice. Nothing but hostile ice, and far more hostile icy water, lay between our remote place on the world’s map and the utmost tips of the lands of Mother Earth. Sometimes I would climb to the top of a pinnacle of ice to the north of our camp and strain my eyes into the whiteness which lay beyond, trying to imagine myself already at the Pole. We had come so far, and the capricious ice had placed so few obstructions in our path, that now I dared to loose my fancy, to entertain the image which my will had heretofore forbidden to my imagination—the image of ourselves at the goal.

Before midnight on the 5th we were again on the trail. The sky was a colorless pall gradually deepening to almost black at the horizon, and the ice was a ghastly and chalky white, like that of the Greenland ice-cap—just the colors which an imaginative artist would paint as a polar ice-scape. How different it seemed from the glittering fields, canopied with blue and lit by the sun and full moon, over which we had been traveling for the last four days.

The going was even better than before. There was hardly any snow on the hard granular surface of the old floes, and the sapphire blue lakes were larger than ever. The temperature had risen to minus 15 deg., which, reducing the friction of the sledges, gave the dogs the appearance of having caught the high spirits of the party. Some of them even tossed their heads and barked and yelped as they traveled.

Notwithstanding the grayness of the day, and the melancholy aspect of the surrounding world, by some strange shift of feeling the fear of the leads had fallen from me completely. I now felt that success was certain, and, notwithstanding the physical exhaustion of the forced marches of the last five days, I went tirelessly on and on, the Eskimos following almost automatically, though I knew that they must feel the weariness which my excited brain made me incapable of feeling.



The last march northward ended at ten o’clock on the forenoon of April 6. After the usual arrangements for going into camp, at approximate local noon, I made the first observation at our polar camp. It indicated our position as 89 deg. 57I. We were now at the end of the last long march of the upward journey. Yet with the Pole actually in sight I was too weary to take the last few steps. The accumulated weariness of all those days and nights of forced marches and insufficient sleep, constant peril and anxiety, seemed to roll across me all at once.

I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life’s purpose had been achieved.

As soon as our igloos had been completed and we had eaten our dinner and double-rationed the dogs, I turned in for a few hours of absolutely necessary sleep, Henson and the Eskimos having unloaded the sledges and got them in readiness for such repairs as were necessary. Weary though I was, I could not sleep long. It was only a few hours later when I woke. The first thing I did after awaking was to write these words in my diary: “The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for twenty years. Mine at last! I cannot bring myself to realize it. It seems all so simple and commonplace.”

Everything was in readiness for an observation at 6 P.M., Columbia meridian time, in case the sky should be clear, but at that hour it was, unfortunately, still overcast. But as there were indications that it would clear before long, two of the Eskimos and myself made ready a light sledge carrying only the instruments, a tin of pemmican, and one or two skins; and drawn by a double team of dogs, we pushed on an estimated distance of ten miles. While we traveled, the sky cleared, and at the end of the journey, I was able to get a satisfactory series of observations at Columbia meridian midnight. These observations indicated that our position was then beyond the Pole.

In a march of only a few hours, I had passed from the western to the eastern hemisphere and had verified my position at the summit of the world. It was hard to realize that, in the first miles of this brief march, we had been traveling due north, while, on the last few miles we had been traveling south, although we had all the time been traveling precisely in the same direction. In order to return to our camp, it now became necessary to turn and go north again for a few miles and then to go directly south, all the time traveling in the same direction. I had now taken in all thirteen single, or six and one-half double, altitudes of the sun, at two different stations, in three different directions, at four different times. All were under satisfactory conditions, except for the first single altitude on the sixth. The temperature during these observations had been from minus 11 deg. Fahrenheit to minus 30 deg. At some moment during these marches and countermarches, I had passed over or very near the point where north and south and east and west blend into one.



There were some more or less informal ceremonies connected with our arrival at our difficult destination. We planted five flags at the top of the world. The first one was a silk American flag which Mrs. Peary gave me fifteen years ago. That flag has done more traveling in high latitudes than any other ever made. I carried it wrapped about my body on every one of my expeditions northward, and I left a fragment of it at each of my successive “farthest norths.” A broad diagonal section of this ensign would now mark the farthest goal of earth—the place where I and my dusky companions stood. It was also considered appropriate to raise the colors of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, in which I was a member while an undergraduate student at Bowdoin College, the “World’s Ensign of Liberty and Peace” [a Daughters of the American Revolution peace flag], the Navy League flag, and the Red Cross flag.

After I had planted the American flag in the ice, I told Henson to time the Eskimos for three rousing cheers, which they gave with the greatest enthusiasm. The Eskimos were childishly delighted with our success. While, of course, they did not realize its importance fully, they did understand that it meant the final achievement of a task upon which they had seen me engaged for many years. Then, in a space between the ice blocks of a pressure ridge, I deposited a glass bottle containing a diagonal strip of my flag and records of which the following is a copy: “Arrived here to-day, 27 marches from C. Columbia. I have with me 5 men, Matthew Henson, colored, Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah, Eskimos; 5 sledges and 38 dogs. My ship, the S.S. Roosevelt, is in winter quarters at C. Sheridan, 90 miles east of Columbia. I have to-day hoisted the national ensign of the United States of America at this place, which my observations indicate to be the North Polar axis of the earth, and have formally taken possession of the entire region, and adjacent, for and in the name of the President of the United States of America. I leave this record and United States flag in possession. I start back for Cape Columbia to-morrow. ROBERT E. PEARY, United States Navy 90 N. LAT., NORTH POLE, April 6, 1909.”

The attainment of the Pole was the culmination of weeks of forced marches, physical discomfort, insufficient sleep, and racking anxiety. The grim guardians of earth’s remotest spot will accept no man as guest until he has been tried and tested by the severest ordeal. For more than a score of years that point on the earth’s surface had been the object of my every effort. Many times my own life and the lives of those with me had been risked. This journey was my eighth into the arctic wilderness. The determination to reach the Pole had become so much a part of my being that, strange as it may seem, I long ago ceased to think of myself save as an instrument for the attainment of that end. To the layman this may seem strange, but an inventor can understand it, or an artist, or anyone who has devoted himself for years upon years to the service of an idea.

, , , ,

Sponsored Content: