How photographs revealed Frederick Cook’s Denali hoax

Frederick Cook was not only one of the most notorious con men in exploration history, he was perhaps the most incompetent as well. In 1906 he claimed to make the first ascent of Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America, also known as Mt McKinley, but within 4 years photographic evidence had been produced to debunk his story in dramatic fashion. By 1909 when he returned from the Arctic claiming to have reached the North Pole his reputation was already suffering, and he didn’t produce enough evidence for his polar claim to be taken seriously. An inveterate liar, he was eventually convicted of fraud in 1923 after tricking investors into backing his fraudulent oil business, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He remained in denial throughout his life and never came clean about any of his deceit despite the evidence stacked up against him.

Frederick Cook. If he were alive today his Twitter bio would read Doctor, photographer, explorer, mountaineer, motivational speaker ... and con man (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Frederick Cook. If he were alive today his Twitter bio would read Doctor, photographer, explorer, mountaineer, motivational speaker … and con man (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It all started so well for Cook. He impressed polar explorer Robert Peary on his 1892 journey to Greenland as expedition doctor, and in 1897 he joined a voyage to the Antarctic aboard the ship Belgica. Not only was he the doctor on this journey, but expedition photographer as well. He learned to climb and his team mate, the Antarctic legend Roald Amundsen, praised him enthusiastically as “the one man of unfaltering courage, unfailing hope, endless cheerfulness and universal kindness”. During his first expedition as leader in 1903 he completed the first circumnavigation of Denali. He was a young entrepreneur, and set up his first business printing calling cards at the tender age of 16. By the time he was 21 he was earning enough from another business supplying milk to pay all his fees for medical school. At 25 he passed his exams, sold his share of the milk business to his father and set up his own medical practice before joining Peary in Greenland.

So why did such a promising individual with so much talent throw it all away with a series of implausible hoaxes?

Like all good Shakespearean heroes Cook had a tragic flaw. After proving an adept public speaker he became obsessed with his public image. Instead of allowing the experienced Peary to become his mentor, Cook was determined to beat him in the race to the North Pole. To do this he needed sponsorship and what better way than being the first to reach the highest point in North America?

One of the things that makes the story of Cook’s Denali hoax so engaging is the way photographs have been used to shred it so convincingly. During the 1906 expedition Cook tried to find an approach to the summit with Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne, but they were unsuccessful and returned to the Pacific coast intending to leave Alaska. But when the others left Cook decided to go back for another reconnaissance with his horse packer Edward Barrill. Barely a month later they returned to civilisation with a photograph of Barrill holding the American flag on top of an insignificant rock, claiming it was taken on the summit. Belmore Browne was immediately suspicious.

“I knew Dr Cook had not climbed Mount McKinley … in the same way that any New Yorker would know that no man could walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grant’s tomb in ten minutes,” he said.

In 1910 Browne and Parker returned to the area and found the exact rock Cook’s fake summit photo had been taken from, and took their own version of it.

The Dishonorable Dr Cook by Bradford Washburn and Peter Cherici is a beautifully produced book that analyses Cook's Denali hoax in every conceivable way
The Dishonorable Dr Cook by Bradford Washburn and Peter Cherici is a beautifully produced book that analyses Cook’s Denali hoax in every conceivable way

This part of the story is well known. It received widespread national publicity at the time and destroyed Cook’s reputation as an explorer. But the story gets more interesting than this, and the photographic evidence even more damning. I’ve recently read a beautifully produced book called The Dishonorable Dr Cook by Bradford Washburn and Peter Cherici which collects it all together.

Bradford Washburn was a Denali legend. Early ascents of the mountain, including the first true ascent in 1913, were all made from the north side by following the Muldrow Glacier. In 1936 Washburn made a series of aerial mapping flights and identified the West Buttress as a better way up, and over 90% of ascents of Denali are now made by this route. Not content with simply identifying it, Washburn made the first ascent of Denali by the West Buttress in 1951. He was a talented photographer who spent a lifetime filming the mountains of Alaska from the air, and ranks alongside the Italian Vittorio Sella as one of the great pioneers of mountain photography. He knew Denali intimately and was the person best placed to explode Frederick Cook’s hoax once and for all, and that’s precisely what he did.

During his short visit to Denali’s foothills with Edward Barrill in 1906, Cook took many photos. A famous one of Barrill standing on the fake summit appeared in Harper’s Magazine but the rest remained in his collection. Over the course of his long life Washburn went through them all systematically identifying where they had been taken from and making his own versions. It wasn’t an easy job. The potential area was vast but Washburn found every one, and discovered they had nearly all been taken in one small area of the Ruth Glacier around 20 miles south of Denali’s summit, and separated by terrain so severe that no mountaineer has ever been able to climb up that way.

Cook’s first oversight was failing to notice that two different versions of the same photo were used in the Harper’s Magazine article and his book To the Top of the Continent, published in 1908. In the Harper’s picture 2579m Mt Grosvenor (which was 937m higher than the rock Barrill stood on) had been cropped out, but in his book the entire photo was shown. The picture on the left below show’s Cook’s photo, and the dotted line shows where the crops were made. Mt Grosvenor can just be seen on the far right. The photo on the right is Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne’s recreation.

Left: Frederick Cook's famous 1906 Denali fake summit photo. The dotted line indicates the areas that were cropped in the Harper's magazine photo. (Photo: Frederick Cook / Byrd Polar Research Center) Right: Belmore Browne watching Herman Tucker stand atop Cook's fake summit in 1910 (Photo: Herschel Parker / Dartmouth College Library)
Left: Frederick Cook’s famous 1906 Denali fake summit photo. The dotted line indicates the areas that were cropped in the Harper’s magazine photo. (Photo: Frederick Cook / Byrd Polar Research Center)
Right: Belmore Browne watching Herman Tucker stand atop Cook’s fake summit in 1910 (Photo: Herschel Parker / Dartmouth College Library)

Cook had forgotten the golden rule of lying, which is to remember all your previous lies so you can keep repeating them. The photographic element to the story fascinated so many different people, not just Belmore Browne (who was himself an artist) and Bradford Washburn. In 1957 Adams Carter went back to recreate the fake summit photo, but he discovered that so much snow had melted in the intervening years that he had to stand atop a 40 foot pole in order to get the angle right (see photo on the left below).

In 1996 the Boston Museum of Science commissioned a company called Itek Optical Systems to use computer imaging technology to analyse the photos in more detail. They used a mirror stethoscope to overlay the photos on top of each other and established beyond doubt they were of the same pile of rocks. Top right is Cook’s photo and bottom right is Carter’s. The letters and arrows pick out identical features in the two pictures.

Left: Adams Carter photographs the fake peak from on top of a 40 foot pole in 1957 (Photo: Adams Carter / Bradford Washburn Collection). Top right: Frederick Cook's 1906 photo with key features picked out (Photo: Frederick Cook / Boston Museum of Science). Bottom right: Carter's 1957 photo indicating the same features (Photo: Adams Carter / Boston Museum of Science).
Left: Adams Carter photographs the fake peak from on top of a 40 foot pole in 1957 (Photo: Adams Carter / Bradford Washburn Collection).
Top right: Frederick Cook’s 1906 photo with key features picked out (Photo: Frederick Cook / Boston Museum of Science).
Bottom right: Carter’s 1957 photo indicating the same features (Photo: Adams Carter / Boston Museum of Science).

One of the most eye-opening things about Frederick Cook’s fake peak is that it wasn’t even half a peak, just an insignificant bump on the ridge, which makes it all the more impressive how Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker were able to locate it so easily. The picture below shows a panorama from the Ruth Glacier in Cook’s book, and Bradford Washburn’s recreation with the fake peak circled. As you can see, if you can call it a mountain then there are elephants in Alaska.

Left: Frederick Cook's 1906 photo of a mountain amphitheatre taken from his Glacier Point campsite and printed in his book (Photo: Frederick Cook / Byrd Polar Research Centre). Right: Bradford Washburn's 1995 recreation. The Ruth Glacier has receded a great deal, but it's clearly the same landscape (Photo: Bradford Washburn)
Left: Frederick Cook’s 1906 photo of a mountain amphitheatre taken from his Glacier Point campsite and printed in his book (Photo: Frederick Cook / Byrd Polar Research Centre).
Right: Bradford Washburn’s 1995 recreation. The Ruth Glacier has receded a great deal, but it’s clearly the same landscape (Photo: Bradford Washburn)

I’m only scratching the surface here, as there are around 40 other photos in The Dishonorable Dr Cook analysing the hoax. For example, Cook didn’t print a photo of the view from the summit of the fake peak in his book, but he took one and it still exists in his collection. In 1998 Washburn took another one and published it alongside Cook’s in The Dishonorable Dr Cook. The real Denali can be seen on the far horizon, precisely 19.42 miles away and 4552m higher. The book also includes a genuine Denali summit photo, which of course looks nothing like the summit of Cook’s fake peak. Did it not occur to Cook that time would inevitably take someone else to the real summit and reveal the truth?

Even without the photographs The Dishonorable Dr Cook would be a great book. It recounts Cook’s life and the publicity it generated, the journey taken by Belmore Browne and others in his footsteps, and the detective work Washburn did in his lifetime. The analysis of the hoax isn’t just photographic. Cook’s companion Edward Barrill later gave testimony against him which is described in detail. Washburn was himself a mountaineer, and one of the most interesting chapters of the book describes the geography between the fake pake and true summit, and the attempts made by elite climbers to get from one to the other. Denali’s East Ridge is a horribly dangerous corniced knife edge. Needless to say, it’s unlikely Cook and the horse packer Barrill climbed along it, and they certainly didn’t describe it well. If you can get your hands on a copy it’s a great read.

I haven’t been anywhere near the fake peak or Ruth Glacier myself, but I did try to climb Denali’s West Buttress last year. You can see my photos and videos from the climb, and my diary of the expedition is available as an e-book.

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5 thoughts on “How photographs revealed Frederick Cook’s Denali hoax

  • August 28, 2014 at 10:57 pm
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    I will see if they have it on Kindle. Have you read Walter Bonatti’s “Mountains of my life”? Its fabulous, gone right to the top of my list of favourites. Well worth a read!

  • September 1, 2014 at 6:22 am
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    Fascinating story and incredible photos – glad to read the debunking began early on.

  • September 9, 2016 at 12:59 am
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    You, and the book by Washburn and Cherici are wrong about Belmore Browne and therefore lose credibility about the other things as well. He was proven to take a bribe of over $5000 to sign the affidavit that Cook never reached the summit of Denali. The affidavit was signed in the company of the Peary Exploration Society and in 1989 when the Peary documents from 1909 became public, a deposit slip was found. Also, Belmore Browne, a blacksmith, suddenly purchased a 5-bedroom house and was the first in his Montana town to own a motor car. I’m having real doubts here!

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