Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Poles Apart

What a difference a hundred years or so can make.  The Tom Avery-led five person team (that included an American woman, thereby giving it news relevance) re-created Admiral Robert Peary’s 1909 run to the North Pole, cutting a little less than five hours off Peary’s time.  Exhausted, they made it.

AverymodernpolepicAvery said they did it partly to put to rest the 96 year complaint that Peary couldn’t have done it in that amount of time. When I compare the clothing Peary and Henson wore on their expedition with the modern expedition-wear, I picture the Peary expedition’s thirty-seven days struggling against nature in skins and furs compared to the Avery party’s Gore-Tex and down.  Not to disparage Tom and his group, their trip kept to required detail such as wood and skin sleds, powered only by dogs and human strength.  It was an awesome piece of work.


Before it became mired in the controversy of imposter Fred Cook, who claimed to have preceded Peary to the Pole, the expedition by Admiral Peary event fired the imagination of the world . . . and held it, for years. That’s just not possible today.  In these times we are news savages, devouring our young and thirsting for new bones to chew.  Thus Tom Avery and his brave crew will recede into shadow in a matter of days.  The article reference to ‘his brave crew’ brings up another oddity of explorers, mountain climbers and such . . . those who made it alongside the famous, step for step, hunger for hunger, frostbite for frostbite are blurred into the background focus, relegated as those-who-also-went -along.  I’m reminded of Ginger Rogers’ wry comment that she ‘did every step Fred Astair did, backward and in high heels.’ Sherpa guides on Everest also come to mind, not only accompanying but doing the heavy lifting.


And so, as Avery opens the page to Admiral Peary, another opens that tells of Peary’s  indispensablePearyhensongroup companion, Matt Henson . . . who happened to be black at a time when being black made one very nearly invisible in such circumstances.  It’s an interesting story, much abbreviated here.


Henson had explored with Peary for eighteen years prior to the trip to the Pole.  They surveyed in Nicaragua in 1890, testing the possibility of a canal route, then caught up again in ’93 to map and explore Greenland.  Cape Henson, in Northwest Greenland is named as a tribute to Matthew Henson by Robert Peary during his North Greenland expedition. After a failed attempt in 1906, Henson and Peary make their successful and world-renowned assault in 1909.  Prior to that gigantic achievement, Peary named Henson as the single man indespensible to the trip and without whom he would not go . . . and then a strange thing happened.

MatthensonSent ahead by Peary to scout, Henson mistakenly arrives at the Pole instead of stopping short and when Peary catches up with the rest of the team, 45 minutes later, he is so enraged that he never speaks to Henson again.  Yet three years later he writes a foreward to Matt’s autobiography, A Negro at the North Pole.  Peary was a complicated man, Henson simple.  Peary was ego's captive while Henson focused throughout his life on merely being the best possible at whatever he attempted.


Back in America, Matt wrote an article about the North Pole trip in a magazine called The Worlds Work and delivered a coast-to-coast lecture tour about the expedition, illustrated by lantern slides of his north pole photos.  In 1924 Peary died and Matt Henson went on to survive him by thirty some years.  Twenty-eight years after the historic trip to the pole, Henson is finally elected to the Explorer’s Club based in New York.  Almost forty years after the expedition, The Geographic Society of Chicago awards Henson with a gold medal and cites him as "the first Negro in this country to be honored for scientific achievement in the geographical field."


That seems quaint by today’s standards and yet it was stated in those terms and accepted without apparent offense by Matthew Henson, at age 81.  Six years later Henson wass commended at the White House by the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, for his significant contributions to the success of the discovery of the North Pole.


Times they were a changing . . . finally.